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the rogue linguist

Are the Dutch Getting Fed Up With English?

The Dutch version of this post appeared in Neerlandistiek.

meme_speaking_english_Jan_Jansz_de_Stomme_Three_Children_Tjarda_van_Starckenborgh

Exactly what Jan Jansz. de Stomme had in mind when he painted this portrait

English is everywhere in the Netherlands. But are people starting to get sick of it?

Ice skating, making orange face-paint socially acceptable, being a generally tall and happy people. The Dutch are good at many things – the English language included. Some 90% of Dutch people say they speak English, and the Netherlands topped the latest English Proficiency Index, a ranking of 72 countries where English is not the first language.

Not only are the Dutch good at English; they seem to love it too. In recent decades they have shown almost unmatched zeal in trading in their own language for English. From English-speaking trams and tax returns to the apparent abolition of Dutch from Schiphol airport, everybody is clambering aboard the English train. One in four VWO (grammar) schools is now bilingual and, if one is to believe the scaremongering, universities have been practically purged of Dutch altogether.

Now, a sense of buyer’s remorse may be kicking in. New research suggests many people feel the “Anglicisation” of the Netherlands has gone too far.

Call that a threat?

Robert Fuchs, Rutger-Jan Lange and I analysed 4,000 survey participants’ attitudes to English. People were asked to rate statements on a four-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Half were Dutch, while the other half were from Germany, another country English has firmly sunk its teeth into, but less rapidly than in the Netherlands. There a paltry 56% say they can hold a conversation in English, and it barely scraped into the top 10 countries in the English Proficiency Index.

We found that all respondents, despite viewing English as a useful addition to their linguistic toolbox, were confident in the status of their national language. They saw Dutch and German, respectively, as more important to them than English, and dismissed the idea that English poses an existential threat to their mother tongue.

Overdoing it

This is heartening – but there were some notable differences between the two nationalities. For starters, the Dutch were significantly less confident than the Germans about the status of their language. Although they stopped just short of saying English has a higher status than Dutch, they were more likely to agree with this statement than their neighbours were with respect to German.

Germans agreed more often than Dutch people that a wobbly command of their national language would make it hard to find a job. Indeed, the lack of Dutch-speaking waiters and sales assistants in larger Dutch cities was a sore spot. “That we’re not welcomed in Dutch, I find it rude”, said a middle-aged journalist from The Hague. “English seems to be more important than Dutch here in our own country. For me that’s going too far!”

English fatigue

Germans have a tougher time interacting in English than their neighbours; they reported feeling less chatty and less capable in English than the Dutch respondents. That said, they may be more likely to underrate themselves than the Dutch, a whopping 9 in 10 of whom thought they had better English than their compatriots – a mathematical impossibility, but you’ve got to admire the enthusiasm.

More so than their Dutch peers, however, Germans seemed keener to make use of English whenever they got the chance. We might speculate that because the Dutch are all but inundated by the language, they feel less urge to crack out their English at every opportunity that arises. “Obviously command of English is of vital importance, but some people take things too far”, said a 63-year-old teacher. “Absurd situations are arising, where Dutch people speak English with Dutch people. There are even institutes that forbid their students from speaking Dutch in the cafeteria.”

Even Dutch people with rosy views of the global language were more likely than their German counterparts to see it as overrated, and even to sometimes resent having to use it. Those Dutch who are less well disposed towards English, however, naturally struggle most with its omnipresence. Unlike their German peers with a similar distaste for the language, they agreed that it is important to them personally. This suggests it has a considerable impact on people’s lives in the Netherlands whether they like the language or not. They also more often reported feeling like outsiders in English. It may be that those Germans who don’t like English have the luxury of simply avoiding it in everyday life, whereas their Dutch peers are compelled to use it at least occasionally, leaving them more frequently feeling like strangers in their own land.

Make Dutch cool again

Such findings may be read as a reaction against the perceived Anglicisation of Dutch society. With English now an inescapable fixture in education, business and the media in the Netherlands, it seems a sense of “English fatigue” is setting in. Paradoxically, this sense of having overdone it with English may be just the ticket to make Dutch cool again.

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Alison Edwards PhD

I am a linguistics researcher, translator, editor, writer, and lover of tennis, infrastructure, and collared shirts done all the way up. Read more

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