A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Last night I was watching Ik hou van Holland, and one of the rounds centred around songs that were originally Dutch but had had English covers made of them. The teams had to listen to the English version and guess what the original Dutch song was.
This impressed upon me once again what truly fantastic linguists the Dutch are, a fact which is brought home to me on a regular basis. If I go to an all-Dutch party, the host merely has to mention that I’m British and the whole room will switch to English without a moment’s hesitation. When the Dutch are speaking in their own language, if a phrase comes to mind in English which seems to better convey what they want to express, they just come out with it, knowing that everyone else is just as capable in English as they are. Only the other day I was listening to my friend chatter away on her mobile in Dutch when all of a sudden she exclaimed “It was the experience of a lifetime!” On another occasion I was on the train straining to understand something of the Nederlandse conversation between two football fans on their way to a match when one said to the other, “Read my lips, it’s going to be 3-1!”
As an endeavouring linguist myself, I am in awe of this nation of lingo-lovers, who speak English better than a good many native speakers I know, and can generally converse in at least a couple of other languages to boot (the languages of all the countries who might invade, as my dad once wryly put it).
I really detest the British mentality that everyone should speak English, and so I always try to bumble along in very basic Dutch as best I can, but I frequently run up against words and phrases I don’t understand or can’t articulate and have to ask “Spreekt u Engels?”
The response I get is normally one of slight bewilderment. “Yes, of course I speak English” is the usual reply, given while fixing me with a bemused look that clearly says “Why would you ask me a question to which the answer is so obvious?”
And it’s true, I really don’t need to ask; it’s becoming clear that just about everybody in this philologically-advanced little country speaks English. Even the cashiers at the supermarket immediately change languages the second my expression registers any perplexity. However, I still enquire because it seems so bad mannered to assume that in their native country, people should be happy to have to constantly speak a language which is not their own because of the linguistic ineptitude of foreign visitors.
I asked my Dutch friends whether this concern is warranted. My query garnered some amusement, and the answer “Well, we know that our language is totally useless outside of the Netherlands, so we don’t have any choice but to learn other languages, and English is international. And here in Holland you’re our guest, so naturally we should speak to you in English. We couldn’t possibly expect you to learn our language”.
For me that single response sums up everything I love about the Dutch on a much larger scale: they are easy-going, selfless, and always, always happy to help. And the fact that I am willing to make such a sweeping generalisation with some confidence is testament to the heartfelt sentiment behind it.