A Blog by International Students at Leiden University

Spreken or not to speak?

So you’re coming to the Netherlands…


Your friends are amused at the whole situation: You don’t speak a word of Dutch, so how are you supposed to follow a whole masters’ course there, let alone write a thesis…Your mom is worried, I mean, how will you buy your groceries and don’t end up with something completely unexpected in your shopping bag? Will you be able to call the police for help if needed?

You then calm them (and you too, secretly) that the whole course is in English, so you’ve got your academics covered there. Besides, the Dutch are well known for their knowledge of the English language, thus in an emergency you’ll always be able to use English.

But somehow, deep down inside, you nurture that thought that in a year’s time, you’ll put all those worries behind and leave your friends dumbstruck when you’ll be fluent in Dutch, ordering them beers, bitterballen and showing them around like a local when they come to visit. This is only natural as after all, you’ll be spending a whole year (or more) there; the least you can do is learn the language. It can’t be that hard, can it ?

 And then you arrive…

… and come to the bittersweet conclusion that you can lead a pretty normal life and not speak a word of Dutch.


Sweet” you say. Those rumours indeed proved right: Almost everyone here speaks English, and man do they speak it well. They are really helpful too : as you show a minimum sign of hesitation when hearing a question in Dutch, your interlocutor will gladly switch to English in the blink of an eye.

You meet many internationals that like you are friendship-savvy and logically, English becomes your common language. Also as classes and readings are in English, you brain seems to automatically program itself to it. For a non native-speaker like me, it’s an anglophone revolution.

And then life goes on, you run daily tasks normally, and for those moments when this is not the case, you can always use the miraculous Google translator or put those mimic skills to the test. After all, those years playing charades were not in vain…

…but still, you’re not really speaking Dutch. You may know a few words and basic sentences you caught by osmosis or that you learned in your first week here, but basically that’s it.

And here’s where the sweet gets bitter. You know what biertje, fiets, gratis, koffie verkeerd and gezellig mean and use them in as many conversations as you can,  but can’t really keep a whole conversation in Dutch.

You go look for rooms, and people prefer Dutch speakers. They say something in the train  and you don’t really know what they said, but the angry looks around you show that something is wrong. You don’t get the jokes your Dutch friends make or what’s going on on TV. You look for a job, but knowledge of the Dutch language is mandatory.

It’s like being here, but not really being here: There’s just something not completely right in being in a country and not (trying to) speak the language. It makes you feel that you’re missing out on something a lot of times.

“So, I’m trapped” you might say. I’m never learning Dutch.

Well dear friends, never say never. This bitterzoet feeling has a solution, and it’s up to you. Learning Dutch might be difficult, but is not impossible. Those more disciplined can always look for Dutch courses, offered either by the University, language institutes or private teachers (wherever there are students, there’s always someone willing to earn a couple of euros for language classes).

Or you can take it more casually and look for a language exchange partner (Again, wherever there are students, there is someone interested in learning your language and teaching you theirs in return). This guarantees a couple of beers, laughs and a more casual approach to it.

You have Dutch friends? Perhaps a Dutch flatmate? Talk to them in Dutch. In the streets, try to speak Dutch, even if your interlocutor seems foreign. Most of my “successful” ( if can call those  successful) Dutch conversations were with foreign shopkeepers.

Little by little, it will improve. Maybe not enough to write your thesis in Dutch, but to make you more confident and comfortable and make that bitterzout feeling go away. Het is niet gemakkelijk, maar het is mogelijk. Examples of foreigners rocking the Dutch language are all around Leiden for you to see.

As my grandma used to say (not this one, the other), the world is like a big cake and the more languages you speak, the more slices you have of it. Still, my Dutch slice of this cake is always crumbling, falling into pieces or burning in the oven. I don’t think you could even call it a slice at this stage. Nevertheless, I’ll be giving it a go whenever I can. And hopefully I’ll claim this slice soon, with a large portion of slagroom on the side.


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