A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Most international students, on arriving in the Netherlands (most for the first time), will make an effort to learn Dutch. Even if it’s only the basics of goedemorgen, leuk, or dank je wel, most internationals will know at least a little bit. However, getting to practice your Dutch in its native country is harder than you think.
I think most students will have known before they got here that the Dutch have very good English skills – their traditionally odd English accent is kind of stereotype for them. When asked, 90% of Dutch people would say that they speak English, and it’s not just that they can speak it, but that they speak it well (better than some British people I’m inclined to say). International students will know that a lot of Masters courses are taught in English because we’re here and on these courses. I can’t imagine ever doing a Masters course in a second-language, and yet Dutch students often have to speak good enough English for that because the course may not be offered in Dutch.
So, the Netherland occupies a unique place in Europe, I think. International students/expats want to learn Dutch, to integrate better into their communities/classes/the local Albert Heijn, but they’re actually often prevented from speaking Dutch. I don’t know how many times a Dutch shop assistant has found out that I’m British and has thus switched to English, destroying my chances of practising. Whether this is for my benefit, or theirs, I’ve never figured out. It’s ironic though – we British have a bad reputation in Europe for not attempting to learn a country’s language before visiting, yet in the Netherlands, English is seemingly preferable.
What’s to be done, then? If you do want to learn Dutch and want to use it frequently, how can you do so?
Provided that you have at least the basics, from Duolingo, language classes offered by the university, or another method, forcing yourself into a position where you have to speak Dutch is a failsafe way of improving. Getting a part-time job, either in a café or shop will put you in contact with plenty of native Dutch-speakers, and even if customers or your colleagues can speak English, they’ll likely appreciate you putting the effort in. Working in a shop somewhere like inside a station will also put you in contact with a variety of different Dutch speakers, with different accents, and slang words (I can attest to this – I was once asked by a customer at my job for a cup of ‘snert’. I looked understandably baffled and it had to be explained to me that this was, in fact, a slang term for erwtensoep).
Another method would be to have other Dutch speakers in your class speak with you. Being the only international student on my program, I’ve had no other option but to be surrounded by Dutch most days, but this is understandably harder on a larger Masters program. Don’t be afraid to ask people to speak it with you – it’s highly unlikely that they’ll simply refuse!
Make an effort to speak it every day – even if this is just a quick practice on Duolingo or with a friend over a quick coffee before class. And next time someone switches to English in the supermarket, humour them. They’re just trying to perfect a second-language too.
[I found the facts about Dutch-English speakers on this blog, incidentally written by a Leiden University professor! http://www.theroguelinguist.com/dutch-getting-fed-english/]