Language Tolerance: Dutch People, You Amaze Me.

by farrah on January 15, 2014 · 26 comments

I had a doctor appointment today. I needed a refill for my flight-anxiety pills that I take whenever we fly since we leave for Rome on Monday. The appointment itself was very uneventful, but in the pharmacy of the office where I gather my prescriptions, I was reminded yet again of the tolerance and accepting nature of the Dutch when it comes to foreign language spoken in their country.

Zuecos internacionales

Back in the States it never bothered me to see Spanish written around while I lived in South Carolina. I am not one of those people who feel ‘This is America! They need to speak OUR language!’. I’ve never felt that way. I also have not been on the other side of this fence before moving abroad. I am, in all honesty, a stranger in this country- a foreigner speaking a language other than what is the majority. I have not made an effort either, quite frankly, to learn Dutch. It is very difficult, and other than encouraging my children to learn it, that’s the best I have done.

So at the pharmacy today, I opened as I always do: ‘I’m sorry, is English ok?’ knowing full well that it was probably fine. But I always open with an apology- to say I am sorry that I do not know your language- here in your country. The friendly young pharmacist laughed and immediately switched to English and said ‘Oh! Of course! That is fine, no problem!’. Because THAT is the attitude I have gotten here 99% of the time. From the grocery delivery guy to the cashier at the market- we understand each other. You’d be amazed.

We chatted for a bit and another woman walked in. She heard me respond to the pharmacist in English and gave a surprised ‘Oh!‘ which I thought was funny. In a small village like Oisterwijk- you do not see many Americans- nor hear English spoken with our accent much, if at all. I thought for a bit on how it must have surprised her- and perk up her ears to hear the language spoken that they hear on their TV shows. Because, Dutch television as far as I can tell is all in English (except their local shows and kid cartoons) and everything has Dutch subtitles.

This open and accepting nature of matter-of-fact ‘Well, we are Dutch and surrounded by France and Germany, we must be able to speak a common language’ astounds me. The Dutch know that their language is quite difficult- and besides speaking this as their native tongue- many (if not most) Dutch people speak at least English as well. Many know two, three or more languages- as they know that they have to. What a concept. In America this would never happen.

Children learn English from a very young age- as I have talked about numerous times with regard to the school my boys attend. The value and importance placed upon knowing how to communicate with others is something that I feel we in the US are lacking. Sure we offer Spanish, French and German in high school (probably middle too), and I took those classes. But as far as I can tell the actual acceptance of this other language, or any other language, really- is not something that we do.

I realize that much of it has to do with our isolation as a country. We are a huge land mass surrounded by Canada and Mexico. And yet- (for the most part) the country as a whole does not accept Spanish. It’s a novelty. A party trick you learn in college and maybe- maybe pull out once in a while. What a place it would be if we all grew up bilingual with an acceptance and tolerance for not only the language but also the culture. I can dream, can’t I?

So once again Dutch people, I thank you. I thank you for not only tolerating me and my lack of knowledge for your language- but also for the way you openly accept and learn so many others. It speaks volumes (no pun intended).

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ann January 15, 2014 at 10:30 am

This understanding is one of the things I love so much about the Netherlands. In the area I live in Germany, this is not common at all. I’ve been to other areas where people are nicer about it, but it’s rare here. Even when I make the effort, I get frustrating responses.

As for the US, I find it embarrassing that we don’t speak more languages. Even in my degree in International Affairs, second language fluency was not required! I love studying languages, but I’m not fluent in any. I can get by in German for basic, every day things. But, this is not how I’d prefer it to be.

I was in China and sitting in a classroom. The discussion was in English. One of the Chinese girls got upset that we weren’t speaking in Chinese and I felt that, hey, you have one up on us. You know Chinese and English. If the situation was reversed and Chinese students were visiting a US university, chances are the meetup would still be in English.

I’m glad my kids are getting the chance to learn Germany, but I worry that they’ll lose their skill once we leave.


2 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:11 pm

You know I stress about B losing it too. But as we discussed- even IF they lose it- the part of their brains that have been activated by learning this language so young, is something that you just can’t regret. I think of it that way and am a little comforted.


3 CK January 15, 2014 at 11:58 am

I think it really all depends on where you are, even in the US. Some places are more tolerant than others with the ‘main’ language not being spoken. We lived in Basel, Switzerland, where people claimed everyone spoke French and English (in addition the main language German). I found maybe two people willing to speak French, and Basel is a 5min drive over a bridge from France!!! Most people in the service industry were happy to help in English and the rest retreated when I tried either French or English! So tolerance and/or understanding is really dependant on countires/regions.

I work for an International company based in Paris and all meetings are conducted in English, unless it is a meeting of purley locals, the meeting may end up being in the local language (English, French, Italian, etc).

Regarding Ann’s comment above about her kids retaining the language… my husband spent his elementary years in Germany and went to an English school, but had some classes in German. To this day (~30+ years later), he still understands German (I call it an advance basic) and can hold a basic conversation. So it’s possible they will retain some of the language!!


4 Ann January 15, 2014 at 3:45 pm

I wasn’t able to retain much of the Japanese I learned in elementary school, but my pronunciation isn’t bad and the language makes sense to me. I studied it again in college and picked it up pretty quickly compared to other languages I’ve studied… but, I’ve forgotten all that now, too.


5 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Oh I hear you there. We learned really really quick that English was nothing in Switzerland, and I am basically scared to talk to people in France.


6 Milene - My Cup of Travel January 15, 2014 at 11:59 am

Oh I love this post, but that’s probably because I’m Dutch and I feel kind of proud and flattered. It indeed is quite common to speak English in the Netherlands. I’ve heard many of my friends actually complaining about it “How can I learn Dutch if every one of you speaks English to me?” Haha… Thanks for pointing it out and we are happy to have you in the Netherlands =) btw. Oisterwijk? What are you doing there? 😛


7 mike January 15, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Best town in the netherlands milene haha. Still visiting every week. Had the best childhood there.


8 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:16 pm

It really is Mike!


9 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:16 pm

No, that’s a very real complaint that I have heard from my husband after he had an intense week of training! He said ‘They all want to use their English on me!’ hahaha! But for me, it has really helped me ease into this expat life- and helped me feel like I can do it- and want more.

We ended up in Oisterwijk because my husband works in Tilburg. We wanted a smaller village vs. a bigger city for the kids. It was a brilliant decision and we love it.


10 Eva Gold January 15, 2014 at 12:07 pm

I love this about the Dutch! I lived in Belgium for a long time, so I visited The Netherlands often and was always amazed at their openness to speak other languages AND also at how wonderful their English was – almost fluent and almost no accent! Sadly, I can’t the same for my home country(s), where most people are a bit apprehensive to speak another language…


11 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:17 pm

What’s so funny is exactly how fluent they are- a few weeks ago a delivery man was lamenting how sad he was that he had lost his skills in English. I had no idea what he was talking about!


12 Julia January 15, 2014 at 2:16 pm

I wish I knew more languages and had paid more attention in high school spanish.


13 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Me too! I studied it for SIX years. Two in high school and four in college. And the best I can do it ‘Hello, my name is Farrah’ sort of thing. Depressing.


14 designhermomma January 15, 2014 at 2:31 pm

this is a very reassuring post. Thanks!


15 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Belgium is my next love after the Netherlands. They’re equally as awesome in my opinion!


16 Mrs. Chasing the Donkey January 15, 2014 at 2:54 pm

How wonderful. Its no wonder you don’t feel the need to learn, they all sound so lovely. And yup, we (Aussies and Yanks) miss that language in schools due to being isolated and also I think to ignorance that ‘English’ is superior. Your town sounds so nice and welcoming, you will very much miss it when the time arises I can tell.


17 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Wah! I don’t want to think about it…


18 Maria January 15, 2014 at 3:08 pm

The high regard the Dutch have for education (languages, art, science, etc…) is admirable and offer so many lessons for all of us. I’m sure they enjoy speaking English with you and will forgive any errors you make in learning theirs. I spent only 2 months in Cambodia but the effort I made to learn Khmer while there was very well received and appreciated. Shorter trips through France and Italy offered similar results and here at home, in Texas, there isn’t a Spanish speaker who doesn’t appreciate my attempts to communicate in their language. I think just trying often breaks down barriers and builds friendships.


19 farrah January 15, 2014 at 4:20 pm

That’s a great point. The mere effort to speak their language is so well received, what am I afraid of? I do try- but I am still very basic with the please, thank you, goodbye sort of thing. And yes, they do love to put their English skills to work- I am happy to oblige. 🙂


20 Leighann January 15, 2014 at 5:07 pm

This is so refreshing. I live in a bilingual city, however, that doesn’t mean it’s always accepted. Many people have issue with French and that it’s spoken at all. I love that the Dutch are raised embracing other languages.


21 farrah January 16, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Ah yes. I think it’s so interesting to have French spoken in North America- yet having a grandmother who lived in Canada I remember her stories well!


22 Ace January 15, 2014 at 8:08 pm

I always laugh a little to myself because when you ask a Dutch person if English is ok, about 98% of the time the first thing they say is “Of course.”
I’m also continually amazed at the language skills of people in the Netherlands. We had someone explain it this way, too: in a country of 16 million, if you only speak your mother tongue you severely limit who you can talk to, and that’s bad for business and education. Adding even just one additional language opens many more opportunities – something most Americans don’t even think about in a population as big as 330 million.


23 farrah January 16, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Yes! ‘Of course!’ I love it. Can you imagine being in the States and someone saying to you ‘Do you speak Dutch?’ you’d be like- Uh, are you insane?

And yes- it was explained to me in much the same way with regard to how they can remain competitive. Makes so much sense!


24 Ilja DeYoung January 16, 2014 at 1:08 pm

I love the fact you act if it is ok to speak English. I com across a lot of people who just assume you speak English (which I do). But for people actallly living in Holland I find it polite and nice if they ask if I am ok speaking another language than the country’s language.

Whenever I am in country outside Holland. I try to at least be able to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in their language.
I find people really appriciate that.
(Admitting in some languages ‘hello’ is about the hardest word, because it depends on so many things how to say it. (male/female, time of day, status etc) Then I usually learn one form of it and use it on everyone (even though technically it is wrong))


25 farrah January 16, 2014 at 2:57 pm

On one occasion I forgot and just started blubbering away in English (coincidentally at this same pharmacy after having a rather bad day) but I always remember to ask, and really apologize.

And yes- I really should be better about learning hello and good bye when I am in another country. I do think about it- but I am so self conscious that I end up feeling silly. I should think about it from their perspective though!


26 Caitlyn January 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

Farrah, I’ve just found your blog and it’s just wonderful! I’m with you – sometimes I take it for granted that seemingly everyone speaks English here (I live in Dordrecht but am from Australia) and nobody in the service industry has ever made me feel like they’re doing me a huge favour in speaking my language. It’s always just like flicking a switch, and away they go in English! Now, back to the Dutch study books for me… 🙂


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