Besides all the logistics and paperwork involved in moving to the Netherlands, there is one facet of life as an expat that is much less straightforward: how to adapt to a new country.
Regulations and laws make it easy to adjust to life in the Netherlands in the technical sense, such as finding and renting an apartment or house, hooking up all your utilities and ensuring your visa is in order. But there are no rules or guidelines for making friends and feeling as though you belong.
Dutch language school Taalthuis, whose name references the Dutch phrase thuis voelen, or to feel at home, explains how to do just that in the Netherlands with advice from real expats.
With Taalthuis anybody can learn Dutch! They teach you to speak, read and write Dutch in small groups using texts, stories and games while also learning about life in the Netherlands. For all levels (A1-B2).
Learning Dutch to adapt to life in the Netherlands
Learning the language is, arguably, the best way to fit in and adapt to life in a new country — but it can take the longest to do, especially in a country such as the Netherlands. The Dutch boast the highest level of English proficiency in Europe, and English can be found everywhere: dozens, if not hundreds, of international companies in the Netherlands have designated English as their official working language. Furthermore, most expats in the Netherlands live in the Randstad region, including Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam, where English is spoken most widely.
“The biggest challenge to learning Dutch is that the Dutch people speak such brilliant English,” says Jenny, a British expat who has lived in Hilversum for nearly five years. “With their kind nature, the Dutch can be reluctant to communicate with you in their language. I was keen to practise Dutch, but when proudly opening a conversation, I was surprised to hear a response in English.”
This kind but somewhat frustrating nature of the Dutch to communicate in English can lead to expats living years upon years in the Netherlands without learning any Dutch at all.
“It’s very easy to live in the Netherlands without talking Dutch and to just stay in your expat or student community,” says Kim Jautze, a teacher at Taalthuis. “However, I hear quite often that expats really appreciate joining Dutch communities and making Dutch friends. In these communities, you can still survive by talking Dutch, but there is a sort of cultural boundary together with the language boundary.”
Enrol in a Dutch language course
Learning Dutch can help you remove those boundaries and make you feel more a part of the group of people you are with — and the best way to do that is to join a Dutch language course.
While there are dozens of purported ways to learn a new language, including apps and at-home study guides, enrolling in a Dutch course is one of the most reliable methods of learning the language, and it is one of the first steps expats should take after moving to the Netherlands. Some international companies and universities may offer language courses for free, but it can also be worthwhile to find your own school to ensure it fits your needs. Dutch language schools that cater specifically to expats with high levels of English proficiency may make you feel a bit more comfortable speaking Dutch initially, while small class sizes can help facilitate the formation of friendships.
“Speaking from experience as a former expat and language trainer,” says Gabi te Riele, another teacher at Taalthuis, “knowing a language means knowing a culture. There’s so much implicit information in a language and the way it’s used. Take a course and learn the basics so that you can have a chat with your local shopkeeper and neighbours and feel like people know you.”
Join a club or organisation
But the Taalthuis teachers also stress the importance of making friends outside the international community. It can be much easier to make friends with only those who speak your native language or those who are in a similar position, and it’s common among expats — various research has shown that over a third of expats generally make friends only with other expats. However, doing so creates an expat bubble. To fully integrate in Dutch society and feel as though you belong, it’s important to make some local friends, which is easiest when joining a club or hobby group.
“Sports clubs, for me, have been the most fun way of finding my feet in a new country,” says Jenny. “I run once a week with a local club and cycle twice a week with friends (who I met via the running club). Sharing a hobby is a simple way of getting in touch with a network of people, plus it is an easy way to practise Dutch as you can start by talking about the sport.”
Whether your hobby is cycling — a favourite Dutch pastime — cooking, knitting, bowling, gaming or anything else, there are clubs that cater to those interests.
“A club…is the way of getting to know people,” says Ms te Riele. “People have their circle of friends — that’s the way it is everywhere — so you do have to make effort to build a new friendship. Don’t give up easily when you meet people you like, whether it’s at work or at social gatherings. Join Meetup! There you will find loads of groups around certain interests.”
Get outside your comfort zone (and your city)
Speaking English in the Netherlands is only on the rise, and it doesn’t seem that the Dutch will stop speaking it solely for the benefit of expats. Those that struggle with practising Dutch in their everyday lives — one expat noted that nearly all his daily tasks are done in English, despite his fluency in Dutch — may find it beneficial to travel outside the Randstad region.
“For my own pride, I have learnt Dutch, but the Dutch only want to speak English,” says Adrian, a British expat who has lived in The Hague since 2007. “It’s The Hague, I guess — so I love heading to the south and the borders to practise my Dutch.”
The south of the Netherlands, including the provinces of Limburg and North Brabant, is less populous and has fewer international cities, save for those with universities such as Maastricht and Eindhoven. English is, therefore, less commonly spoken, especially in the countryside. Not only will spending time in these regions force you to practise Dutch — and listen to and decipher new accents — you will become more acquainted with the Netherlands as a country. This, too, can lead to a feeling that you belong.
“Being able to communicate in Dutch has improved my confidence greatly,” says Jenny. “I no longer feel like a shy and struggling expat trying to find her feet, but instead feel that I have been able to create a new life for myself here in the Netherlands.”