Everyone living in the Netherlands has to learn Dutch. This is the message of a publicity campaign the Dutch government is about to launch urging foreigners to take their own responsibility.
The move comes amid growing concerns that immigrants don’t do enough to learn Dutch.
Life without subtitles
A short information film to be frequently aired on television shows several foreigners trying to explain something to a Dutch national – and clearly failing to do so. The subtitled film ends with the caption “real life comes without subtitles”, followed by a call to learn Dutch.
The film aims to show that daily life requires everyone to know Dutch to find work, talk with neighbours and doctors, and raise children. Integration Minister Eberhard van der Laan, who oversees the campaign, emphasises that integration comes with obligations.
Integration Minister Eberhard van der Laan:
“People who can’t make themselves understood in Dutch, should not be surprised if others don’t understand them.”
The campaign, the minister explains, highlights people’s individual responsibility because not enough foreigners are voluntarily enrolling in an integration course.
Learning Dutch is vital
At Radio Netherlands Worldwide, whose staff come from all over the world, everyone agrees that knowing Dutch is vital. The publicity campaign, however, prompts widely differing responses, with descriptions ranging from funny to patronising.
For Abir Saras, a Palestinian woman who has been living here for ten years, the film views the language barrier too much from a Dutch angle, making it hard for her to feel involved. She thinks a film made from a foreigner’s vantage point would make more sense, something she illustrates recounting an experience of her own.
“I remember how my first year here someone in a shop tried to tell me something and I started crying for not understanding, something I found hugely embarrassing. The spot should emphasise these sort of feelings instead of showing how the Dutch view foreigners.”
The Dutch publicity campaign
The fact that the information film adopts a Dutch perspective may be attributed to a growing unease among the Dutch that immigrants do little to integrate and speak the language with considerable difficulty or not at all. That is what many want to change. Davion Ford, an Afro-American who has been living here for four years, says it seems as if the country has finally woken up to the need to involve foreigners in society:
“In the past the issue was given little thought. People perhaps even expected foreigners to return home. But that didn’t happen and now something needs to be done. I find the commercial funny and not at all repellent.”
Alejandro Pintamalli from Argentina sees things very differently. For him this kind of publicity campaign, reaffirming Dutch prejudices, is bound to alienate immigrants, especially those with a higher education:
“The Dutch government and politicians press too hard for people to learn the language, which provokes a negative response. For me it has always been extremely important to learn the language-but not in this way. This kind of commercial will only backfire.”
Pintamalli would prefer the Dutch to help foreigners learn the language in the street, in the shops or as neighbours over a cup of coffee. But before helping foreigners, they should first try to understand them.
The information film will begin airing on television on Monday and will be followed by a radio and newspaper campaign. How people in the country will respond remains to be seen.
Marijke van den Berg