How to get the Dutch to speak Dutch with you

How to get the Dutch to speak Dutch with you

Comments37 comments

You speak Dutch. They reply in English. What can you do? Marianne Orchard has some ideas.

You’ve worked out what you want to say. You’ve rehearsed your lines. You’ve opened your mouth and some Dutch popped out. You’re feeling quite pleased with yourself. The Dutch person seems to have understood what you said.

And then they reply in English!

You feel snubbed. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘OK foreign person, you’ve made a feeble attempt to speak Dutch, but my English is much better, so if we’re going to get anywhere here we’d better switch to English and forget the whole Dutch thing.’

Feeling humiliated, you carry on in English and slink away thinking there’s no point learning Dutch. You’ll never be good at languages like the Dutch. You’ll never be able to speak Dutch. You might as well just go and eat worms.

This reaction is understandable, but it’s not going to help you learn Dutch, so it’s worth looking a bit deeper into what is going on here. What happens is that as soon as the Dutch person flags you as an English-speaker a rapid calculation begins in their head. It has them evaluating your Dutch in terms of verb conjugation, sentence structure, pronunciation, vocabulary and a whole host of other grammatical stuff and comparing it with their ability to do the same in English. A tiny robotic voice announces the result of this calculation in their head. I managed to record one once with a tiny microphone and this is what it sounds like:

‘Dutch: negative. English: affirmative. Switch to English. Switch to English. Beep beep beep beep beep.’
The Dutch person can do nothing but obey the robotic voice and switch to English.
Well, they are slightly willing in this process, because there is also an aspect to this that isn’t about your Dutch skills at all. It’s about the Dutch person enjoying the opportunity to engage in a bit of language show-offery. It’s slightly more polite than just crowing: ‘My English is better than your Dutch. Na na na na na’.

This language show-offery is particularly true in the following scenario: You happen to be with other English speakers and one of them accidentally lets an English word issue from her mouth. Even if you’ve all been speaking reasonably fluent, almost accent-free Dutch, that one English word will make the robot in the Dutch person’s head go into overdrive.

It will forget to do its language comparison and instead will just shout in the Dutch person’s head: ‘English, English, English. Show them you speak English. Show them that Dutch people are good at languages. It doesn’t matter that they can speak Dutch. You cannot let them forget that Dutch people are good at languages. It’s what Dutch people do. If other people start speaking languages too, what does that mean for your identity? Who are you then?

Aaarrrggh existential crisis. Malfunction. Malfunction.’

So, to summarise a bit here, the main reasons why the Dutch person switches to English are to make the transaction quicker and more painless if your Dutch is a bit crappy and for them to show off that they can speak English.

Now this is all fine and dandy but the problem is that it isn’t really helping you. You want to practise your Dutch. You’d like to know if a Dutch person understands you. You’d like them to humour you and maybe even help you.

So what can you do?

Here are a few strategies you can try:

Linguistic strategies1. Carry on speaking Dutch.The advantages of this that it is direct and means you don’t have to worry about having to say anything else. However, it can feel confrontational. If they reply in English again it becomes a battle about who speaks each other’s language best and that’s not the issue here.

2. Reply in Dutch that, smarm smarm, although you admire their English skills, you are learning Dutch and would be grateful if they could help you.

You could say something like, ‘Wat spreek je/spreekt u goed Engels! Maar ik wil heel graag Nederlands leren. Zou je/u me kunnen helpen door Nederlands met me te praten?

You’ll have to smile through gritted teeth here, but unless they’re a real meanie-pants it should work. The advantage of this is that you’re acknowledging that the Dutch are good at languages. They might have to forget about the speedy transaction but they may learn a valuable life lesson; that speed is not always best. You might even become best friends and live happily ever after. The disadvantage is that if your Dutch is still shaky and you’re feeling snubbed you might not be able to summon up the phrase above.

3. Do the same as in strategy 2, but in English. Say that you are staggered at their amazing English and would like them to help you reach that level in Dutch.

4. Have a card with you saying that you are learning Dutch and would appreciate their help.

Have something like this: “Ik leer Nederlands. Zou je/u misschien Nederlands willen spreken?
You might need to add a bit of smarm about their English to get this one to work.

(I’d love to hear of any more non-violent communication strategies that work.)


Marianne Orchard comes from England and has lived in the Netherlands for twelve years. She is a writer and translator. Over on her website she writes about the hurdles people face when learning Dutch, strategies that help them learn languages and about the experience of being an allochtoon in the Netherlands.


Photo credit:

Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.

If you believe any of the information on this page is incorrect or out-of-date, please let us know. Expatica makes every effort to ensure its articles are as comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date as possible, but we're also grateful for any help! (If you want to contact Expatica for any other reason, please follow the instructions on this website's contact page.)

Captcha Note: Characters are case sensitive
The details you provide on this page will not be used to send any unsolicited e-mail, and will not be sold to a third party. Privacy policy .

3 Comments To This Article

  • tallguy posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 11:33:52 - Reply

    This happens a lot in Germany too! It really does my head in... I just continue to speak in German and eventually they get the message and speak German. Sometimes though I falter and ask for their help if I don't know a word in German. I have the experience that sometimes the other person ought to stick to speaking German as their English is so crap I don't understand them. I once asked a lady if she could speak German as she was talking to me in Bayrisch... she huffed and walked off. I reckon she was sorely insulted. Honestly I did not understand a word she said.
  • EJ posted:

    on 27th March 2010, 10:29:27 - Reply

    We discussed this in my Dutch class this week (in Dutch of course!) as my German colleagues also find Dutch native speakers switching to German when they hear the accent.
    I took made tea and biscuits for my colleagues at work and asked them to join me, and when they started speaking English, I passed the biscuits around and said they may have some if they would speak to me in Dutch. The trouble for me is that when there are more than 2 other people they speak too fast for me to understand everything and I don't like to interrupt by asking them to explain or repeat or speak a little more slowly, so my best opportunities to try are when I can get one or two people alone. I will just keep smiling and trying as you suggest because I'm enjoying learning Dutch, thanks for the encouragement!
  • ratkat posted:

    on 26th March 2010, 10:23:36 - Reply

    If they switch to English on me, I usually continue in Dutch as per the first suggestion - often, the whole conversation will continue with me speaking Dutch and them replying in English - which sometimes becomes a good source of laughter for both parties...