How to get the Dutch to speak Dutch with you

How to get the Dutch to speak Dutch with you

Comments36 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.


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36 Comments To This Article

  • Jethro Tull posted:

    on 7th October 2014, 23:04:03 - Reply

    Just tell them you don't speak English and if they do it again, leave. If it's somewhere where you can't just leave, ignore whatever they say in English.

    Maybe we can delay the cultural holocaust and universal conversion to debased English / American pop culture for a few years.
  • Inge posted:

    on 25th July 2012, 22:56:31 - Reply

    I'm Dutch of German descent and speak both languages fluently. For my work I have to speak English all day long and I reached the point that it feels easier for me to speak English than to speak Dutch (both Dutch and German are not my native language, that's Frisian).
    I would try speaking Dutch to that person, but since Dutch is also not my native language, I hope they don't learn my sometimes weird grammar.
  • jen posted:

    on 28th October 2011, 10:26:15 - Reply

    I agree with everyone who said that we can't expect every Dutch person we talk to to be our language teacher. That isn't their job. If they are patient enough to help me I really appreciate it, but it they prefer to conduct business in English I stay in English. The other side to that coin is, I encounter so many people who expect everyone to be fluent in Dutch, yet they always speak English! If they want English speakers to speak Dutch then they have GOT to stop speaking English to us.
  • Yorgos Augustus posted:

    on 8th September 2011, 10:52:07 - Reply

    In contrary to what the article suggests I have felt otherwise. My mother is Dutch, my passport is Dutch, I look 100% Dutch, my accent is very good but I only know enough on how to make small talks in Dutch. When the conversation goes into a topic I cannot follow, I always politely ask if we could continue the conversation in English. The most usual response I have is “Your Dutch is fine, let’s continue in Dutch, shall we?”. In banks, public authorities etc I have to insist in continuing in English otherwise I might miss something important for me. The feel I have when I insist and continue in English is cooooold… All this in Rotterdam. Maybe they can’t excuse the fact that I have not learned my mother’s tongue… However I think the article has a some ground because whenever I find expats in Greece who try to speak Greek, I immediately turn the conversation into English! Just for practical reasons, not because I want to show off.. I won't anymore :)
  • Shaun Gisbourne posted:

    on 14th August 2011, 17:53:00 - Reply

    Good tips on an emotive subject. Ik ben niet overtuigd dat de meerderheid van Nederlanders zo'n automatische proces in hun hersenen uitvoeren. Volgens mijn persoonlijk ervaring is het niet het geval.
  • HTD posted:

    on 21st June 2011, 11:37:23 - Reply

    While this blog has been well thought through and portrays an accurate portrayal of my hundreds of encounters reflecting this scenario, I still must disagree with Marianne Orchards conclusions.
    Having lived here continuously since 1992 and now a dual citizen, I got by the first 10 years here with only a slowly growing ability to read Dutch. However, afterwards, having taken 4 years of formal Dutch in a Belgian night/weekend school, my Dutch finally took root.
    In summary, it is not fair to ask everyone that one meets to be their Dutch language tutor. In Dutch class one will have to only attempt to speak Dutch and English usually will be strongly discouraged. Eventually, one will learn enough Dutch to be able to carry on a reasonable conversation in Dutch. If one's conversation partner still wants to speak English, do not take it personally. They may simply want a free English practice session, just as you wanted a free Dutch one. You know by now that you can converse in Dutch and that is really all that matters.
  • JTF posted:

    on 15th June 2011, 13:56:18 - Reply

    1. You could try saying that "surrey I am not underschtanding your english, heh", however good it is.
    2. Or you could say that you don't speak english at all.
    3. Or you could say "sorry I did not get taught dutch at school from the age of 6. I didn't watch all the decent TV programs from the US with dutch subtitles my whole life, so my dutch is not 100% perfect yet. However I have invested hundreds of euros and a few years at nightschool to learn your language. This is not only out of interest and respect for your culture but also in response to the many complaints by locals, in the papers and on the TV that buitenlanders don't speak dutch. So could we please not speak English?"
  • Canucky Woman posted:

    on 3rd May 2011, 15:50:34 - Reply

    No Harko, the tip is to get used to your language being spoken with an accent, just as YOU speak English with one. Just as all English people have gotten used to their language being spoken with a zillion different accents. We're not going anywhere in this global economy so you'll have to adjust too.

    As long as you understand them enough to correct them, you obviously know what they are saying, don't you? That should be all that counts. An adult cannot eliminate an accent, and the Dutch speaking English to us is a perfect example.
  • Harko Hekwerk posted:

    on 11th April 2011, 11:08:58 - Reply

    I don't believe it has something to do with showing off English skills or snubbing your efforts. When someone is speaking to you, you don't consciously think about the language they're using unless you don't understand what they're saying. Dutch with an English accent simply doesn't register as Dutch. It sounded like English, I sort of understood it, I reply in English fully automatically.

    The theory that this has something to do with my trying to make "the Dutch" look good at something is a little silly imo. I have never spoken to anyone on behalf of "the Dutch", and I don't imagine a lot of fellow Amsterdammers do so on a regular basis either.

    A tip to make your Dutch sound more Dutch: focus on the difference between long and short vowels. Getting the difference right between "maan" and "man", "zon" and "zoon" etc goes a long way towards reducing the "this is English, not Dutch" trigger.
  • pindakaas posted:

    on 17th July 2010, 21:42:02 - Reply

    in my observations, i don't think the dutch are showing off their english skills, they just don't have the patience to speak dutch to someone who can't hold a dutch conversation. punt.
  • Reinderd posted:

    on 4th May 2010, 16:58:12 - Reply

    Hey, woon je in Leiden en wil je je Nederlands oefenen? Mail me: 1krentenbol[at] en dan spreken we af voor een kopje koffie :)
  • Lee R. posted:

    on 17th April 2010, 11:58:45 - Reply

    Depending on the Dutch person's sense of humor (you assume this at your own peril, though), one way I handle this is to say (in English) "Oh I get it... Dutch is such a difficult language that even Dutch people prefer to speak English. It's ok though, you don't have to be ashamed, I am learning too."
  • JMullen posted:

    on 17th April 2010, 08:39:38 - Reply

    I am from Dublin and have experienced this problem as well but in Germany. What I found works to counteract such unwelcome switching to English is responding in my best Dublinese. They revert to German in no time :)
  • Lee posted:

    on 14th April 2010, 21:51:43 - Reply

    This so so true... And happens to me all the time... Although sometimes I have to admit, I'm glad when the Dutch person starts speaking English... Because normally their English is just as bad as my Dutch...

  • gretasmom posted:

    on 9th April 2010, 08:59:46 - Reply

    I honestly don't think it's some sort of "Dutch Conspiracy" to thwart the efforts of the non-Dutch population when they are trying to speak Dutch.. I think that Dutch people are simply (in their minds) trying to make it easier for the non-Dutch speaker by speaking English. I don't think, in general, they are tyring to "show off" their English language skills, so much as they are just trying to be helpful. Why do people get so worked up about this issue?
  • Rosalind posted:

    on 7th April 2010, 11:48:57 - Reply

    There IS something unique about the Dutch attitude here. I have lived in four other language communities, at least two of which (Danish
  • Nico posted:

    on 3rd April 2010, 01:20:22 - Reply

    Read any country guide and it will tell you that it's good idea to make an effort and speak the local language, if only a few words.

    Well not in Amsterdam my friends...many people you encounter don't seem to have any interest in your (well-rehearsed) effort to adapt to their world and it's amazing how often you get a response in English.

    Regardless of the underlying motivations, I think the point is that the reflex of answering in English is a little inconsiderate and I'm puzzled about the Dutch not understanding that we take this as a put-down.

    Then there's the other extreme....those who refuse to speak English under any circumstance....when you ask whether it would be ok to speak English, pretty please, because the subject we're on is too complex for your broken Dutch to cope with, they just say no.

    They don't say "No, sorry, I'm afraid I don't speak English", or something conciliatory like that, they just give you a stone-faced "no". I have never experienced this kind of attitude anywhere else. The first couple of times it happened I thought I was on Candid Camera or something.

    Having said that, now and then, out of the blue, pops out the most friendly, helpful, selfless person you've ever met. Anywhere.

    I think the Dutch are generally very well-intentioned, and many of the stereotypes you hear about them are unfounded, but I also believe that many don't realise how stern and uncompromising they can sometimes come across to other cultures.
  • Fran posted:

    on 1st April 2010, 20:43:22 - Reply

    Altough I do recognise the feelings of frustration when you try your best to speak Dutch and they reply in English, my experience with friends and neigbours is that very quickly, they will revert to Dutch wether you want them to or not - and fair enough! My biggest problem in the beginning was that I was told so often "you MUST learn Dutch" that even though I was trying, going to classes, reading the papers etc. my confidence was shot, because after all "the British are so bad at languages" - well that is the subconcious conditioning we are exposed to (could it be something to do with being an island nation?) - I know for sure that if as children, in the UK had as much exposure to forein languages, movies, TV, songs, as they do in NL they may pick it up a lot quicker, and be much more confident to have a go, which is what it is all about ....right? Well it took me about five years before I could hold a conversation about anything more interesting than the weather, and now after twelve years here I have to say I'm not too bad! (although I do enjoy "slipping into the warm bath" of speaking my mother tounge) And just one more comment to the above copy editor - to my shame I have to admit that many of my Dutch, German and French colleagues are way better at English grammar than I am, I know instinctivley what is correct but I'm b******d if I can remember the rule as to why it is so!
  • jan posted:

    on 1st April 2010, 13:55:39 - Reply

    Or be more forward and say things like: "Wat zeg je?" "Ik verstaan je niet?", "Ga je Engels met iemand anders oefenen", "Spreek je geen ABN?"
  • Saskma posted:

    on 1st April 2010, 13:50:53 - Reply

    I just stumbled on this article and find it very interesting. I lived in Amsterdam briefly many years ago and also experienced this as the pervasive behaviour. I always wondered what exactly was behind it as a collective sociological or cultural phenomenon. Personally I didn't mind when locals would respond in English, as I was only there for a short while and held no pretenses about my Dutch language skills. But, I also knew Italians who spoke much better Dutch than English, and yet were constantly struggling to get locals to converse with them in Dutch. There were no valid 'effeciency' or 'courtesy' arguments in these cases. Mostly, my curiousity was piqued by an assignment as a copy editor. Every single correction or amendment I made had to justified and argued over with the (Dutch mother tongue) authors. Eventually I reminded them that they had hired me to copy edit their English, but if they were so certain that they knew it better than I did that was their prerogative so long as they paid me. It seemed extremely unprofessional to me, but somehow also seemed to fit in with the 'only speaking English to foreigners on the street' meme. The suggestion above that this began with a post-WWII trend is a very interesting one!
  • Pepijn posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 20:31:33 - Reply

    I should perhaps add that I myself make a point of always speaking Dutch to my foreign friends, at least if they know it well enough to be able to hold a basic conversation. :-)
  • Pepijn posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 20:26:48 - Reply

    @E. Sipos: I'm sure it does happen and that it can be very frustrating. I was mainly objecting against the notion that the reason we reply in English is that we're all a bunch of show-offs.

    The sarcastic comment I was referring to was the start of the author's second suggestion: "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." I'd be disappointed if someone implied to me that I was showing off to them when I was just trying to be nice...
  • ratkat posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 18:50:58 - Reply

    I never got the idea they are "showing off" their language skills - in fact, when you ask many Dutch if they speak English, they will often say "a little" even if their level is quite high. I just think they're being practical - as they have been exposed to English their whole lives, their level of English is usually better than most foreigners' Dutch. They simply understand it easier than the mispronounced, poor grammaticized Dutch they encounter from most foreigners. It also depends on the situation - a stranger or shop owner has no real interest in helping you learn their language, especially if they're busy!.
  • E. Sipos posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 18:36:02 - Reply

    Pepijn - At least in my experience, after having lived in Amsterdam for 5 yrs, it has been extremely difficult getting people to speak Dutch. I really like languages and WANTED to learn Dutch but if you have to ask people every single day ' can you please speak to me in dutch as i'm trying to learn' in Dutch - it gets very tiring and very demoralizing. I'm sure the Dutch don't mean any harm but I would like to be the one to make a choice about what language I would like to be comfortable with. As I said earlier, if I started out in English then yes it would be gracious to speak English if that was a language you knew. HOWEVER, if I start in Dutch, then clearly I'm making an effort and wish to continue in Dutch. If this just happened once in a while I don't think it would be a problem but considering there has been an article written about it and every native English speaker that I know in NL has found the same thing does say something. I've gone out after full-time Dutch classes wanting to chat with people to practice and ended up at home in tears feeling soooo frustrated. Why am I trying so hard in school to learn the language, fit in and enjoy life here when I just get a brick wall? I had a Dutch person tell me in horror "You went to school for a year and that's what your Dutch is like after 3 yrs of being here?!!!!" At that point I was carrying on full conversations in Dutch. This was from someone whose English was full of mistakes. It was horrible and it made me really upset. Let us learn, let us make our mistakes - if you want to practice, or think we're struggling then ASK US if we'd like to switch. PS.. which sarcastic comment are you referring to?
  • Pepijn posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 17:22:00 - Reply

    I think you're being too harsh on us poor Dutch people! Why must it automatically be the case that we're showing off when we reply in English? I'd like to think that most of us do so just to be nice by conversing in the language you're most comfortable with.

    I'm sure that most Dutch people have no problem switching back to Dutch if you explain to them (in either language) that you would like to speak Dutch so you can learn the language. I know I don't. No need for a little sarcastic comment about how good our English is... ;-)
  • E. Sipos posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 17:16:19 - Reply

    Fred, actually its funny that you bring up the F***ch, because whenever I I've been they have been really charming and helpful with my french and it always improves quite significantly. I think they've been more open to speaking English more recently but not in a frustrating way and NEVER when I start speaking french. My partner doesn't speak French or Dutch and I speak both, so I can always guage this when the two of us are out.
  • Fred posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 15:23:54 - Reply

    Near the Netherlands there's a country whose name begins with F, and whose inhabitants refuse to speak anything but F***ch, no matter what language you address them in. This can be annoying too. So, let's just decide to be less annoyed. It is not every Dutch shopkeeper's job to be my language teacher, nor do I want to enter a teacher-student relationship with every Dutch person I meet. Ms. Orchard seems like a friendly, good-humored person, so I'm sure she has a circle of friends and close colleagues who will converse with her in Dutch all she wants.
  • E. Sipos posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 14:17:39 - Reply

    I don't think it's silly at all actually -and definitely not simple. This whole situation can be very demoralizing for someone trying to integrate. I do think there is an element of practice and/or showoffery as some of the people who are responding in English couldn't give a toss about the war. There is also an element of insecurity and putting you in your place. I've even had people respond, when I've asked them why they've answered in English, "because it's what we do". I've had some neighbours keep speaking English to me long after I'd learned Dutch and had repeatedly asked them to speak Dutch. Also as a person who already speaks 5 languages (including dutch), I feel that it is polite to speak the language of the country you're visiting/living and that as the host country they should make you feel comfortable. If I wanted to speak English because that made me comfortable as I didn't speak that language, and someone responded in English to be helpful - fine no problem, great. If one tries to speak Dutch then they should respond in dutch, help out when stuck and encourage. Other countries are very generous with that and it makes a huge difference.
  • AndreaUKA posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 13:21:32 - Reply

    Sorry, I think this is a very silly article. I agree with Dirk's comment. It has nothing to do with show-offery. I am a Brit who came to the Netherlands more than 30 years ago, not too long after liberation and, in my opinion, it's a post-was throwback. If you recall (or have read), The Netherlands was liberated by the English and Canadians to whom they were so grateful that they wanted to demonstrate in any way possible just how grateful they were. Speaking to English speakers in English was one way of showing it and the trend has simply been passed down through the 2/3 generations since, and continued to the present day (although I note it is, in fact, a lot less than when I came here).

    In any case the solution is simple. No need for silly games - just ask whoever it is you are talking to, to please respond in Dutch as you are trying to learn their language. Simple.
  • PapaLeo posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 11:40:39 - Reply

    Good observations in your article.

    What I notice is that the language question in the Netherlands is practiced on two levels: one for expats (inclusive) and the other for "allochtonen" (exclusive).

    For expats many Dutch begin to respond in English, as your article points out, as a way of saying, "You are welcome in our country even though you don't speak the language." For the "allochtonen," however, the reaction is much different: because you don't speak our language, you will never be truly welcome here.

    I find that the campaign currently being run by unfortunately reflects the latter attitude. It's too bad that not all non-Dutch are treated with the same respect and accommodation as (we) expats are.
  • Mick Symonds posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 11:39:12 - Reply

    Sorry - "bland in" was probably a Freudian slip: it should have been "blend in". ;o)
  • Mick Symonds posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 11:37:16 - Reply

    I don't think it is so much a competitive instinct, which it might be for a Brit to show off that they speak a foreign language, as a chameleon-like acceptance that they need to bland in.
    Wherever we go on holiday my Dutch partner is ordering the bread at the baker's in the local language on our second day. She just thinks it is both fun and polite to do so, and that we Brits with our just-talk-louder attitude are inconsiderate and arrogant (which we are, of course ;o).
    I frequently hold meetings with my NL colleagues where they speak Dutch and I speak English: that way we can each express ourselves fluently and understand what the other person is saying. It practices my Dutch listening, if not speaking, skills.
  • dirk posted:

    on 31st March 2010, 11:33:54 - Reply

    The Dutch will communicate in English just to be polite to you as a foreigner. If you simply ask them in English (or Dutch) to speak in Dutch so that you can learn to speak Dutch, they are very willing to do so.
  • 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...