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James Kennedy: Dutch learners should be appreciated, not criticised

Monday 03 December 2012

photo Dutch newspapers

So what if your Dutch isn't perfect: it's joining in that counts, says James Kennedy

The other day I gave a speech to an audience of English graduates. I have always been impressed with the enthusiasm with which the Dutch try to master another language – mine, in this case – and my impression is that are getting better at it all the time.

When the formalities were over I spoke to a number of people who had been born in an English speaking country and had learned Dutch later in life. It all sounded very familiar. If you are self-taught, like me, the Dutch language will always remain a challenge.

I spent a year at a Dutch Montessori school as a child, did a Dutch literature course some years later and that was it. My work and my family ties have given me a good working knowledge of the language but these columns couldn’t be written without the editorial help of my Dutch wife who will change ‘de’ into ‘het’ and vice-versa. I still can’t get those right.


Even if you do a course and end up speaking the language reasonable well, the Dutch will remain critical. Newcomers had better speak the language pretty near perfectly or they won’t be accepted.

Things are different in the United States. Your English may not be very good but as long as you can make yourself understood and join in you will be taken seriously. The ability to communicate effectively is more important than a good accent or faultless grammar. Maybe the Americans are tolerant because they don’t usually speak more than one language themselves and are in awe of people who do.


Not so in the Netherlands. Before I gave my inaugural speech at the Vrije Universiteit I had rehearsed my speech out loud several times in an effort to get the emphasis right. I could have saved myself the trouble because afterwards I overheard some students mocking my American accent.

A year later I held a lecture on William of Orange and again some blogger commented on my heavily-accented Dutch. There really isn’t much you can do about an accent.

And that is why I got so furious with PowNews’ Rutger Castricum when at the time of the Wilders hate mongering trial he interviewed director of Moroccan organisation LBM Mohamed Rabbae and asked why he still couldn’t speak Dutch properly.

Rabbae was perfectly capable of expressing his views but all Castricum was intent on showing was that as long as Rabbae’s Dutch accent wasn’t flawless he didn’t fit in.

Why? Is it because, apart from a means of communication, mastery of the language also means you belong to a culture? If you speak the language well people think you understand the mores of the country and have become ‘one of them’. If you don’t, you’re on the outside looking in.


Personally I never had much of a problem here and I’ve always been made to feel welcome. My Dutch has come in for compliments rather than criticism but then again my position as a university professor may be sheltering me from the worst of it.

Nevertheless I can’t help feeling, especially after talking to my fellow expats that the language community they are trying to become a part of is not exactly welcoming them with open arms. Surely encouragement is better than discouragement. Stimulate newcomers to learn the language and appreciate the effort they are making instead of criticising their grammatical lapses. In this way we all benefit.

James Kennedy is professor of Dutch History at the University of Amsterdam

This article was published earlier in Trouw

© DutchNews.nl

Readers' Comments

I'm sorry but I heartily disagree. One suspects the lack of appreciation stems from the pomposity of your attitude. The very fact you identify yourself as Expat (rather than, say, immigrant/allochtoon etc) is more likely the reason you aren't accepted as opposed to any technical ability.

As a Brit having lived here for 4 years (and by no means fluent in Dutch), I am regularly complimented on my efforts to speak tha language (but not complimented on my Dutch, sadly).

By A McB | 3 December 2012 3:09 PM

unfortunately and sadly, true. I studied nursing here a number of years ago at a Dutch university and subsequently got a very good job working as a nurse in a GP's practice where i worked for a number of years. Even though I was accepted by colleagues and patients alike in our big Groninger practice, the majority couldn't wait for me to make mistakes whether it be my written or spoken Dutch and especially my Canadian accent. I'd be told over and over.."Susan, you speak good Dutch but you STILL have an accent!" ....HELLO! I lived 40 years in Montreal, Canada before moving to this country, of COURSE I have an accent! What on earth did they expect? Geez...

By Suz Roelandt | 3 December 2012 3:16 PM

Americans are tolerant of non-English speakers speaking English with an accent because we're constantly dealing with people from other countries speaking the language. People from Mexico butcher English one way. People from India butcher it another. Same with China, Vietnam, Korea, etc. We can and do make fun of the accents of these groups at times. But when it comes to dealing with individuals on a personal level, we really only care about understanding and getting the point across, not perfect English.

Holland is a tiny country. On top of that, very few people visiting Holland bother learning Dutch. Thus, the Dutch have little experience dealing with those who butcher the Dutch language.

By Chris V | 3 December 2012 3:17 PM

I'm surprised that someone who seems to be so familiar with the Dutch, does not understand the way we express ourselves. Yes, we might make fun out of an accent, but in no way do we mean it in a bad way. Sarcasm is a form of humour.. not something to cry about. I see more and more how sensitive Americans are when it comes to being critisised.. A shame really, as it blurs out the things which we really mean as Dutch people. I love it when people make an effort to speak Dutch, and so do many others. Shame you put us all in the same box. Bad article, and extremely bad research.

By Joey P | 3 December 2012 3:29 PM

Whenever I tried my Dutch out in the Netherlands,people always smiled and replied in English. A friend suggested I tell Dutch people I was Norwegian and my English was very bad. Then was told that they could tell I was English by my accent. Oddly,Belgium is the place to practice your Dutch/Flemish,they seem to like hearing it spoken by foreigners very much in Flanders. And will always reply clearly in Flemish,not English!

By Lee | 3 December 2012 3:29 PM

I've had the same experiences and it can be very very offputting - for me, it's the reason I still don't speak the language after 3 years. I have a disability and quite some social anxiety, so every time I try to speak Dutch only to get snapped at the second I make a grammatical error makes me very disheartened and unhappy, and kills my confidence. People are unable to tell from my accent that I'm from an English speaking country and I'm usually mistaken for Scandinavian, East European or German, so they don't switch to English with me either, they just get annoyed...

By bobbianderson | 3 December 2012 4:11 PM

Agree and appreciate. Especially outside Amsterdam, language signifies larger cultural and economic barriers to 'foreignness', a clearly delineated 'inside' and 'outside' dichotomy. A Japanese admiral once commented that the Dutch, English, and Japanese share a long history of seafaring trade. He asserts that this has led to a 'protectionist' deep inner culture which clearly marks 'gaijin' or 'buitenlanders' as a prophylactic mechanism against destabilizing perspectives. S. Schama in 'The Embarrassment of Riches' also reflects: gezelligheid is the protected (and largely inaccessible) deep inner family hearth of the private house during the cold winter...

By Scott Mongeau | 3 December 2012 4:14 PM

There are lots of people who appreciate your efforts to learn a largely useless language. Don't give up

By T van den Berg | 3 December 2012 4:26 PM

The Dutch are assumed to understand any language we are adressed in even in our own country and we do our best to speak several flawlessly. Please permit us our little bit of fun when a foreigner butchers our language and do your best to speak it properly. We study very hard at school to learn yours.

By Irene | 3 December 2012 4:29 PM

I agree. I have been trying to practice my Dutch for the past year, but t is frustrating and discouraging to be constantly corrected for minor errors and my accent.

By Libby | 3 December 2012 4:41 PM

Not true for me. I've been living here for 35 years and speak a (very) far from perfect Dutch. Any time I comment on my bad Dutch I always get compliments on it.

By Laja Brown | 3 December 2012 4:57 PM

Sometimes I don't need to open my mouth to speak Dutch the answer comes back in English every time! The Dutch don't let you speak the language so how are we supposed to learn it. I have recently come across a lot of Dutch who don't speak English and my Dutch has come into its own! I think you have to try - I often find myself speaking Dutch and the Dutch person is replying to me in English! Swap languages why don't we?

By Lin Treadgold | 3 December 2012 5:21 PM

Sorry, but I have to disagree with this whole post. I have lived here for 5 years, and while I'm nowhere near fluent in Dutch, I speak it better than some English speakers I've met who have lived here 20 years. I work at a train station, and deal with hundreds of Dutch speaking customers every day, and the only people who have ever commented in a negative manner about my Dutch are the zwerven that sometimes come into the store, and are only pissed because I tell them they have to order something in order to sit in the cafe. I get complemented almost daily on my Dutch, and am frequently told that my American accent is "prachtig."

By Sabrina Adams | 3 December 2012 5:28 PM

Although T van den Berg's comment made me laugh, and even though this is what I thought for at least 2 years, as I intend staying here in the Netherlands for quite a few years yet I am still struggling at learning this 'useless language'. An NT2 II pass , countless group and private lessons later, I have the ability to read and listen well, but I still struggle with basic restaurant/shop conversations due to that instant switch to English when it is recognised in my accent I am British. My problem, or the Dutch as a whole? I think we are both responsible.

By Paul C | 3 December 2012 5:38 PM

Although I do agree that a lot of my fellow countrymen (yes, I am Dutch) don't know how to deal with expats and/or immigrants, whom are making an effort to learn the language, I would not cite an interview conducted by a PowNews reporter as an example. PowNews' only goal is to take the piss (excusez le mot) out of anything even remotely leftwing or foreign. A bit like Fox 'News' in the States really. That does however not reflect the view of the majority.

By R. Danny Lodder | 3 December 2012 5:48 PM

After a specific age (10 I think), one can never lose their accent.

It's a bit rich if the Dutch care about your accent as I've never heard a Dutch person speak English without a Dutch accent.

By Chris | 3 December 2012 6:08 PM

As native Dutch and being married to a native english speaking i would like to add somerhing. The Dutch have another habbit that influences our behaviour. Some or most of us like to show to others what they can do. In language that means they like to correct others. Weird however is that only a very small percentage of the Dutch speak their own language without an accent. I work in the north and i often am told that somebody hears i am not frm there but from the south. Ever heard a Gronings or Limburgs dialect? So be proud for being able to speak Dutch if it is not your native language. Or laugh at the Dutch english!

By Wilfried Roelandt | 3 December 2012 6:19 PM

Spare a thought for the poor Brits - we also have to listen to the American's butchering not only our language but also our spelling!

By Michael Garrett | 3 December 2012 7:12 PM

I must say that the post surprised me a bit. I've been living here for 4 1/2 years, started studying Dutch after my first month in the country, and, even though I'm not American nor Spaniard, I've got an American/Spanish accent when I speak Dutch, but people don't make fun of it. On the contrary, I hear compliments very often about how good my Dutch is (an then I start focusing so much on my mistakes, that I feel I'm making more!). Oh, and I've heard more than once that I speak like Maxima, which I find pretty cool! I guess that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Appreciate the praise, ignore the discouragement.

By Caterina | 3 December 2012 7:55 PM

I left Amsterdam in 1965 as a 19 year old for the USA. Whenever I go to The Netherlands I am asked "where did you learn to speak
Dutch so well. In the USA some people can hear my accent but not place it, My grown children cannot hear it. I can hear where people are from in Holland just by the way they speak. My parents did not want me to sound like a "Mokkumer".

By Wilhelmina Jaffe | 3 December 2012 11:04 PM

Dutch mastery of English is overrated. You probably know more about the Netherlands than a lot of Dutch who can't even sing their national anthem.

By Marx | 3 December 2012 11:20 PM

Stop criticizing. I have lived in 5 countries and had to learn 5 languages. Most people were very patient, and helpful. Do your best and they will forgive the errors.

By Wilhelmina Ross | 3 December 2012 11:58 PM

It is true that the Dutch are fond of making fun of the accents of learners. I think it's better to encourage learners by speaking in Dutch with when they start a conversation in Dutch. Foreigners in Germany speak better German than foreigners in Holland speak Dutch. This is mainly because Germans are generally less competent in English or other languages than the Dutch are. However, what matters is that keeping in Dutch helps! A friend of mine in the completion stage of her medical school in Holland was told by the coordinator of her practicals that her accent could have a negative influence on her chances of graduation. What kind of nonsense is that?

By Jules | 4 December 2012 6:31 PM

I am still trying to learn Dutch, with varying degrees of success. Dutch, in my experience, will love you for trying it. However, because complaining appears to be national sport here, they will complain about my accent. I usually remind him that I have moved here on my own choosing and have been subject to the darn Dutch tax rate willingly, so they should lay off my accent. Usually, camaraderie starts right there and then.

By Bertan Atalay | 4 December 2012 8:17 PM

I have never heard a Dutch person speak English without a Dutch accent(except for my children, who are half American). So, if someone makes a comment about your American accent while speaking Dutch, maybe you should also point out their Dutch accent while speaking English.

By tulipgiirl | 5 December 2012 7:25 AM

Some dutch are judgemental but fortunately most are not. Those judgemental ones are usually the sour grape ones who are sour over the fact that you are able to use the 2/3/4 languages effectively.

By ufo | 5 December 2012 8:46 AM

I have lived in the Netherlands for 10 and have never been criticised for trying to speak Dutch...I am no where near fluent and it is often a joke shared with many people that my accent makes it difficult to pronounce the words tuin and uien as it comes across as "town" and "owien". I need to speak Eglish for my job but make sure I am involved in other activities where I need to speak Nederlands and yes I have many conversations where I speak nederlands and the other person speaks English back to me.

By overthehill | 5 December 2012 12:52 PM

While some Americans are accommodating of an accent in English mainly due to the high Hispanic population in US. Americans are the worst at any language including English, few to zero Americans know what language is spoken in which country and even less try to communicate.
If you are criticised by a Dutch person on your accent just ask them to make the "th" in English and laugh.

By nd | 6 December 2012 10:50 AM

I have to chuckle at some of the comments from Dutch people who think we should "suck it up buttercup" and put up with teasing.

You have no idea how fortunate you are that you could master a foreign language in your OWN country amongst your friends and classmates.

Now consider what it's like to try to learn a foreign language in a foreign country surrounded by native speakers and far away from family and friends.

Not quite the same thing, is it?

A little empathy goes a long way. And it will help YOU TOO as encouragement rather than "harmless teasing" will motivate them to learn faster, right?

By CW | 6 December 2012 3:47 PM

I couldn't agree more with the article. I've lived 20 yrs in Holland, obtained my MSc and PhD. After graduation I started looking for a job. I couldn't land any job as a scientist. I applied for a commercial position which requires knowledge of a specific equipment. I have 7 years working experience with this equipment during my PhD. The Dutch recruiting agent interviewed me over the phone for 25 minutes and asked for a face-to-face interview at his office, which lasted for about 20 minutes.His conclusion was that I am a perfect candidate in terms of science and competence in English and Dutch. Nevertheless, he rejected me because my Dutch is heavily-accented!!!!

By Abo Haneen | 6 December 2012 9:26 PM

Don' worry about Rutger Castricum; he might speak faltless Dutch but still has to learn a lot in the good manners department, if he ever will. And he is not taken very seriously here in Holand anyway..

By Marjan | 7 December 2012 11:25 AM

I reckon that most of the people reading this article are capable of understanding my comment in dutch. Om deze correctiedrang goed te kunnen plaatsen is volgens mij ook een beetje inzicht nodig in het Nederlandse taalonderwijs. De lessen Engels, maar vooral ook Frans en Duits aan het voortgezet onderwijs zijn voor mij herinneringen die bestaan uit woordenlijsten en driloefeningen zonder focus op de achterliggende logica. Het correctiegedrag zie ik als een overblijfsel hiervan, waarbij de rollen worden omgedraaid.

By Misha Berghege | 7 December 2012 9:31 PM

Dutchies speak 2 languages well: English & German. Most are better at English than German. Both languages are very close to Dutch. As a buitenlander from North America who studied Dutch for 6 months after living in NL for 2 yrs, my Dutch is great, and it's helped me to understand simple German. Dutch students study English, French & German. Dutch people SUCK at French. They have no mastery over any other European languages. So those of you (mostly Dutch) who are making Dutch people out to be linguistic gods, gimme a break. Praise the Dutch education system; punt! I'll leave it at that though there's lots more to be said (e.g. Dutch people and written English).

By Tammy Rose | 9 December 2012 10:35 PM

It's worth mentioning that no Dutch person speaks English without some considerable accent. Not a complaint, just an observation. But even in the UK there is vast variance in accent and dialect, found even upon travelling 20 miles. The idea a non-native Dutch speaker would lack an accent is ludicrous, I cannot understand why someone would find it a problem. Correcting bad mispronunciation is one thing, having an accent another.

By glenn_uk | 10 December 2012 7:17 PM

Never mind, the Dutch always get their zin!

By russkent | 10 December 2012 9:09 PM

The good professor of Dutch history knows how religious tolerance became imbedded in Dutch national identity over about 450 years. Tolerance is a Dutch national trait that the Dutch people have been taught to hate, largely by Fortuyn.
Since the Dutch have been taught to hate who they really are - it then falls back to the nonsense of flawless use of Dutch as a "sign of who is Dutch," not participation in the national identity.

By eslaporte | 12 December 2012 2:34 PM

What a sharp division in these comments between foreigners who are constantly mocked and those, like me, who wow Dutch people with my rapid but fractured Dutch. They love it, laugh at it but in sympathy, always say, when I comment on its poorness, "I wish I could speak English as well."

By Donncadh | 13 December 2012 5:38 PM

For all those who disagree, have you tried a job outside the Amsterdam/Den Haag/Rotterdam area? We're not talking just about being complemented. I am sure the author is also talking about acceptance in general, to get a job for instance. I have been living in the country for +4 years, have worked really hard on my Dutch and now I feel that I speak the language well. Still, I need to stick with jobs for expats because my accent is apparently "too distracting". In the social context however, you are all very right: the Dutch DO appreciate the effort.

By Tiff | 15 December 2012 2:04 AM

I've been living here for 12 years and have experienced "all of the above", the good and the bad. I've solved it by speaking Dutch when in Dutch social situations, English when in multilingual situations, and (mostly) English when conducting business - because I'm taken more seriously (by the Dutch) as a proficient English speaker than as a fairly good Dutch speaker. Btw: those who bolster any argument by noting that Americans usually only speak one language are being selective with their definition of which Americans they're speaking of. Much of America speaks two languages - their native language, and and English as a second language. Perhaps that's why we don't mind 'butchered' English so much?

By Donna | 17 December 2012 5:45 PM

About the accent. When I,m not able to understand what you are saying becouse you are speaking like someone who is drunk not speaking slow like ferry drunk people do but fast then I,ts normal that people get criticized for there accent but if we can understand you while you have a light accent then i,ts very often nice to hear ore even lovely like those woman who speak like Maxima.
I know a lot of people from country’s outside the Netherlands.I try always to help them.If I switch to English then I personal, like to have a conversation with you. So we can know each other better.I,m sorry.

By Adrian | 18 December 2012 5:07 PM

I cannot speak Dutch apart from the usual greetings and pleasantries. When I try out my 'schoolboy' Dutch I get an instantaneous reply in English. It must be my accent because I am told I look very Dutch.

I was once told that my pronunciation of 'alstubleift' was incorrect but I looked upon it as positive criticism. It does make me laugh though.

I understand very little Dutch but I still find it a beautiful language to listen to.

By Chris Saunders | 18 December 2012 8:27 PM

I have tried to learn some Dutch as I feel it polite when in a country to make an effort. The insult is that on numerous occasions I've been told by complete strangers that my Dutch should be better if I live in "their" country.

Maybe if they bothered to actually ask they would realize that I'm not a resident and purely visit for work reasons with my company once a month !

By Buitenlander | 21 December 2012 2:01 AM

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