How bad is Mark Rutte’s English?

Prime minister Mark Rutte has been criticised in the Dutch media for his spoken English since he welcomed Barack Obama to Amsterdam on Monday.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s accent and use of the English language was virtually impossible to understand judging by the wave of media criticism since he welcomed US president Barack Obama to Amsterdam.

Obama, in the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit in The Hague, made a flying visit to Amsterdam on Monday where he visited the Rijksmuseum.

Admittedly, he sounds like a Dutchman when speaking English but many world leaders have worse accents. And some, like German chancellor Angela Merkel when addressing both houses of parliament in London last month, begin in perfectly accented English only to lose their nerve and revert to their own language after an introductory few lines.

And where was the criticism of Jan Pieter Balkenende, the previous prime minister? His English was toe-curlingly bad.

Yet there has been comment about the way Rutte says Emsterdem and his problems with the th sound which makes that come out as dat and third as surt.

Olga Fischer, professor of English at Amsterdam university, told radio station BNR these problems can be blamed on the fact that certain sounds do not exist in the Dutch language. ‘I don’t think Rutte did so badly compared with some other politicians,’ she told BNR.

And the d sound instead of th is something you often hear in songs written and sung by Dutch pop artists in English.

For English teacher Bart Ongering it’s not so much Rutte’s accent as his use of words that makes him cringe. ‘He said “you are true” in answer to a journalist’s question which is a literal translation of “je hebt gelijk”. It should be “you are right”,’ he told Trouw.

One of Ongering’s pupils tweeted him to ask: ‘Will Mark Rutte join our class? Even my English is better than his’.

Perhaps we should accept that Rutte’s English could be better, but that he must have been nervous welcoming Obama in front of the world’s press and in such a location.

More unfortunate, perhaps, was Rutte’s clumsy attempt to justify the Zwarte Piet tradition to the foreign press on Sunday. Foreign minister Frans Timmermans tried to intervene but Rutte carried on. Perhaps a bad move in more ways than one. After all, Timmerman’s English is immaculate.