English as a Dutch language: A recipe for confusion

Everyone can speak English, can’t they?
When native English speakers come to the Netherlands, they are (quite rightly) impressed by the ability of the majority of Dutch speakers to conduct a conversation in English. A common response when English speakers say they want to learn Dutch from their hosts is “Why bother? We can all speak English” While this may well be true, there are two reasons why it’s important to learn Dutch when living in the ‘Low Lands’.

Social separation and grammatical gaps
Firstly, there is the social aspect. Anyone going to a party or informal gathering outside their work or studies will not be surprised to find that Dutch people don’t speak English amongst themselves, in the pub or at a party. To avoid feelings of exclusion in these situations, at least a basic working knowledge of the language is highly recommended. Secondly, there is the issue of misunderstandings resulting from grammar differences between the two languages. Consider this conversation that takes place (probably daily) between a Dutch person and an English speaking expat.

Dutch: Hi, it’s nice to meet you, how long are you living here?

English: Pleased to meet you too. I’m here for five years.

Dutch: Oh? So you can speak Nederlands already?

English (puzzled): No, I only arrived yesterday.

Both: Huh?

The key to this confusion lies in the use of the Present Tense for different purposes. When a Dutch speaker asks ‘How long are you living here?’ he or she actually means ‘How long have you lived here?’ However, the English speaker uses the Present Tense to talk about the future. ‘I’m here for five years’ means for the coming five years. It’s a recipe for confusion, isn’t it?  To make things worse, what English speakers call the Present Perfect is used to talk about unspecified past events and actions that are still true, whereas in Dutch, this construction is used for finished time. Here’s another conversation that could easily occur:

Dutch: How long have you lived here?

English: Oh, for about ten years.

Dutch: And when have you left?

English: I haven’t. I told you. I’ve lived here for ten years!

Both: Huh?

This type of mix-up occurs so frequently it’s clear that the visitors really need to learn Dutch to avoid them. This might be easier said than done, but there are still more reasons why it is important.

Troubles with time
For instance, another problem that gets many English speakers into trouble is the issue of making appointments. In English, saying you’ll do something at ‘half nine’ actually means 09:30 while in Dutch, ‘half negen’ is 08:30. This isn’t just a recipe for confusion, it can cause serious trouble, which is then compounded by the problem of whether ‘next Friday’ (or any other day) means the Friday coming or the following week. In the Netherlands, ‘next’ is often used to mean the one coming, while in the UK and America, it usually means the following week. Imagine your appointee turning up to a meeting you’ve requested not only an hour early but a week early too. This error could cost you a friend, not to mention a possible business partner.

If not when
Talking of business, another classic area of difference is between the use of ‘if’ and ‘when’. To most people in the Netherlands, there isn’t really a clear distinction between the two because ‘als’ in Dutch can often be used for both purposes. This is not the case in English, and urban legend has it that an American businessman who came to the Netherlands to set up a new enterprise became a victim of this linguistic conundrum.

On going to a local bank to arrange financing for his project, he was delighted when the manager he met told him: “When your loan is approved, I will contact you.” However, his elation turned to anger and dismay when some days later he received a call from the bank to say his application had been turned down. Why? Because the bank manager should have use ‘if’ and not ‘when’, a slip which gave our American a false sense of optimism.

Considering the consequences
These are just a few of the numerous pitfalls and problems that can arise when communicating in English as a Dutch Language (EDL). There are of course hundreds of other opportunities for miscommunication and also for humour in the long list of ‘false friends’ that exist, these being words that are the same in both languages but that have different meanings. One of these is the adjective ‘consequent’, which means ‘resulting’ or ‘following’ to the English speaker, but ‘consistent’ to the Dutch. Consequently (pun intended), to be told ‘you must be consequent’ in your language use could result in a few raised English eyebrows at the very least.

All these examples bring us back to that first question: “Why bother to learn Dutch?” Well, yes. If the English speaker doesn’t mind navigating all these language booby traps on a permanent basis, not to mention being condemned to just nodding and smiling at all social occasions, then it’s a fair question. However, most of us would prefer not to keep sidestepping linguistic potholes, so leaving the funny aspect aside, it’s far better to learn Nederlands als tweede taal than English as a Dutch Language.

  • Valerie Poore - LTC - 2019

    Valerie Poore
    Valerie Poore was born and raised in England but later moved to South Africa where she gained experience in Marketing and Communications, both as a practitioner and as a trainer. She returned to Europe in 2001 and has been working for the Language and Training Centre (EUR) as a freelance teacher and trainer since 2002. During this time, she gained her Master’s in TESOL, specializing in English for academic purposes. Valerie currently teaches writing skills to both business and academic students. In addition, she writes articles for magazines, as well as publishing her own books.