April 20, 2011 2:31:38 AM CEST
Look at what it says on Holland.com: "Dutch is the national language of Holland. However, English is spoken by almost everyone." You can find similar statements on HollandTrade.com or NFIA.co.uk. Universities offer programmes in English. Visitors to Amsterdam are always impressed by how well everyone speaks English. The Dutch love to go on about how good they are in English.
And the Dutch are indeed good at English. According to one study, they are the second-best in the world, right behind Norway: http://www.ef.no/epi/ef-epi-ranking/
I know a lot of expats are grateful that so much can be done in English. It helps to explain why many expats live here for years, if not decades, without ever learning Dutch. It is indeed possible to lead a limited sort of life here in English. (There are also many expats here who do learn Dutch, of course.)
The problem is that it's not quite true that English is spoken by everyone here. The "almost" in these public statements turns out to be the most important word. You don't have to live here long before you find out that this supposed bilingualism of the Dutch has serious limitations.
This is not a secret. The Dutch know how poor their English actually is. They laugh about it themselves. They are aware of the inherent hypocrisy they've constructed for themselves. It's right up there with "tolerance" and "cleanliness".
The Dutch do speak English better than the French. And of course the Dutch speak better English than, say, the British speak Dutch. I suppose the difference is that the French don't make a big deal about how good their English is. And the British are also fully aware of their linguistic limitations. (By accident or design, the British have ensured the whole world speaks their language.)
What the Dutch also fail to tell the outside world is that there is no commitment in the Netherlands to provide services in English. There is no policy of accommodating English speakers (except of course for large international companies and their employees). The laws are not in English. Dutch tax forms are not in English.
For many newcomers, the first bruising encounter with the linguistic limitations of the Dutch is experienced with the Belastingdienst. This is apparently the ne plus ultra, the final frontier, of Dutch bilingualism. Here it's not "wie betaalt, bepaalt", but "wie wordt betaalt, bepaalt". Many other government services are provided only in Dutch, including even a few immigration services.
There is no official or unofficial recognition of English as a second language. No-one here has a "right" to be addressed in English, despite the European Community hoopla, the general prominence of English in Dutch society, the introduction of English university education, and the many thousands of English speakers who have moved here. Dutch bilingualism is an unofficial, practical matter.
Everyone who comes here and every business that moves here (partly lured by the promise of living in an English-speaking society) soon finds out that this supposed bilingualism has an undefined but very definite limit.
To be fair, the Dutch government will accept correspondence in English (or French or German). That's a bonus you wouldn't find in other countries. However, other countries don't tell the world "we all speak English".
Nor does the supposed bilingualism of the Dutch apply to other aspects of Dutch society. Try to post a comment on the Telegraaf, or Trouw, or any newspaper in English. It won't be accepted. "Yes, we all speak English, but we don't want it in our newspapers."
And of course the Netherlands is - unusually for Europe - a society without significant English-language media at all. There has been one attempt after the other, but there is no serious English-language news outlet in this country really. The FD tried it; the NRC tried it. I don't know why it doesn't work. Poland is served better by English media than the Netherlands. This is a country that has almost no international voice, despite the fact that "almost everyone speaks English".
So what does it mean exactly when Dutch society says to the world "we speak English"? It essentially means something like this:
No-one out there learns Dutch, so it's important to us to be able to function in English. We have to be able to communicate in English to a point because otherwise we wouldn't be able to deal with the world at large. We all learn English in school and most people should know at least some English.
We also like the idea of being fluent in English. We like the idea of foreigners thinking that we are a clever, bilingual society, even though it's not really true. We know the value of marketing and we find it good for business to tell the world that we can do everything in English.
But when it comes to English, although we will accommodate you to a point, we will decide when English is spoken in our society, not you. Generally, English will be spoken in situations when it is convenient to us, not you. Yes, we speak English, but English speakers have no linguistic rights here.
Yes, our government has made public statements about how fluent we are in English, but you should have no expectations about this. It's your fault for having these expectations in the first place. We are a monolingual Dutch-speaking society, even though we like telling the world how bilingual we are.
No wonder they just say "we all speak English - almost". This is all well and good. Every country has its little hypocrisies. And who can blame the Dutch for wanting it all? But really, isn't it time for the Dutch to throw this myth in the dustbin, along with the myths about tolerance and cleanliness. "We all speak English". No, they don't. And sometimes they won't.
1. The government should adopt a policy of providing all citizens with the option of being served in English. This is particularly important for tax and immigration services.
2. Some effort should be made by the expat community to establish quality, active English-language media here. I know many people are trying to do exactly that, but somehow we need some kind of impetus to get this going properly. And it should be run by English speakers, not Dutch speakers.