News - August 21, 2009

Switching into English


One of the best aspects of living in the Netherlands as a foreigner is the ability of the Dutch to speak English. But it is also one of the greatest frustrations! When struggling to learn Dutch I would pluck up courage to go to the bar and ask ‘Twee bier alstublieft” and would get the reply: ‘That’s two guilders and 50 cents please’. My accent gave me away, and the bartender – no doubt being friendly – would reply in English. But it was a real disincentive.

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Learning to communicate in Dutch is worth the investment. It was not easy - particularly because I never attended a course - but I had a Dutch girlfriend who was my incentive. When our kids came along, we decided they should be bilingual - to communicate with both families and feel at home in both the UK and the Netherlands. So I persevered and it paid off, although I never imagined I would work here!
I knew I had achieved something when I was asked: 'Heb je lang in het buitenland gewoond?' - as if I was a Dutchman who had lost his native accent. But a repeated annoyance is when people notice my foreign accent and switch into English. Often I carry on in Dutch while the other continues in English. Maybe it is intended as a courtesy, or just a wish to show prowess in English? But overall I think it best to ask: 'Should we speak in English or Dutch?'
My ability to communicate in Dutch is much appreciated by both staff and students despite me murdering the language. And understanding all the 'ins and outs' of the discussions on our so-called 'transparent' finances is impossible if you don't understand Dutch (and virtually impossible for native speakers!).
When David Dent, the previous Director of ISRIC - World Soil Information arrived in Wageningen one of his senior colleagues asked: 'We understand you learned Dutch quickly. How can we get David up to speed quickly?' He was shocked at my response - which remains the best advice: 'Tell him to get a Dutch girlfriend!'
Ken Giller, professor of Plant Production Systems