We recently travelled to Amsterdam for a short weekend trip, enjoying the beautiful sites such as the canals and picturesque streets. No matter what time of the year you visit Amsterdam you’ll always find great people, food and drink.
During our stay, there was one thing that really stood out and something that always comes to mind. The Dutch speak great English!
Statistics say that 90-93% of Dutch citizens can hold a conversation in English. Could 90-93% of English citizens hold a conversation in Dutch?
In a recent report showing a global ranking of countries for very high proficiency in English skills, the Netherlands was placed in the top two countries and is only bettered by Sweden in first spot. The top 10 list is also dominated by other European countries.
So it begs the question – why do certain European countries excel more when speaking foreign languages, especially English? In this post we look into the reasons why the Dutch are really good at speaking English and whether the UK and other countries can follow suit.
Television and Media
It’s been known that the Dutch are introduced to the English language at a very young age, in ways such as television and media. Generally, they don’t dub any of the TV series and movies available. Studies have proven that Dutch children pick up English more naturally than kids growing up in other countries such as Spain or France.
When Dutch kids grow up, English is made compulsory between the ages of 5-16 and many schools continue to teach English at higher levels. When students complete their final exams, they must score at least 5.5/10 for English Language and Literature and if they don’t, they won’t graduate!
Approximately 100 schools offer bilingual studies and the idea was initially introduced by the Dutch government for high schools but this has expanded into primary schools. The aim of this plan? To create bilingual education in order to obtain the same level of English Language and Literature as native English speakers in the UK.
The language compared to English
Interestingly, language experts traced back the Dutch language and noticed a big correlation between Dutch and English; both languages are closely related to the West Germanic languages.
Certain Dutch phrases can often sound similar to English and even when spelt out it can look familiar. Can you spot the similarities?
Het is niet ver > It’s not far
Het is laat > It is late
Due to the nature in which Dutch citizens can quickly become fluent in English, they sometimes acquire different English accents along the way which makes it even more difficult to tell where they actually come from!
Economy and Trade – Global Mindset
For hundreds of years, the Netherlands has been a leading trading nation. Today it is a key trading hub and distribution centre in Europe thanks to its excellent location. It’s main seaport and airport (Rotterdam and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol) are amongst the busiest in the world and is often said to be the gateway into Europe. The Netherlands boasts the largest inland shipping fleet in the EU and is home to more distribution centres than any other EU country.
The country’s education system and strong global economy clearly play a part in the Dutch’s success with communicating in English. Another major factor is culture.
If you’ve ever visited the Netherlands, you’ll know that multiculturalism is very much celebrated. There are around 180 different nationalities based in Amsterdam alone, making it a key multicultural hub for businesses to invest in, students and expats.
High Levels of English – The Rest of Europe
Whilst we’ve been focusing on the Netherlands having a high level of English proficiency, they’re not alone. Scandinavian countries are amongst the top 15 countries to have the highest level of English, again due to strong education systems, regular exposure to English in the media and a culture of accepting multiculturalism within society.
Europe as a whole has become increasingly popular for businesses to invest in. Business can be done easily in English or other languages. Expats are moving to these countries due to low costs, strong economic growth and employment opportunities.
Is England lagging behind?
Like many people born in the United Kingdom, we’ve become accustomed to thinking everyone speaks English. It may be viewed as a limited requirement and therefore students may avoid taking up a second language.
Of course English is a huge importance to everyday life. As mentioned in the EF EPI (EF English Proficiency Index) report, it highlights why English is seen as universally important: “As English becomes necessary for evermore interactions in the globalized world, the value of proficiency in the language grows apparent and the cost of not speaking English grows steeper.” Whilst this might be true for businesses and global growth, we shouldn’t forget that not everyone speaks our native language.
But this doesn’t mean we should avoid learning other people’s native languages! As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” It’s about making an effort to speak to someone in their language. Even if it’s a few broken phrases, this at least demonstrates that you understand their culture and as a result can open up many doors for new relationships on all levels.