Monday, October 5, 2015

Pedaling Past English in the Netherlands

by Barbara L.W. Myers

Barbara Myers is a graduate student in European Union Studies at the University of Illinois. She is planning on continuing her studies of Dutch, Swedish, literary translation, and the EU. She is interested in the work of immigrant writers in Benelux and Scandinavia. She wrote this text as a student in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe.’

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It would have been easy to conduct the conversation in English—the customer service representative at the ticket desk for the Rijksmuseum was certainly accustomed to dealing with tourists in the lingua franca (ELF). I had heard him speak it clearly with the couple in front of me in line and I had heard it all around Amsterdam in restaurants, on trams, and along the pathways at the Keukenhof. But by beginning the conversation in Dutch, I set the tone for a Nederlands exchange.

The guidebooks I read before my first trip to Amsterdam four years ago (Frommer’s) and my return trip this March (Rick Steves and various bike tour pocket-sized reads with near origami-like folding maps) assured me that learning Dutch was not at all necessary for a pleasant experience, and that many younger Amsterdamers would, in fact, be eager to practice their English with American tourists. The first time around, I wanted to at least know the polite basics, and this time around, I wanted to dive in and try this language that lies neatly between English and German.

When I asked a few expats what they had found most difficult about learning Dutch, they answered that it was the lack of opportunity to use it at the beginning of their time in the Holland region—their foreign accents gave them away, and led the Dutch to switch to English for their benefit. I found myself in the same conundrum years ago on my first visit to Amsterdam.

Though street and highway signs are in Dutch, businesses display a mix of Dutch and English signage. Signs in Schiphol airport use both languages. Pre-recorded tram announcements are in Dutch, though the reminder to check-out with one’s transit card before exiting is in English. Intercity train announcements both at the station and on-board are given first in Dutch, then in English. Though Dutch is not a minority language, it has a comparatively small number of speakers versus other languages on the continent. With a Eurostat-reported population of nearly 17 million, the Netherlands has only a quarter to a third as many native language speakers as its larger, more populous neighbors France and Germany.

The Dutch have adapted to their small state language status by becoming bilingual—the majority of Netherlanders speak one of the working languages of the European Union as an L2. Eurobarometer reports that 94% of the population state that English is the most useful L2. This statistic makes it no surprise to find ELF flowing from the mouths of both those in the thriving tourist industry and the people on the street. More than one young shop worker informed me that s/he had learned more English from MTV than they had in the classroom. Many English-language programs were readily available on hotel TVs (with Dutch subtitles), and American films fill the movie theaters, with both Dutch and English versions offered for children’s films. But despite the profusion of English (including turn-of-the-century American hip-hop blasting through Burger Bar’s speakers), there is no doubt one is in a Dutch city—bikes fill the streets instead of cars, the scent of friet fills the alleys, and the guttural ‘g’ of Van Gogh and gracht fills the air.

The interaction with the ticket agent was simple and straightforward—“Goedemorgen. Twee volwassenen een twee jongeren alsjeblieft.” Amused, the ticket agent responded in kind, asking why I spoke Nederlands—it was not the first time I was asked the question. I reluctantly switched to English to make sure my brief explanation was clear. Smiling his approval, he shrugged off the need to see a city card to apply the discount, and continued, in Dutch, to explain where I could find the coat check, lockers, and museum guides. Happily back in the Dutch, I thanked him and wished him a good day. This was certainly a very short interaction and not the last of its kind during my trip, but such small moments of bypassing ELF and using the local language enriched my time in Amsterdam.

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