Monday, October 17, 2016

English Usage by Dutch Speakers on Facebook

English Usage by Dutch Speakers on Facebook

By Andrew Van Marm

Andrew Van Marm wrote this blog entry for the course “Language and minorities in Europe” (FR/IT 418) in Spring 2016. He is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign majoring in Political Science, and has a special interest in the geographic and linguistic history of the European continent. Minority languages are particularly interesting to his work, as they represent the cultures of Europe that were once widespread.

Among the countries of the European Union, English holds a special place in the Netherlands. According to the European Commission (2012), "at a national level English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 out of the 25 [EU] Member States." Out of these 19, the Netherlands has one of the highest proportions of English speakers at 90%. In comparison, the percentage of English speakers in the United States is 94%. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007) This makes the Netherlands a particularly unique case when it comes to English usage on the Internet. Furthermore, the Netherlands has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in European Union (94%), which accounts for 16 million of their 17 million population. (Internet World Stats, 2014) Of this approximate sum, 9 million are reported to have visited the popular social networking website Facebook. (Azevedo, 2013)

Image Courtesy of comScore MMX
According to the demographic profile presented above, the proportion of Dutch Facebook users is fairly evenly split among different age groups. (Azevedo, 2013) This is relevant, as it is assumed that older users would be less accustomed to using English. However, as no official statistics appear to exist on the subject of language usage by Dutch Facebook users, I shall embark on my own investigation.

Many years ago when I had first created my account on Facebook, I happened to search my last name on Facebook. Unlike other surnames, such as 'Brown' and 'Smith,' the name 'Van Marm' is entirely unique, which means all those with it are at least somewhat related. Although the Van Marm's of the United States are few in number (originating with my great-grand father Cornelius who came over through Ellis Island), a significant number remain in the "old country" of the Netherlands. Surely enough, some of my Dutch relatives happened to turn up on the social media site. Over time, more and more of them created accounts, and though I had yet to speak to a majority of them, I was quick to establish contact.

The very first of the Dutch relatives I had spoken to was Britta, who is a student not much younger than myself. As with the others, she is assumed to be a cousin of some sort. Naturally, she speaks excellent English, as the language was taught and used extensively throughout her education. However, while surveying her Facebook page for the purposes of this blog post, it was observed that a significant majority of her Facebook statuses were in Dutch while a few others were in English. One day was "Sunday funday with the flamingos" while earlier she had "even twee dagen relaxen!" (only two days to relax!) In brief, she appeared to flip between the two languages, using Dutch for longer, more complex statements and English for shorter, casual ones. The comment sections, on the other hand, remain exclusively the domain of Dutch. This is because communication is directed towards specific friends and family. According to Britta, there are a few factors that affect her choice of language:
Actually, for me it depends on the thing I am posting. Since I'm having more and more international friends on Facebook, I post more things in English, but if I write something that is especially for my Dutch friends, I will do it in Dutch. Besides that, the most important thing for me is: in which language can I express with better verbage. Sometimes things sound better in Dutch or English.
In summary, the factors involved are her audience, which contains international, non-Dutch speakers (such as myself), personal social interaction between her friends, and the perceived aesthetic differences between Dutch and English. She further stated that her own age plays a role, as her parents would not be comfortable enough with English to use it extensively on the Internet.

It is especially curious that Britta mentioned age as a factor, as her aunt Helena (who is about twice her age) represents the most prolific English user among my Dutch Facebook family. As a semi-professional photographer with a Facebook page dedicated to her work, Helena uses English in almost every single one of her statuses. When I asked why she used English so extensively, she responded by saying,
That's because I've a lot of foreign friends! And sometimes for me it is easier to say it in English than in Dutch. Although I've been born in The Netherlands I think more in English than I do in Dutch. I know it's weird haha. And because I use Facebook as a platform for my photography I also want to reach a lot of people outside The Netherlands.
Beyond the broad appeal of English that compliments her desire to share her photography with as many individuals as possible, Helena has developed a personal connection to English that has led her to use the language quite often in her day-to-day life. Naturally, this has carried onto the Internet, where Dutch is largely confined to comment sections that are populated by other Dutch speakers.

Photo Courtesy of Helena van Marm Photography on imgur
The exchange between Dutch and English in the Netherlands certainly represents an interesting case of language shift by speakers of a strong, state language. Although English is not the sole language at play, its presence is felt nearly everywhere. This makes sense, as Facebook is primarily an English-language website, having been developed in the United States. For the two Dutch speakers, there were both practical and personal motives behind their language usage on Facebook. Although lingua francas are not said to be born as a result of perceived aesthetic qualities, both Britta and Helena considered English to have special value beyond its mere ability to facilitate wider communication. The vast majority of their friends on Facebook, after all, were Dutch. However, when Helena shared her excitement for the upcoming season of the English-language television series “A Game of Thrones,” it only made sense to express such in English. Considering the wide appreciation for English-language media across the globe, it comes to no surprise that English has become the language of digital culture.


Azevedo, H. (2013, June 19) Who Uses Social Networks in the Netherlands? ComScore. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2007) Language Use in the United States: 2007. Retrieved from

European Commission. (2012) Eurobarometer 386. Retrieved from

Top 50 Countries with the Highest Penetration Rates. (2013) Internet World Stats. Retrieved from


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