Welkom in Nederland…

I spent the last two days guiding a group of new exchange students around Leiden, helping them to feel as comfortable as possible in this strange new world of Erasmus life. Which is why it was so strange for me last night to go from an overwhelmingly (amazingly) English-speaking atmosphere straight to a dinner party at which everyone refused to speak English to me.

Mike and I planned a little friendly gathering with some of his coworkers. Dinner, drinks, good conversation. Simple, right?

Get this. The only people that managed to have a normal conversation with me were: 2 people from Maastricht, who know how to talk to English speakers (because the uni there is much more international, I guess), and one guy that I cornered and made to tell me about his weight-training schedule. Exciting. With everyone else, conversations went like this:

Me (asking the group in general): So who here has a company car?
Person A: Me, I got a really shitty one though, not sure I’m going to keep it.
Person B: Je aeeruoi nasfluo werpou lamlskdaf asdasdf!
Rest of the Group: Kearlkayuo aadfdasfiur xgfalkf fda khhh

They all immediately switched back into Dutch. Even when I had asked the original question, and was sitting there looking at them blankly.

Oh, the irony… here I was, confidently telling new students that unless they really want to, learning Dutch will be a waste of time since there’s no way they can get good enough at it in a few months to make any real use of it while on exchange (given all the other things they have to do while here). And there I was, an ex-Erasmus student two years later, having followed that same mentality, completely dumbfounded by the sheer impossibility of talking to these people.

Look, I get that it’s a gathering of a lot of people who speak one language, in the country in which that language is spoken, and I was the odd one out. But still! When an English-speaker is dropped into my parents’ group of Russian friends, yes, they quite frequently end up having conversations in Russian, but they make a huge effort to keep up some conversations in English. They make an effort to keep the person engaged in some way, even if just one person is directly addressing them while the rest blabber on in Russian.

Not so here. And it’s amazing because Maastricht is completely different, where it really is the norm to speak English if an English speaker is present. But in the Randstad area, apparently, that’s not cool.

And I really can’t figure out why. Is it really just that Maastrichters are exposed to so many more English speakers? Is it considered “below you” to speak English when another Dutch person is present in the North? Were they all that horribly embarrassed by their (excellent) English? It’s utterly confusing to me. Another Psychology degree FAILURE to figure out human behavior. Oops.


About Varia

Traveler, writer.
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5 Responses to Welkom in Nederland…

  1. lonwheels says:

    Hmmm…(found your blog through LJ runners comm…) as for this situation, I often find myself in similar situations as I am living in a foreign country where I’ve been learning the language for 2 years. I’m at the point now that when I’m in a group of people, there’s less problem because I actually do understand most of what’s going on, but before that, I’d often be in situations like the one you describe. I think the big take-home message is that these people are in a social gathering where most of them (all but one person) are very comfortable hanging out and speaking their native language in their country. Many of them may not speak English very well or have much chance to practice it as it is not a big international town. So, are you really asking an entire group of people to stress themselves and be really uncomfortable and maybe not be able to communicate effectively with their friends and colleagues, for just one person? I think you did the right thing in searching out separate conversations with people who had similar interests and could more easily communicate with you. I doubt that anyone was specifically trying to exclude you, they were just doing what was natural and comfortable to them. I hate going into groups and basically making all of them speak a different language *just for me* Not that I’m casting aspersions in any way on you or the people you were with, these are my feelings and you seemed to be asking for other perspectives here, so that’s mine. I feel much better now when I can speak German with the group than I did when I was always in the awkward, “please speak your non-native language just for me” stage.

    • Varia says:

      Hi! Welcome!
      I do, naturally, understand that it is more comfortable for Dutch people to speak Dutch – as I said, growing up in a Russian immigrant home I was in a lot of situations like this one (but on the other side of the fence). The thing is, I don’t know how it is in Germany, but in the Netherlands it tends to be the exception, not the rule, to speak Dutch when an English speaker is around. The Dutch are proud of their English and like to show it off (again, general tendency); even if someone speaks a bit of Dutch, it is very common for conversations to happen in English because it’s easier for both parties (this is one of the reasons it’s so hard to learn Dutch — nobody will talk to you in Dutch in Holland! ;)). So while I fully recognize that I’m being an entitled whiner, the situation was always entirely different in the south of Holland than I encountered at this party (in the north of Holland), and this post is more a response to being caught completely off-guard than about expecting everyone to speak English just because I do 😉
      PS very jealous that you actually learned German! Congratulations 🙂

      • lonwheels says:

        I’m still learning German, I don’t know when I can actually say I have learned German, it’s not an easy language. I talked with my German wife about Holland and she confirms that generally they are much more prone to speak English and speak English well than Germans are (Which really makes me want to visit there) so I don’t know. I did think of something else with a more positive spin, though. Maybe this group feels close enough to Mike and therefore you as an extension that they are totally comfortable *not* trying so hard to impress and trot out their excellent English so then it would actually be a triumph of sorts – again, that’s experience colored by my interactions with Germans….
        (I was in a cranky mood yesterday, didn’t mean to sound so preachy at you)

  2. lonwheels says:

    I see you say they have excellent English, but that may be in the eye of the beholder…

  3. I do not know if it’s just me or if everybody else encountering issues with your website. It looks like some of the written text on your posts are running off the screen. Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them as well? This might be a issue with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen previously.

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