Before You Go

I think as soon as I started to learn and research the Netherlands, I heard “Oh don’t worry, everybody speaks English”. This gave me a somewhat false sense of confidence that I want to dispel for future students. Yes, your classes are in perfect English (sometimes better than what I’ve had at UofL). Yes, all of your classmates will speak English at varying skill levels. Yes, most Dutch people our age and even up to 40, and many times older, can speak perfect English. Almost everyone in a government or professional career has great English.
However, this does not mean that signs, packaging, letters from the government, the old sandwich-shop keeper, the lady at the cigarette counter in the grocery, the old crazy man who you buy your second-hand bike from, vendors at street markets, or just friendly strangers can communicate with you in flawless English. While this is perfectly normal, books and other sources can give a false impression.
If you are a tourist in the Netherlands, no problem, but if you want to live here for 6 months and somewhat integrate into the culture, a little Dutch will be helpful. I can’t recommend a “top ten” of phrases to learn before you come, but “please”, “thank you”, and a general understanding of numbers up to 20 can be helpful for spoken prices, etc. The Survival Dutch course is helpful for everyday phrases, but you’ll have to go to a few classes before you have any command of them.
The grocery is where I’ve learned many of the written words I know, through trial and error of different kinds of “vlees”/meat- kip, rundvlees, varkenvlees, etc. and vegetables. It’s easy to pick up instructing signs about things that are “verboden”/forbidden and it takes only one time of looking silly to learn which doors to push and which to pull. Practicing spoken Dutch in public is a test to both your will and the Dutch person’s patience. Because so many Dutch speak English, it becomes very easy to just ask them to speak English and in public settings, they almost always can. Additionally, some Dutch people have told me that they have 8 years of English education, so they are ready and sometimes eager to speak English with you. In other words, the Dutch are very accommodating of your lack of language knowledge if they can be and aren’t so proud of their language to force you to learn it to communicate. If you practice, though, it makes the non-English speaking situations go much smoother.

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