How the Dutch should not speak English

This is an article for native Dutch speakers, who were used to speak Dutch at work, but because of international colleagues, need to speak English, at least at all team meetings. Although most of the Dutch have a rather good understanding of English, using this language for professional purposes needs a little more attention. You might think, ‘Why is this so important? Isn’t it great that ‘we’ are flexible and able to have all meetings in Dutch now?’


Yes, it is important! There is something very interesting about the Dutch language and all languages in general. It is like when you were born near Table Mountain in Cape Town. Ask a person who has been living there his whole life, ‘Did you ever go to the top?’ 99% of all encounters, the person will respond; ‘No, why should I? Would you ever climb a mountain or take a tour to the top and enjoy the view, when you were born next to it? No! Never been there, the idea never came up.’ The mountain always was, is and always will be there, no questions. It is as normal as the air you breathe. That is how most people feel about their own language, it is a natural state of mind and knowledge. Only when you start learning another language or when you start teaching your language, you’ll come across some very interesting issues. How does that work for the Dutch and their language? And how can others perceive that?

Just a few quotes from internationals;
‘When the Dutch need something from you, they can be very straightforward, which gives the impression that they are rude or agitated.’
‘When the Dutch ask you something, it feels like an order, there is no politeness, softness, kindness.’
‘Now and then, I feel deeply offended by the way the Dutch speak to me. Taking my Dutch colleagues into consideration, this seems to be a normal way of communication. I do my best to get along with it.’


Everyone knows this marvelous guy, who always can fix any problem, and on top of that, did you know that he is also extremely proficient in different languages. In Germany he speaks German, in France he speaks French, in Spain he speaks Spanish, in Italy he speaks Italian, but in The Netherlands, he speaks English. The Dutch, watching James Bond, Superman, and all contemporary English-speaking television heroes and role models, literally grow up hearing English every day. That’s why we speak English ‘so well’. Back to the mountain! The Dutch mountain is the huge mountain of little words, that makes speaking Dutch so difficult. The funny thing is, the Dutch are not aware – living in their flat country – of the huge impact these little words. By the way, how to translate them into English? No idea, just leave it out.


Contradictory to James, not everyone knows Margarita; she is an expat from Brazil, and she almost quit her job recently. The reason is ‘little words’, or more specifically, the missing of little words, correctly translated into the English language. What happened? Margarita works in a middle size company in The Netherlands, where all employees including the board are Dutch. Her team is in a meeting together and, because of Margarita, the meeting is not in Dutch, but in English. Which can be considered as very kind, since they are making an attempt to include Margarita to the meeting. When her manager asks her ‘Can you take notes?’, Margarita feels a sudden anger coming up, ‘why order/command me in such a rude way?’ There have been a few other small communication incidents earlier, and this really is the straw that breaks the camel’s back!

A Dutch will hardly understand what is going on, why Margarita feels upset. When we analyze this situation, what her manager would have said in Dutch is ‘Kun jij even notuleren?’ of ‘Zou jij even kunnen notuleren?’ of ‘Kun jij misschien even notuleren?’ ‘Even; ‘misschien,’ little words that soften the Dutch language and should be translated with the famous word ‘please’, because they actually mean ‘please’. The way Margarita was addressed, shocked her to her core, and it felt like a straightforward command that translated to: ‘Do it, hey!’ One of her colleague’s was able to interfere and explain the situation to her, that there was no bad intention at all. Finally, Margarita did not leave the meeting, nor the company, nor the country.


Margarita’s manager is a nice guy, who – like all Dutch natives – sprinkles little words like ‘even, eens, maar, hoor (!), misschien’ throughout their conversations all day. The Dutch, not aware that these words stand for ‘please’, will not translate these words with ‘please’ when they speak English, which makes their English sound rude. Nevertheless, if you leave these words out in Dutch conversations with native Dutch speakers, they will feel offended as well! For the Dutch; just give it a try, 24 hours without any ‘even, eens, maar, misschien, hoor’, and tell me how you feel.

Do internationals need to know this? It might be useful, to be able to reconsider your feelings and see it from a different perspective. Do the Dutch need to know this? As a native Dutch speaker, you better! You of course want to be polite and friendly in your communication. The last thing you want is for internationals who came to your company – with their specific qualities and experience – to leave, because of communication issues.


Tip for the Dutch: Watch your James Bond movies once again. Although he can be a bit rough, our James is a real English gentleman. Just analyze the dialogues on the word ‘please’, and imagine how you would say these phrases in natural Dutch.

Tip for Dutch companies; Make sure your employees speak the level of Dutch required for working in an international team. Flowently can help you and design an English course tailored to the needs of your company.

Tip for international and Dutch employees and HR teams; Flowently offers Intercultural Workshops, that will help you become aware of your unconscious cultural preferences. This will provide insight in Dutch history, culture and customs and can help you feel at home more easily.
Tip for internationals; Learn Dutch with Flowently and you will learn practical conversational Dutch, that cannot be provided by books solely.
Shaken or stirred? Geef mij maar een biertje!  (maar = please)

Contact us and we will connect you to one of our tutors or teachers, English native speaker.

written by: Flowently

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