We celebrated our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2021 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Watch the videos message from Lauren Harris and expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Abi Daruvalla, Jane Fenoulhet, Arthur Govan, Linda Dofoo and Amanda van Mulligen.
75 NL-UK Stories - Dutch language and tradition
Sometimes when I am training a group of international scientists or face-timing my family in the UK, their faces go blank, usually followed by a silence where there should be a response. What has happened is that I have switched languages from English into Dutch without realising. This usually happens as a result of what I call trigger words, words that are either very difficult to translate, like uitstraling, or represent a very Dutch concept like kennismakingsgesprek.
In fact I speak reasonably good Dutch (please note this phrasing reflects an unmistakeably British penchant for understatement). And of course most Dutch people speak good English - but probably not as well as they would had they lived in the UK for over 40 years. Because even if you are married to a native speaker or work in an international environment, there is no substitute for living in a foreign country surrounded and submerged in its language and culture.
Coming to Amsterdam as a young journalist in 1979, the task of learning to speak Dutch with sufficient proficiency to feel comfortable both professionally and personally seemed insurmountable. I thought it would be easier to fly to the moon. And indeed it took a very long time to achieve any level of competency. What helped were the Dutch people who refused to speak English to me, didn’t constantly correct me and were patient enough to listen to my fumbling attempts to find the right word.
Today it is just irritating when a Dutch person responds with “say it in English” when I can’t find the right word. Because my problem is not a lack of vocabulary, but difficulty with being able to explain something, in any language.
So, what have I learnt from over 40 years in Amsterdam? That at the end of the day, it’s not language that counts, but communication.
When an English speaker learns Dutch like I did as an undergraduate in the 1970s, it is not unusual to be asked: why? Strangely, Dutch speakers posed the question as often as English speakers. Then one day at a reception given by the Dutch ambassador in London to mark Queen Beatrix’s birthday I met a man in uniform. I was drawn to the miniature trumpet that hung from a golden braid though I had no sense of whether he belonged to army or navy, or what his rank was. He asked me why I had learned Dutch and when I told him it was because I wanted to infiltrate one of the smaller European cultures, he seemed not to find this at all unusual and proceeded to ask me more. He was the first person to accept that I simply wanted to get inside another culture and that the language was the way to do that. I’ve often wondered whether he had had a role in espionage.
Since then, I have taught many students how to infiltrate Dutch life and culture by learning the language. Part of their preparation for exchanging UCL for a Dutch or Flemish university was to think about how to answer the predictable question, and what to do when Dutch people insist on speaking English. Assertive management of the intercultural interaction is what it takes!
Speaking Dutch is not the best way to infiltrate this other culture, in my experience. Listening and reading give access to a much wider experience of life in the Netherlands than speaking to the few people you happen to meet. So here’s the thing – the Dutch have a wonderful literature, especially poetry and fiction. It is rich and varied. And when students access the creative power of the Dutch language, it enriches all their languages.
Translation, which is a dynamic way to read a text, engages and inspires young linguists and teaches them that there is so much more to creative writing than words and grammar. They can of course eventually earn their living with translation, but that is separate from the experience of bringing a Dutch novel or poem to life in English. You can’t get much closer than this to the inside of another culture. My own lifelong experiment in infiltrating Dutch culture continues as I translate classics of Dutch literature to offer glimpses into this fascinating European lifeworld to readers of English.
I have been living in the Netherlands for 4.5 years, although I had visited only Amsterdam previously – mostly for Pride in August. This was due to a Dutch friend -known from London and other UK friends who had moved over to work & live in Amsterdam; this was a great introduction, although limited.
When I first met my husband in London at a Scottish Burns ceilidh in London, I never imagined at that point I would be living in the Netherlands, in Leiden. My first visit to the Netherlands, before moving over, which was not Amsterdam really opened my eyes to country, the people and Dutch culture. After moving over, I contacted the organiser of the Operation Market Garden commemoration in Arnhem, as they had a massed bagpipe band march over John Frost (Arnhem) Bridge and I joined the band for the weekend and for the years after – until Covid-19. From there I still assist the Royal British Legion (the Netherlands) Pipe Band on occasion, including the Dutch Military Tattoo and also around Remembrance Sunday at Oosterbeek Cemetery.
The language has been challenging, although having to learn responses in Dutch to be married here and having a blessing in a Dutch church was quite a unique and rewarding point.
Being a Scot, we enjoy fried food and have been accused of being too direct at times – and the Dutch enjoy fried food too and are known for being very direct. I have recently been told that I was ‘more Dutch than I realised’, as I spoke my mind and did not hesitate to highlight ‘problematic’ areas of my work.
Despite the challenges I have faced I have found a lot of similarities between Dutch and Scottish culture & language, which has surprised me, along with the ‘Dutch directness’ – which I have found refreshing.
I first visited The Netherlands when I was sixteen, on a Geography trip. I have memories of 25 sixteen-year-old girls running wild in a bungalow park in the middle of nowhere and having the opportunity to visit the fishing town of Volendam, passing the old Ajax stadium in Watergraafsmeer, eating lots of cheese, going to Madurodam and wondering why the local Dutch boys at the bungalow park ‘disco’ had their hair short at the front, long at the back? Maybe those memories left a positive everlasting impression, as I returned in 1991 to do an exchange programme which resulted in an HBO diploma and a UK degree and then again in 1999 to help start up a Dutch office for an American recruitment company. I became even more immersed in the culture when I had children here - meeting other parents at the local Dutch school, improving my level of Dutch because my kids thought it was ‘raar’ that I spoke English in front of other kids, going to ‘borrels’, putting out my different coloured bins at night, in the right spot at the right time.
It’s been easy to settle down here – you just have to understand that you should be ready to integrate, that the people are forthright, it’s much more conservative that you first think, the culture/history is rich, and that there are so many beautiful places to visit.
I am still British but I am also proud to call this place my home.
Amanda van Mulligen
I arrived in Hoek van Holland 21 years ago with a trailer borrowed from the Dutch police force, loaded to the brim with all my worldly possessions. I had sold my one-bedroomed flat in Watford, a stone’s throw away from the Vicarage Road Stadium, to embark on a new life in the Netherlands with a Dutch man.
My biggest stumbling block back then was the Dutch language. A job search, buying a house, arranging a resident’s permit, understanding the tax rules, and even the grocery shopping formed part of an unavoidable sharp learning curve.
I secured a job in an English-speaking company in the Randstad, made friends with fellow English speakers and cautiously set about traveling along an unknown path.
Fast forward 21 years ago to a life unrecognisable to that young woman that sailed into a Dutch port.
The Netherlands is where ik me thuis voel. I live in a little village in the east of the Netherlands where the Achterhoeks dialect is prevalent. I am now a freelance writer and translator. Turning Dutch words into English ones became my bread and butter.
I am also, and more importantly, the mother of three Dutch boys, all tinged by my Britishness. They eat Branston pickle on their boterham met kaas, see baked beans on toast as an acceptable dinner, and two have chosen a Dutch/English TTO course at secondary school.
And my 19-year-old bike and I are the best of friends.
The Dutch language is no longer my biggest stumbling block. These days my biggest challenge is finding a way to watch my beloved Watford FC play their weekly football match. And sourcing our Branston pickle.
Amanda van Mulligen