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 video messages by Marleen Geertsma and Henriette Louwerse and expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Simon Smits, Hannah Mason, Karel Philipsen and Joost Röselaers.
75 UK-NL Stories - Language
Upon finishing grammar school in the mid-seventies my plan was to study English in Amsterdam. The plan failed: at that time there was a 'numerus fixus' for English and fate (i.e. a lottery) decided against me. What now? Enter British Council, advising me to take a Proficiency Course in English at Luton Polytechnic!
Off I went on the Hook-to-Harwich ferry on an early Sunday morning, arriving in Luton late in the evening. As the Poly Admin office handling the allocation of digs only opened on Monday morning, I had to find a place for the night. I stepped into a little pub called The Cooper’s Arms, which as it turned out had only one room, with six beds. The landlady assured me, however, that I would the only occupant that night.
Before retiring I had a drink at the bar and was soon engaged in a lively conversation (about football, what else) with some regular customers. When I told them the purpose of my stay, one of them pointed at his mate and said: “Blimey, your English is better than his” which, of course, boosted my self-confidence.
The next morning I woke up to find a second guest in my six-bed room. It turned out to be one of my interlocutors of the previous night, incapacitated by an over-enthusiastic intake of Lager.
I made my way to Luton Polytechnic, only to find a message at the Admin Office to call home; it turned out that I had been accepted at the Free University after all: “Come home a.s.a.p. please”.
So unfortunately, my Luton adventure was over before it had properly begun. Much to my regret, The Cooper’s Arms is now a disused Indian restaurant. Luckily, Luton was only the beginning, and not the end, of my adventures across the Channel. Thank you British Council.
A little island right in the middle of the English Channel is probably the location where I would feel most at home. Being born to an English dad and a Dutch mum and having spent equal amounts of time in the Netherlands and the UK, I identify with both countries in equal measure.
As a linguist (I read Classics at the University of Oxford between 2001 and 2005), language has always fascinated me. So from the perspective of the born and bred Amsterdammer, these are my three favourite English words:
1. gibberish (because the sound reflects the meaning so well),
2. chip butty (what an endearing abbreviation of an otherwise unearthly meal of deep-fried chips on buttered bread) and
3. tea (because tea brings people together and mends everything).
Conversely, selecting three Dutch words that stand out from the perspective of being British, these include:
1. fiets (what a simple one-syllable word for such a widespread used mode of transportation and essential part of Dutch culture),
2. “baggerwerkzaamheden” [dredging activities] (as an excellent example of sticking words together to form a new word, its quintessentially Dutch sound and the key role that the Netherlands plays globally in finding solutions for the rise of sea levels) and
3. “Koffietje” [little coffee] (diminutive of the drink that fixes everything).
Appreciating and celebrating each other’s language – such an important building block of any culture – in all its dialects, accents and variations is eye-opening, connecting and fun. Here is to another 75 years of the British Council doing exactly that!
In the nineties I worked as a geography teacher and head of Wolfert’s bilingual department, one of the pioneers in bilingual education in the Netherlands. To immerse our students in the English speaking world and culture, school trips to the UK and Ireland were part of the programme.
I was responsible for the organisation of the very first trip to England. I didn't want a merely standard language course. Instead I wanted the students to work on subjects and projects through which they would acquire the most language. The notion of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) was quite new in those days and I wanted to have a go at it.
A fact-finding mission took me to several language schools and field centres. On a hazy Sunday morning I drove from Harwich to the first field centre, Flatford Mill. Little did I know about the famously historic setting of the mill on the river Stour in Constable Country.
The manager showed me the building, the classrooms and labs. I was impressed with the high level of field work activities they were able to offer and the setting itself. They were clearly years ahead of fieldwork centres in the Netherlands. Then we went for a stroll around the centre and came to the river bank. He stopped, with the autumn haze lingering over the river, and said: “This is where Constable stood with his easel when he painted the mill. Some people, Mr. Philipsen, consider this to be quintessential England”. We parted, I enjoyed an equally quintessential ploughman's lunch in an East Bergholt pub and I drove on to Cambridge.
The ‘Content’ of the course at Flatford Mill was absolutely great. As a geography teacher, I loved it. However, the ‘Language’ component was not addressed sufficiently since it did not include a great deal of interaction with native speakers. In the three decades since my first trip, the school has organised study weeks in Stratford-upon-Avon, Canterbury and Bath. Courses in English literature, a stay with a host family and excursions to cities steeped in history are fine elements of an immersion programme. Still CLIL, albeit with an emphasis on the L.
Last year I visited the excellent Constable exhibition at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem. Between his paintings, etchings large and small, from Suffolk to Salisbury and back, I recognised it immediately: Flatford Mill - and indeed with the same perspective as I had had some 30 years ago. The only difference, of course, was his cloud formation. How quintessential, I thought, for a painting to evoke memories of a lovely Sunday morning, and how happy I was to have stood on the very same spot his easel had been placed two centuries ago.
Are you sure about this?
From 2013 to 2017 I was a minister of the Dutch Church in London. The Church is located at Austin Friars in the City of London. It was founded in 1550 thanks to a Royal Charter granted by Kind Edward VI to Protestant refugees living in London. This Charter gave the Dutch Church the same privileges as the Church of England.
One of these privileges was the right to conduct church weddings in our church. When the British government allowed same-sex weddings by law, the Church of England hierarchy banned their priests from undertaking those weddings. But the Council of the Dutch Church found out that we were able to conduct such ceremonies because of a loophole. Indeed, the Dutch Church minister was not banned from undertaking a same-sex wedding.
In 2016 a lovely couple called John and John, well known by members of our congregation, asked if they could get married in our church. The Church Council invited a leading member of the Church of England to discuss this wedding. It was all very polite. When we left the church, he looked at me very intrusively and asked: ‘Joost, are you sure about this?’ I thanked him for the interest and didn’t give it any more attention. It was only after the wedding that I’d understood that this was not just a polite question. It was indeed full of concerns. But I was sure about it, and thankfully it didn’t compromise our excellent relations with the Church of England.