language barrier netherlands

Crossing the Language Barrier in the Netherlands

By Juliane Glahn

Internationals coming to the Netherlands are struggling to integrate into Dutch society until they learn the language. But improving language skills is hard if there is no one to practice with.

“I felt really isolated before I learned the language,” Samantha MacKenzie (24) says.

Originally from Canada, she moved to the Netherlands two years ago to be with her boyfriend. Living in a small village where most of the population is older and unable to speak English, she could barely communicate with others. Often MacKenzie relied on her partner to help her with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping. “It was a big loss of independence for me.”

Ashley Richardson (33), a migrant from the U.S., agrees that learning Dutch helped her integrate more into her country of choice. “You can get away with English in places like Amsterdam or other international places such as Groningen,” she says. But in order to form connections with citizens, speaking Dutch is important.

Even though the two are constantly surrounded by Dutch and learned it through language courses at the University of Groningen, native speakers’ desire to be helpful often got in their way of practicing. “A lot of Dutch people speak really good English,” Richardson says.

MacKenzie always tries to speak Dutch, but “if I hesitate at all, then everyone switches to English.”

Especially in grocery stores, cashiers are quick to address customers in English if they notice the person is not a native speaker.

This is a phenomenon that Maarten Sijpkes (52) vowed to counter. Many internationals come to his stand ‘Stropiewafel’ at the Vismarkt in Groningen, where he sells the popular traditional Dutch treat. When non-natives order in Dutch, he responds in Dutch as much as possible. “You learn through speaking,” Sijpkes says. He doesn’t want to stop people from learning the language but rather encourage them.

He even teaches his customers who don’t speak any Dutch some words: When two girls approach his stand and ask for a “waffle” in English, he tells them the proper pronunciation of the sweet. The rest of the exchange between the three is bilingual. “Geniet,” Sijpkes says while handing over the stroopwafels, “enjoy.”

“More and more internationals are trying to speak Dutch to me,” he says, adding, “here they can at least learn a few basic words.”