4 Ways to Get Dutch People to Actually Speak Dutch with You Posted by Jakob Gibbons on May 31, 2016 in Culture, Dutch Language, pronunciation
Every Dutch learner learns this real fast: the hardest thing about learning Dutch is getting Dutch speakers to speak Dutch with you.
Welcome to the linguistic conundrum that is Northern Europe, those wealthy countries along the North Sea where English fluency is upward of 90% and people tend to automatically speak English to foreigners.
I certainly struggled to surmount this language learning obstacle when I moved to the Netherlands in 2012, more than once feeling like just giving up and going with the English-speaking flow. But working on my speaking confidence, cleaning up my pronunciation, and thinking pragmatically about my relationships with Dutch speakers helped me get over the hump and get to fluency.
Getting the Dutch to speak Dutch is more of an art than a science: while there’s no one right answer, there are some guiding principles you can follow to get your desired results. Here are four of them.
#1: Working on Your Speaking Confidence
When you’re nervous about speaking a language, you scream it with your words and your body.
One explanation often given for why the Dutch are so quick to switch to English is out of politeness and cultural sensitivity: a Dutch person sees you struggling to wrap your tongue around their language, and decides to put you at ease by switching to English. Sweet, good-intentioned, and annoying.
To keep from triggering this social politeness switch, do what you can to build up your speaking confidence. Read out loud from books and articles in Dutch and talk to yourself in front of the mirror. Practice everyday conversations with a language parent until you feel comfortable with them in all their natural variations. Learn not to worry about making little mistakes and verbal typos.
Another way you can show speaking confidence is by using opvulsels or filler words in your speech like natives do. “Zullen we gewoon even Nederlands praten?” is a casual and off-handed way to show that you’ve done more than memorize simple phrases like Mogen we Nederlands praten?, and that you’re ready to use your language skills in conversation.
#2: Working on Your Accent
This is one of the more difficult but possibly more rewarding approaches to getting Dutch people to speak Dutch with you.
Especially for those who have lived abroad or in international settings, many young people in the Netherlands and Belgium have a tendency to subconsciously or semi-consciously switch languages when they hear a foreign accent; if you can keep yours from drawing too much attention too soon, you may make it in under the radar long enough to get a sturdy nederlandstalig conversation going.
When I first moved to the Netherlands, I spent hours and hours by myself practicing pronunciation with the IPA to get the basic speech sounds down and make sure I was always understood. Once I spoke more and watched more TV, I was even able to start working on some of the phonetic details that really make you sound Dutch in Dutch.
For developing clear pronunciation, the International Phonetics Alphabet and the TV are your best resources. Soak your brain in the sounds of Dutch and practice your pronunciation long enough and you’ll start finding that you’re usually a minute or two into a conversation before anyone ever realizes you’re not from around here.
#3: Training good language partners
A lot of communication is habit: we talk one way with our mom, one way with our friends, and another with our professors or employers, and we never really mix up the slang and sound of one with those of another.
Different languages are the same: most of the time two people fall into speaking the language they’re most used to speaking, and that linguistic inertia builds up over time. It’s hard to take a friendship that’s already existed in English for a year and suddenly translate it into another language, but it’s a lot easier to begin that relationship on your own linguistic terms.
Assertiveness is key: get people used to speaking Dutch with you. Be the first to say hello, but make it a firm goedemiddag or a hoe is ie? When you’re in a mixed group and you make a quick aside statement meant just for your Dutch friend, switch smoothly into Dutch for those two swift sentences. When the last non-Dutch speaker leaves the party, you pick the next topic of conversation, and make sure you’re ready to discuss it in Dutch.
Eventually, with enough practice and persistence, you’ll bully most of your friends into speaking Dutch with you by overwhelming them with your neurotic insistence on speaking the language whenever possible. Make it easier for them to just speak Dutch than to wage linguistic warfare every time you see them!
#4: Meet them halfway
It’s frustrating when you want to learn another language but someone keeps answering you in yours. Just remember: sometimes this can be irritating for your Dutch friends too.
Most young people in the Netherlands speak quite good English, and for those who’d like to improve, the cultural prestige of good English normally keeps them from admitting their language insecurities. But now and then you’ll find people are sincerely excited at the opportunity to speak English with a native speaker or another foreigner, and you should remember that, for all the help you’re expecting from the Dutch with your own language learning, you’re uniquely positioned to help some of your friends with theirs as well.
Remember not to be a selfish language partner: if it seems like some of your friends just want to practice their English, strive for a 50/50 language balance.
If all else fails, don’t hesitate to try a bit of Nederlandse directheid on for size: just tell people directly that you prefer to speak Dutch. Whatever you do, don’t let all the English get you down, because as soon as you’ve got people actually speaking the language with you, the hardest part is already over!