Dutch Language Blog

Elementary School 2.0! Posted by on Jan 9, 2014 in Culture, Dutch Language, Dutch Vocabulary

Helemaal in het Engels

In the Netherlands, a bill is proposed to let schools teach 15% of their lessen (classes) in another taal (language). Helemaal (completely). Especially English is attractive for many schools, because it is used everywhere. It is on TV, in movies, on the internet, and basically all around the small state. It is a tiny country that is very dependent on export and trade. Rotterdam has the biggest haven (port) of Europe and fourth largest in the world. Much of what is imported goes through the Netherlands to other countries in Europe. Handel (trade) requires a common language. This is why the emphasis in the Netherlands was on German for a long time, since the oosterburen (the neighbors in the east) are the largest trading partner. But it is a tough language, and not so present in the life of a Dutch leerling (student). English is. So now, why not go with English?

Ontzettend Belangrijk

Sander Dekker, the staatssecretaris (junior minister) of education that proposed the bill, said that “we are an open economy, we earn our money often in foreign countries.” You meet many people that speak foreign languages, no matter where you work. Learning foreign languages is “ontzettend belangrijk” (incredibly important) for leerlingen, since in the end it can improve the competitive position of the Netherlands in the world economy.



For now, it will be a test for five years, to see how it goes. Twelve basisscholen (elementary schools) participate in this test. Half of all lessen may be taught in English. That is more than in the bill, because Mr. Dekker sees himself that this is a very far-going step. Many leraren (teachers) don’t speak English as well as they should to teach their class entirely in English. And, even though the leerlingen ought to learn the language, it is questionable that they know the language already that well to have their entire class taught in another tongue. 


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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.


  1. Mark:

    Problem is that dutch people think they know english, but they do not. Most teachers will not be able to do this correctly.
    The consequense is that the students will be tought wrong.
    I am a Dutch and lived in the USA for almost 18 years and run a business that requires me to communicate with Dutch people a lot.

    • Sten:

      @Mark That is true to a certain extent. You are correct that most teachers do not have the level of English themselves in order to teach in the language. However, in comparison to other countries the Dutch do pretty well – as they should. I think this step is quite radical, and schools are not ready for it yet. That is why I am glad it is merely tested first, before making it bigger. What kind of business are you in Mark? I am just interested 🙂 And how did you get to emigrating to the USA?

  2. J. Koning:

    Mark, first of all I would like to remind you, that in the USA they speak SLANG English, not the Queens English, and there is a big difference. And that is what is taught in the Neth.
    When I came to the US 37 years ago, I thought I was doing ok with my English from England, not so, I got laughed at and made fun at.
    And even in school in the Neth. I got reprimanded, any time I used a slang pronunciation instead of English, even have been send into the hall,so I would not corrupt the class with my slang language.
    And comparing the Dutch with other Nationalities, I think they do great in English AND other languages, and I spoke to MANY people from many different countries.
    I’m Dutch born, speak the language of course very well, so I know what I’m talking about.
    Have you ever had the chance to go to a ESL class, most of the Teachers, speak only 1 language, and have no idea what it is to learn anew language and think if they speak loud enough, foreigners will understand, which is Not the case.Er is verschil tussen horen en begrijpen.
    Dutch people are very tolerant with foreigners, here you get laughed at for trying to speak “English”.
    So each country has his/her ways and faults, just help them out when they come here, you know what they mean, or trying to express, and they can take their experience back with them and teach others also.

    • Sten:

      @J. Koning The difference in that is true as well, Jannette, but which people Mark is in touch with could of course be different than the ones you are talking about. In GENERAL, you can say the Dutch speak a pretty good English, but some really do not. So do not fall out too much against him 😉 You know, after I returned from the US, and really adapted much of the Southern sprawl (where I’ve lived for a year), many people actually liked that English more. I am not saying that is not what they are taught, because you are absolutely right. Schools do teach the Queens English. A bit harsh you were sent in the hall for that… I have the feeling many prefer the American English over Queens. Do you see that trend too?

  3. Ingmar:

    I am not sure if the Dutch English is really all that bad. I think it is pretty good, especially when compared to the English of other foreigners. I think it mostly only SOUNDS a bit bad, because of the distinctive Dutch accent that people will have. That is something you overcome after practice, not something that can be taught in school.
    An education is supposed to give you the basic tools on a subject, not make you an expert at it. Just like you don’t really learn how to drive until AFTER you obtain your licence, not really learn how to build houses until AFTER you start the job.

  4. Kevin:

    Hope I don’t upset too many people with this post!
    As a professional native-English translator, I have to agree with the people who think most Dutch teachers won’t be up to the job. It isn’t just a matter of accent, or American versus British English (sorry, not ‘slang’ versus ‘the Queen’s English’, as someone said – American English is just as acceptable as British English, and ‘the Queen’s English’ now sounds ridiculously pompous and old-fashioned to most people). A perfect accent is something you can hardly acquire once you’re an adult. I started seriously speaking Dutch when I moved to Holland over 30 years ago, at the age of 31, and I now speak it so well that I’m often told I speak it better than many native-speakers (and I never get my -d’s and -t’s wrong). But I can’t get rid of that slight English accent – and many Dutch-speakers pick me up on that, as if that’s the main point about speaking a language and as if I ‘should have got rid of it’ by now (another reason, I suspect, why Turkish and Moroccan immigrants are so often mocked for the way they speak Dutch). I’m sorry, this simply isn’t the way language-learning works.

    But it isn’t Dutch people’s accents that are the main problem when they speak English (though I’ve never yet heard a Dutch person – even Queen Beatrix – who hasn’t got at least some trace of a Dutch accent). Much more serious is the fact that they don’t know the grammar particularly well. They make constant mistakes with verb tenses (simple past vs. present perfect, present vs. future, present continuous vs. present simple). They invent English of their own, then use it in English as if it were correct (‘happy end’, ‘trainings’). They say, and write, literally translated things like ‘Welcome in Holland’. They forget to use short verb forms like ‘aren’t’ and ‘doesn’t’ when they invent English advertising slogans, which then sound stilted and unnatural – a typical example being Vodafone’s latest poster ‘We are going on a summer holiday’, something no native English-speaker would actually say (the original Cliff Richard song text is ‘We’re all going on a summer holiday’). Of course everyone knows what they mean – at least, most of the time – but that doesn’t make it correct English. And if you’re going to teach in English, it should be correct English.

    Sure, Dutch-speakers generally speak better English than most other Europeans – but the Scandinavians are at least as good (the Danes tend to be better, and Queen Margrethe does speak English without a foreign accent – but I think she went to school in Britain). And other nations are catching up fast – it’s simply no longer true that most French and Spanish people can’t speak English, or that most Germans speak bad English. I’m afraid many Dutch-speakers are tending to rest on their laurels here – and the laurels are getting a bit withered with all those people lying on them!

    As for English being an easy language compared with ‘tough’ German, I disagree – its pronunciation is an unpredictable nightmare, it’s got far more irregularities, and above all there are key syntactic differences from both Dutch and German. It’s a far harder language than most Dutch people seem to realise.

    So expecting untrained Dutch-speakers to teach other Dutch-speakers through English is asking for trouble – for it’s based on a widespread misconception of how languages work, and how people learn them. I expect the quality of Dutch education will suffer as a result. And I can’t agree that an education is only supposed to give you ‘the basic tools’ on a subject – it should go further than that, without necessarily making you an expert (although I was already quite an expert on languages when I left school). Learning to drive is surely a very different matter – it’s a low-grade skill compared with, say, learning a foreign language or maths (which is why it takes so much less time to learn). It’s more on a par with touch-typing. Of course you learn more as your life progresses, though plenty of people seem not to do that in the specific case of driving! But you need a more fundamental grounding than just ‘the basic tools’. Without that, it’s hard to catch up later.

  5. Mrs Joan Hannon:

    I am British born and bred. I think many Americans speak good English .Written American often uses a slightly different spelling to the original English spelling .