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Why the Dutch speak American English well

On a recent trip we were struck by the fact that virtually every Dutch tourist industry service worker we encountered spoke idiomatic fluent "American" English, almost like they were native speakers. We were curious, because of course we've encountered many good European English-speakers, but in other countries they usually don't sound like they were born in the US.

So I asked one of these American-speaking locals why he spoke "American" so well. And this is what he said: Because The Netherlands and Belgium are relatively small TV markets, when he was a child, the Dutch TV networks didn't dub over with Dutch the American sound-track of American TV programs shown in The Netherlands. He said this resulted in the Dutch children focusing on the spoken American, especially those not yet old enough to read the Dutch subtitles (presumably the Flemish subtitles in northern Belgium or possibly French subtitles in Wallonia or Brussels).

Combine the above explanation with the scientific theories (this is what I've read, I claim no expertise in this subject) that the younger human brain is especially good at absorbing spoken language. In effect, you had a pervasive American language lab occurring in The Netherlands and Belgium.

Since I returned from Belgium/Netherlands a few weeks ago, I've done a little informal research on "why the Dutch and Belgians speak such good American." Naturally, there are other reasons for this, such as: residents of Belgium and Netherlands are given English classes in high school (but these may be in "British" English, along with German and French language training. Also as residents of small countries, the locals find it particularly useful to acquire English language skills for business or other reasons. Then let's not forget the regional linguistic and cultural division of the country we call Belgium between Flemish, Wallonia (French), German (apparently in a couple of areas of eastern Belgium); and bi-lingual Brussels.

Posted by
6543 posts

They've been watching American television all their lives. They used to speak with an English accent--watching English television and listening to English radio channels.
English is the dominant language of the world now. You can often hear Europeans speaking to each other practicing their English.

Whenever older people cannot communicate with us, I'll speak English to the youngsters and they can converse very often.

Posted by
2046 posts

As an addition to the the concept that the human brain is a sponge fro language acquisition up through the age of 7 or 8, also consider music and chess. Most of the greatest musicians and chess players started at a very early age. It has been stated that the young brain treats processes both chess and music as a language.

Posted by
51 posts

I have wondered the same thing and have also been told about watching American TV that is not dubbed, so many hear an American accent at an early age. English is also taken seriously in countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Not like in the US where kids take, for example, two years of French because that’s required by the university. Then they’re out because they’ve completed that college admission requirement.

Posted by
15578 posts

Hopping on a bus at Haarlem station, I decided to be super-polite and started with "Do you speak English?" The driver gave me a quizzical look and said, "Of course I speak English. I'm Dutch."

Posted by
12103 posts

On the speaking of a foreign language by Belgians and the Dutch or Europeans in general, my interpretation is if that they can master a foreign language well enough to speak it, then Americans can certainly do likewise. Why shouldn't we? In Europe I don't like relying on my interlocutor level of English in order to communicate. What if s/he is relying on your level of a foreign language to communicate.

I don't believe that one's language acquisition skills decline after the age of 8. It's all a matter of your priorities if you want to acquire a foreigh language or not.

Posted by
248 posts

I think there are scientific studies re age and the probability of speaking a non-native language without an accent. It sure makes sense after you've heard how the Dutch and Belgians speak American English as if they'd grown up in the US. Even though the Germans are good linguists, to my ear they generally speak English with at least a little accent; and unlike the Belgians/Dutch, American TV programs there are (presumably) dubbed into German with English subtitles, distinctly different than the Belgian/Dutch situation.

Posted by
12103 posts

I remember in 1982 when I didn't have a TV, not even a portable, and heard on the radio the news regarding the winner of the national Spelling Bee contest. That final scene was replayed where the winner, the 13 year old girl, having been told the word spelled it out correctly in her strong, "thick" eastern (Chattanooga ) Tennessee accent. Upon hearing that accent, I immediately assumed that winner was a white Tennessee girl.

Totally wrong ... I found out shortly after she was Cambodian, originally a child who had survived the horrific refugee camps prior to being adopted by an American family, obviously in TN, where she developed that unmistakable native east TN accent. This girl had only been in the US three years and had mastered English to such a degree as to enter the national Spelling Bee and ended up beating out all the other contestants.

One picks up the accent when learning foreign language due to various factors...your age is only one factor but not the paramount one, the environment, your teachers/tutors, your ear for languages, the accent of those you "hang" out with, the amount of time devoted to the daily grind of plugging away at the language, ie listening and imitating, and so on.

Posted by
398 posts

I once met a young man in Japan who was from the Philippines but was attending Japanese university. He had an incredible American accent but he had never been to the US. He said he hung around America GIs.

Posted by
3951 posts

I find most non-native English speakers speak English with an American twang wherever they're from.

Posted by
70 posts

From Denmark: I can confirm that the main reason Dutch, Belgian and Scandinavian people speak with a quite distinct American accent is because of exposure to US language via television. You will also notice, that the older generation tends to speak more British, as British English is the variant taught at school. Also, you will notice that American vocabulary is often used rather than British. People will say gas station instead of petrol station and fries instead of chips. In continental Europe, chips are American chips/British crisps.

Posted by
694 posts

Fred,
Can you please list a source for the information you are sharing? I know you are bright but I would like to know the evidence supporting the "facts" you are reporting.

Posted by
5032 posts

Well I can't provide peer-reviewed references, but I do recall hearing from language teachers that people who learn a foreign language before about age twelve can learn to speak without a "foreign" accent but after that it is extremely difficult. Some complicated sounds just can't be made easily unless you learn them young (like pronouncing the German "Ich", and adults get trapped into thinking that written letters can only be pronounced the way they already know.

Posted by
2738 posts

dubbed over into Belgian

Of course there's no language "Belgian," and I think you are referring to Flemings only, not the native French-speaking Belgians. I've found that the Danish have the least accented English in Europe, at least the middle-aged population.

And by "American" you mean the violet and green shaded areas on this map https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/18nppzbphonc3jpg which includes much of Canada.

Posted by
4654 posts

I once complemented a Dutch person on her English and was told "well, we have to learn English because we're a small country and no-one else speaks Dutch".

I think that is probably the key reason rather than any unconscious one.

Posted by
12103 posts

I don't know the source if you are referring the 1982 national Spelling Bee event. I know where I was at that particular moment in 1982 when I heard the news of that girl winning over the radio and which AM radio station it was. Her bio info I found out later.

On the learning of foreign languages, if you're asking about that, I am basing my observations on personal experiences, what I've encountered in seeing others learn German in particular, eg, I listen to/hone in on their accents, their tone, whether the is grammar is correct, idiomatic/slang expressions, certain phonetic sounds linguistically that will betray you as an anglophone speaker, the age when the person took up German and with what type of seriousness the person undertook to pursue it, ie, basically a level needed as a tourist (in my view that's not good enough) or a more serous, deeper study to get it as fluent as they can in writing, reading as well as in speaking, also whether the person studied it in college and how much, how long, or was an exchange student, plus at what age, whether the person has an ear for tones as languages have their tones, (obviously some are defined as tonal languages, etc. . These are just some of the determining factors.

Obviously, I'm not forgetting who you "hung" out with while you were trying to acquire and develop the speech patterns and accent to get it as native as possible.

Posted by
2814 posts

I once complemented a Dutch person on her English and was told "well, we have to learn English because we're a small country and no-one else speaks Dutch".

I had the identical conversation with a Dutch person in Amsterdam about 40 years ago.

As to learning another language, it's pretty clear from studies, as well as personal and family observations, that young children learn languages much more easily. Language instruction in America is pretty poor, and tends to start too late. I took Spanish for 5 years starting in junior high, and after 5 years I couldn't even carry on a conversation. Starting when I was I was in my 40's I tried to learn French, and put a lot of effort into it. Alas, I never even came close to being fluent, and now I'm worse than ever.

Posted by
248 posts

Thanks to those commenting on this--I've learned a lot reading the commentary. There usually doesn't seem to be this much commentary in the Trip Reports section!

So thanks to everyone, I learned from each. I found the comments of chrismo1 of Denmark to confirm my initial thoughts.

And I certainly agree with Tom for his note clarifying that, really, there is no "Belgian" language, which was the term I first used in my post (before changing it). When I first wrote the post, I actually didn't know what one word I could use to describe the 3 or 4 main native languages spoken by the people living in the area/country we presently call Belgium. "Flemish" would only have referred to the northern part of the country, whereas I read French is the main "native" language only in "southern" Belgium. And then there's bilingual Brussels, where we heard mostly French being spoken (and I think the street signs were in French as well).

Perhaps this is another reason the TV systems in Belgium don't dub over American TV programs in another language--they don't know what language to dub the American into?!

Posted by
6810 posts

Tale of two friends who left Hungary for France in 1956 during the uprising, from the same village, both 14. She came with her nuclear family and spoke Hungarian at home. Despite that she has spoken unaccented, fluent French almost from the beginning. On the other hand, he escaped Hungary alone, went into a French adoptive family, joined the French Foreign Legion and married a Corsican. To this day his accent is nearly incomprehensible. Go figure. Too many variables.

As for age and ability--there is an age where a different part of the brain takes over for second, third etc language learning. So you access it differently from first and second languages learned as an infant and toddler.

Language is fascinating and yes, the people from the Netherlands have always been amazing and have known for centuries, way before TV, that their economic survival depends on being polyglot. FYI, their French is impeccable, too.

Posted by
4028 posts

Some years ago we were in Haarlem, and I asked the baker "Spreekt u engels?" ( do you speak English) and he replied "Doesn't everyone?"

Posted by
3283 posts

In response to the bus driver who said, of course I speak English, I'm Dutch. We shared a taxi into the center of Amsterdam with another couple. Taxi driver was about 50. I'm not sure where the other couple was staying but we were staying on a canal pretty close to the train station. So a pretty common tourist destination. It was interesting that the taxi cab driver couldn't speak English. Fortunately, the wife of the other couple was born in the Netherlands and explained in Dutch where we needed to go. We were concerned about how we would manage for the remainder of our Amsterdam stay without our translator. Well, no concerns because everyone else we ran into spoke English, it even seemed to be "midwest U.S. English".

Posted by
248 posts

After TV really got going in the US, with most families having one (yes, there was a time when...), the professors who study such things said that within a generation of TV being in every home, something the experts called "standard American" or "California accent American" was being listened to by children on TV. Commentators in many states were, apparently, trained to speak this "standard American." And this contributed to regional US dialects becoming less pronounced.

Posted by
7146 posts

CT, so glad to see you corrected your title... : )

I’ve heard the same explanation (TV and movies) from Europeans in general that speak American English very well.

Posted by
1843 posts

Since someone asked for Fred's source (his mind is quite good...just a year off....very impressive, nonetheless):

A Google search finds People Magazine that reports she won county-wide in 1983. A young person from Colorado won in 1982. But, darn, Fred, a heck of a good memory, and your point is still very valid. And, if we Google further, maybe we could watch the film referenced in the People Magazine article. But, sounds as if she got to the nationals but did not actually win, at least not at the time of the article.

https://people.com/archive/a-cambodian-teen-triumphs-as-a-chattanooga-word-wiz-vol-25-no-8/

Posted by
248 posts

Susan, thanks, since the topic is about language, I thought I should at least strive to be reasonably grammatical. :-)

Posted by
7146 posts

That’s why I was happy to see your correction... : )

Posted by
293 posts

Fred's German is also almost flawless!

well, having lived in Belgium for 4 years, my impression was that the Flemish citizens spoke pretty good, almost idiomatic English. But the Wallonians didn't - that was the French-speaking area. Also it was a little less affluent, and tends to have a lot of influence from France.

Posted by
12103 posts

@ Maggie...Thanks for the correction on the exact year, good to know.

@ Shelley...Thanks for the compliment,.. wish that were true all the time. Ich fühle mich sowieso geschmeichelt.

When you take the Thalys train through Belgium, the announcements are made in French, German, English, Dutch, and Flemish.

Posted by
2487 posts

... the announcements are made in French, German, English, Dutch, and Flemish
Flemish is Dutch.

Posted by
12103 posts

Thanks tom...but it sounds that there are 5 languages, one of which sounds very close to Dutch. I can easily recognise 4 but what is the 5th one?

Posted by
12103 posts

@ tom...When the 5 multi-lingual announcements are made, I listen to and understand the German and English, obviously, and usually, but not always, the French or some of it. Of the other 2 languages I recognise one is Dutch, the other one I had always thought was Flemish because it sounded very similar to Dutch but still different.

Could it be a dialect which sounds like Dutch? What other language could it be when going through Belgium?

I can see the reason for giving the announcement in French and German since the Thalys train ends up in Germany (I was taking the northern route from France to Germany) and also because of Eupen, and obviously, English, the lingua franca.

Posted by
2487 posts

It is a mystery to me. Standard Flemish hardly differs from the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands. Some Flemish dialects are difficult to understand for outsiders (and even get subtitles on the Belgian Flemish television), but I cannot imagine it being used in the formal setting of a railway station.

Posted by
1463 posts

Have no idea why anouncing 5 languages, may be it was a local dialect anounced for fun, or a Belgian “uitslover” (show-off) who made the anouncement, can be possible too. :)

Officially in both countries we should speak Dutch, but in daily life there are some differences between Dutch and Flemish as tonfromleiden already says. In the Netherlands we are much influenced by the English language and in Flanders there is to a certain degree the French influence. For instance for buying a car you go to the “dealer” (obvious where it comes from) in the Netherlands, in Flanders to a “verdeler” and comes literally from the French “distributeur”, so distributor in English. It’s actually the same, just a different use of words.

Posted by
248 posts

From Denmark: I can confirm that the main reason Dutch, Belgian and
Scandinavian people speak with a quite distinct American accent is
because of exposure to US language via television. You will also
notice, that the older generation tends to speak more British, as
British English is the variant taught at school.

The above quote is from the post of chrismo1 of Denmark (the boldface is mine).
Based on it, I have 2 questions for chrismo1, any of the British residents on this site, or anyone else who knows:

1) Is British English taught at Belgian, Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries' schools because British native speakers, as instructors, are (obviously) readily available (just across the channel in the case of Belgium and The Netherlands)?

2) When British speakers visit these countries, as tourists, is it their experience that the locals speak to them in British English; whereas my experience is that I was immediately recognized as American and invariably spoken to in idiomatic American English?

Posted by
5817 posts

I have been working a lot with the Netherlands police recently and I can't say I noticed they were speaking with either a British or American accent. They just sound "Dutch". Certain words are pronounced in a particularly "Dutch" way.
Everyone I am dealing with is in their 40s so maybe they are more "British" in sound and that is why I haven't noticed anything.
They definitely don't sound American.

Posted by
248 posts

Emma, you relate an interesting twist on the continuing saga of "Belgians and Dutch speaking idiomatic English."
The locals with whom I had contact on my recent trip, those who spoke idiomatic American English, were all under 40 and all working in the tourist service industry. Also, I suppose it's possible the police with whom you've been interacting realized you were a British speaker, in which case responding in idiomatic American would not make sense, even if they otherwise would have been inclined to do so.

Posted by
5817 posts

I think you might be over thinking it :-)
They were speaking the English they had learnt/been taught.
I'm not sure they would ever think " this an American word I had better change it for these British English speakers". I'm not sure they would even do it sub-consciously

Maybe they did sound american, but I don't think I would even notice. There accents were distinctively Dutch and British English speakers, like me, are surrounded by American English in the media as well.

In the UK a generational accent change has been identified where an upward inflection at the end of sentences is particularly common amongst the under 30s. It makes people sound like everything a question. The has been put down to the increase in Australian TV programmes, especially soaps, after the end of the 1980s.

Posted by
12103 posts

My experience in hearing the 5 languages on the Thalys train is based on several rides going back and forth between France and Germany during various trips. The last time was in 2009 or 2007, since I don't use that northern route anymore going between Germany and France and vice versa, thus, avoiding the Thalys train.

I home in on train announcements to see which languages I can recognise and understand or just recognise by their sounds.

Obviously, Dutch, French, German, and English are easily recognizable. The 5th one I had assumed was Flemish, ie the Dutch spoken in Belgium, if it differs from the standard Dutch spoken in Holland.

Thanks for the information, Wil and tomfromleiden

Posted by
4028 posts

Emma, so-called "uptalking" is common in the States, as well, especially among younger people.

Posted by
12103 posts

I would add that depends when you met these Germans under 40. If in the 21st century, that's true in western Germany, assuming they would want to speak English with you in the first place. In 1987 I met the husband of a German female friend with whom I had kept in contact since 1971, he was 33 or so, was a professional auto mechanic (I saw his diploma or whatever they call it) This husband did not know English at all, never had instruction in the language, was afraid he had to speak English with me. His wife reassured him that would not be the case.

This was in western Germany in the lower Rhine area. The woman friend had gone to a Berufsschule, was 33 in 1987 and said to me something to this effect, "you expect me to still know English which I had almost 20 years ago at 15 and 16 and still know it. well enough to speak it?" I said , of course not....good point

Posted by
971 posts

Is British English taught at Belgian, Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries' schools because British native speakers, as instructors, are (obviously) readily available (just across the channel in the case of Belgium and The Netherlands)

No, English is not taught by native speakers for the most part, teachers in Denmark for example are usually Danish or at least Danish speakers, who have studied English. To be able to teach English in Danish schools, you need to speak Danish as well as English (and be a qualified teacher). I think the pool of people who meet these criteria is far bigger among the Danish population than among the imported native English speakers from across the North Sea :-)
When I was taught English in school some 20 years ago, British English was the standard "correct" way to speak English. I even had a teacher that suggested I could improve my pronunciation by adopting a British accent.

Posted by
1167 posts

Fred, thanks to a insight.

Anyway I was a slightly bummed when I tried speaking French in Paris ... I butchered it up no doubt by the bemused look on some faces.

Posted by
12103 posts

@ bigmike...I assume this is correct (it may not be) but I was told in the early 1980s by a German woman doing her internship in a bank here in SF that in 1978 a law was passed in west Germany stipulating that English was now mandatory in secondary ed. Those German kids I met in the hostels in the 1970s had already English knowledge, obviously, those at the Gymnasium since they were university bound.

I remember my first time asking a German who knew I was from CA if he spoke English (this was in Osnabrück) on my first trip over in 1971. I was 21, this guy was in his early 30s. He said, "unfortunately not." (leider nicht) Obviously, this guy never had English when he was in secondary ed. He was working class, a bread delivery truck driver. I felt bad having put the guy in an embarrassing situation. My policy after that example was if "they" don't mention it, I don't ask unless the person is multi-lingual.

Hey, you're not the only one messing up with French on that occasion, I've been there too.

Posted by
4822 posts

Several thoughts....

My thoughts about the Dutch and English:
- I start with the observation that very few people will learn a relatively minority language, so the Dutch have learned other languages as a matter of survival. Many I know, in addition to English, speak German; as you get onto Belgium, German gives way to French (and of course a great deal of Belgians speak French as their primary language)
- Why English? English is the most commonly spoke second language and
in many places is the default business language.

Americans and second languages:

Speaking and maintaining a second language often comes down to necessity and opportunity. Many Europeans speak multiple languages because business demands so in border areas and is an advantage in larger corporations (especially English). They also have the opportunity to use a number of languages, just in the course of the day.
For us Americans, learning the basics of a language is no issue, but practical usage can be a problem and opportunities limited in the course of the day. Of course in many places in the US, Mexican Spanish can be easily used; In parts of Canada, Canadian French, and in larger cities everywhere, you can find pockets of other languages; but to learn a language and maintain it by regularly speaking it with others can be a challenge.
Compounding the issue is the very commonality of English. When travelling, even trying results in the locals changing to English. More than once I have seen German tourists in Italy trying to communicate with an Italian waiter, only to having both switching to English. I usually in the course of a couple weeks regain enough Italian or Spanish to read OK, understand some, and speak enough to be polite, but I really do not ever envision being "fluent".

Posted by
12103 posts

"maintaining a second language...necessity and opportunity." That's certainly one way of looking at it. I don't share that view.

I would suggest determination too, or call it persistence. One may ask why? There is always the answer "why not?" or "I don't know." How do those Americans with achieved fluency or, at least, proficiency in a second or third language or even a 4th one maintain that level? What I mean in "proficiency" is speaking, as well as reading and writing.

Yes, English is the lingua franca, certainly in business, banking, plus tourism. That conversation I related under "Bosnia-Herzegovina" with that young Serb woman (she was in her earlier 40s) was one where we talked with the other totally non-English Serbs using a common language. In the course of the conversation, I asked her which languages she spoke...obviously, her native one Serbian, also German, Russian, and not so well, Italian. Certainly, 3 fluently and a 4th not as well, ie, certainly multi-lingual but English was not one of them.

Bottom line here it all depends on what you're after as to priorities...here foreign language acquisition, be it Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, Polish, Japanese, French or Mandarin Chinese.

Posted by
933 posts

If I was Dutch I know I'd be upset with all that English flying around.

Out of interest, do certain provinces in the Netherlands speak English in Boston slang, while others may use a Texas drawl or a Tennessee twang?

Emma, I read somewhere that the smartest officials in the Netherlands speak English with a Canadian accent. Is this true?

Posted by
1463 posts

Gundersen you are right, nowadays too many Dutch use too much English, sometimes completely annoying. Dutch speaking Boston slang or Texas drawl, have no idea about that?

I have to dig very deep into my memory, but I am brought up in the 60’s with all those feelgood TV series like Lassie, Batman (Adam West), The Monkees, Thunderbirds and so on, all subtitled and sooner or later I got to start picking up words and tried to imitate them even I had most of the time not a clue what they were meaning. And above all I wanted to know more about my hero’s, living in fantastic places, so that strange language they spoke was interesting too. Thanks to subtitling I got in touch with a foreign language from early on. Kids in France and Germany had to see only the dubbed version, their heroes sounded very unnatural and to my opinion lesser interesting, they missed something for sure.

Nowadays I look almost everyday to Pointless on BBC, easy to follow and a good way to keep my English in good shape in the process.

Posted by
5032 posts

Computers, the internet, and cultural export vehicles such as Netflix, YouTube, etc., no doubt have an impact on homogenizing English across the world, .accelerating the trend from movies and TV that started it. Too bad so many Americans speak English so poorly, unlike Canadians.

Posted by
5817 posts

Gunderson, as I almost certainly don't hang out with the smartest Dutch officials I couldn't comment on whether they sound Canadian or not. I am also probably the wrong person to ask as I have never met a Dutch person who I thought sounded American! :-)

The English langauge and pronunciation, has always changed and developed, with huge amounts of variety in even the smallest area. It's one of its best features. It will be a very long time before it is even slightly homogenous.

Posted by
248 posts

I have certainly been impressed with how well the locals in the UK speak English. When I go out of my way to compliment them on their English, I don't know why I get such odd looks. Maybe they don't understand my accent?

Posted by
8293 posts

Why would you compliment a British person for speaking English so well? It is their language. Or are you making a sly joke?

Posted by
248 posts

Norma,
Uhm, it was an (apparently failed) attempt at humor.
(The same thing happens to me in Canada.)

Posted by
8293 posts

Ah,so ........ yes, it did fail, but in retrospect, that was my fault. If you want language problems, you should come to Quebec.

Posted by
248 posts

Norma,
No worries.
And I have been to Quebec and from that experience think I have some idea of what you mean about the Quebec language problems. I found Quebec fascinating to visit, a unique place in N. America.

Posted by
248 posts

BTW, I just rec'd Rick's November Travel News e-mail which selected this Forum Topic as this month's Forum Discussion of the Month.

Posted by
42 posts

Norma. In the movie "My Fair Lady", when former flower girl Eliza Doolittle is introduced to society after her makeover, a sleazy linguist chats her up to divine her origins. He subsequently declares that she can not be English because her English is too good: the English, he declares, do not study it in school. Rather, she must be foreign, and not only foreign, but of royal blood. As I recall, that got a laugh in the theatre.
Regarding learning English at a young age: quite a few years ago I read in "Scientific American" of a study on the subject. It was found that if children were introduced to another language at a very young age they learned it easily and retained the ability to learn other languages. If they were not exposed to another language until later [ unfortunately I do not remember the ages ] it appeared that they had largely lost the facility; which perhaps explains why my French is so poor and my Spanish no more than rudimentary. I have occasionally encountered people who seemed to be exceptions to this. I assume that some people have a talent for languages, just as some have a talent for music or mathematics.
I understand your reference to Quebec. I used to live in Montreal, I now live on the west coast. It is nice to be where one's language, whatever that may be, seldom doubles as a political brickbat.

Posted by
2 posts

Twenty years ago I ordered a Dutch phrase book from the consulate in Chicago and bravely tried to at least greet waiters, B & B hosts, etc . They jumped in with English because my Dutch was probably painful for them to hear. In 2013 I did say "good morning" to the customs agent and he was just blown away. Taxi drivers in Barcelona gave me huge smiles when I said "hello" in Catalan. Even though so many Europeans do speak English, I still like to try the basics in the language of the country I'm visiting.

Posted by
248 posts

cjmiller,
We are like you and try to learn the basic politeness phrases of the local language, we have previously assumed that such attempts are polite, even if the locals quickly switch to English.

However, in my trip research for the recent Netherlands-Belgium trip, I was surprised to see that more than a few websites essentially said or implied that, in their opinion, it should not be a priority for visitors to try to learn even a few basic "politeness" phrases for travel in these two countries. I had not seen such frank advice on travel websites related to other countries.

One or two websites even said the Dutch and Flemish locals were, frankly, "not going to be impressed" by even modest attempts to correctly pronounce the basic politeness phrases, and these websites recommended just opening conversations in English 100% of the time.

This advice flew in the face of everything we had experienced in European travels in other countries. And when my wife said "thank you" in Dutch, the waitress actually did seem to appreciate the attempt.

However, I must say we did find Dutch, and the Flemish variation of it, to be more difficult to learn to pronounce correctly, even the basic politeness phrases, than French, Spanish, or Italian.

Language was not an issue for us on the trip. The locals working in the tourist industry were quick to switch to surprisingly idiomatic English, and has been mentioned above. Go figure.

Posted by
12 posts

The Portuguese people and their language may be in a similar position as a “minority” language, at least on the Iberian Peninsula. In email “conversation” with a Portuguese man who was handling some logistics for an upcoming trip, I noticed that his usage seemed American rather than British. When I asked him about this, he said: “Our TV is (contrary to other European countries) always showing movies, TV series and even cartoons when I was a kid, in the original language – most of the times American English. Hearing it, it got stuck on me and I do prefer it over the (snobbier) British English.” When I got to Portugal and spoke with him by phone his accent was distinctly American. Most of the other Portugese who spoke English with me had American-sounding accents. One notable exception was in Coimbra, where a fado singer spoke with a decidedly upper-crust British accent and usage.

Posted by
248 posts

Bill,
The Portuguese man to whom you refer said the same thing as the Dutch waiter I describe in the Original Post, re the effect of undubbed American TV on Dutch children.

Posted by
3 posts

In addition to US television programs not being dubbed, there are schools that teach American English. My friend, who is originally from upstate New York, married a Dutch man, and has lived in the Netherlands for 30 years, is an English fluency instructor in one of her city’s high schools. She was hired specifically because she is a native US American speaker.

Belgian Dutch accents vary slightly from the Netherlands Dutch accent. My aforementioned friend lives in Bergen op Zoom, which is close to the Belgian border of the province of Walloon. We often listen to Belgian radio stations while out and about in northern Belgium, and she has pointed out differences between Belgian (Flemish) Dutch and Netherlands Dutch. And of course there are regional dialects and accents. Both of us are multilingual, thus, language nerds, and this type of stuff fascinates us! 🙂

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12103 posts

Going to Quebec was probably the most fascinating place I have visited in North America, absolutely fantastic, culturally and historically, we went only to Quebec City. Obviously, it isn't France but it's the next best thing in terms of being surrounded by the language. We were there for a week in July of 2017, walked all over, tremendous walking town, really never got out of the old city. The Mrs spoke French with every person we came in contact with, as though we were in France, and they all replied in kind.

I marveled at the linguistic dexterity the locals had, changing from French to English or vice versa instantly, ...certainly no linguistic interference. Quebec City I would go back in an instant as long it's not in the winter.

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248 posts

Fred,
I can identify with your statement: "Going to Quebec was probably the most fascinating place I have visited in North America, absolutely fantastic, culturally and historically." We experienced a bit of this when we visited Brussels on a recent trip and the waiter did not switch to English but stayed with us even though our French accents were undoubtedly bad.

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12103 posts

Hi,

I've had the experience in France be it at a restaurant or small hotel check-in where "they" knew, obviously, I was not only a foreigner but also American, eg, presenting your US passport at check-in, but still did not switch over to English.

In Germany and Austria that's different, if "they" start in English, I respond in German. Usually after that they stop speaking English.

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5817 posts

I'm curious, how is 'American English " when taught in Dutch schools different from "British English"?
I can guess spellings ( the American obsession with the letter z when an s will do! :-) ) but what else is that different?

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1628 posts

In 1972 after a year of Italian classes in college we headed to Italy, first time ever outside the US. I was totally confused as to why nearly every Italian I spoke with eventually asked me where I lived in the U.K. Finally ? It dawned on me...my instructor was British. Apparently I had learned to speak Italian with a British accent. I smile and still wonder about that as I write this nearly fifty years later.
We visited many countries in three months, and almost always when our language skills failed, it wasn’t English but German that most people tried next when speaking to us. We thought then our habit of saying “Yeah” instead of ‘yes’ was mistaken for “Ja” , but that still remains just our best guess.
Certainly English was nowhere nearly as widely spoken as we have encountered in all our later trips. And our experience then cemented our continued belief that if you just try something, anything in the local language, most people will happily and graciously do their best to assist a weary illiterate traveler.

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4028 posts

Emma, it's mostly pronunciation and intonation. Hugh Laurie, who has mastered American English, once said there is no one word in English that is pronounced the same in both British and American English.

Some years ago my DH and I taught at an renowned English Institute in Poznań, Poland. The students chose whether to study British or American English. The results were remarkable. The best students could easily pass as natives of either the American Midwest, or English - sorry, I don't know enough about your regional variations to pinpoint. But very impressive.

There are also some minor differences in vocabulary, as well as spelling.

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12 posts

Curious Traveler, once I got to Portugal I asked several locals about the TV and film “subtitles vs dubbing”. The consensus was that the Portuguese market is too small to cost-justify dubbing, so they just broadcast it in the original (usually American) English, and display Portuguese subtitles. Apparently Spain is a large enough market that it’s cost-effective to pay for dubbing English into Spanish for broadcasting, and as a result Spanish viewers don't hear as much English as the Portuguese. The Portuguese I talked with also commented that when they visit Spain they are expected to speak Spanish, but when Spaniards come to Portugal they usually make no effort whatsoever to speak Portuguese.

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5817 posts

Regarding actors using different accents it seems that British actors seem to get away with "american" accents more than American actors succeed with "British". Sweeping generalisation I know. The only actor I can think of who could really pass for British was Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones. You really did forget she wasn't British. Also Gillian Anderson, but she probably doesn't count because she spent a lot of her childhood here.
I await the stream of responses listing all the British actors who slaughtered accents in movies.

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1095 posts

There are enough differences in American accents that there is/was an instructor at the US Naval Academy that could tell what state you were from by listening to you talk for 10 minutes. Normally he could also pin point where in that state you lived within 50 miles.

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12103 posts

@ Christine...On your being "language nerds," my compliments! Bravo!

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12103 posts

Numerous American accents are around. Before Jimmy Carter began in earnest running for president in 1975 (forget about his politics here), he went to speech classes to reduce his South Georgia accent. When he won the election, Loretta Lynn said to this effect, at least now we have president who doesn't speak with an accent.

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248 posts

The interesting thing was that virtually every Dutch tourist service industry person with whom we interacted spoke idiomatic American, virtually as if they were native speakers.

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158 posts

Interesting about the Dutch and Belgian people hearing American English on TV as I was just in Belgium and met a man (60ish) who asked me where I was from. I responded with "California" and he was so surprised. He replied, "Oh I thought you were English! You mean you speak English like they do in England?"

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11738 posts

The Dutch are the best I've encountered with languages. Not just English/American. You can probably start a conversation in any major language and they'll be right with you, virtually fluent. It's not just those with tourist related employment either. I had long conversations with a couple from Rotterdam last June. We were camping in adjacent spaces on the Atlantic coast, south of Arcachon. We had discussions on politics, health policy, religion, etc. All in English, all thoughtful with no tempers. I really admire them for that.

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17659 posts

Periodically, the EU publishes a survey on language abilities in the Union. The latest one is from 2012.

On pg 21 of the 2012 survey, they list the three most widely known¹ foreign languages in each member state with the percent that know that language. The most widely known foreign language in any country is English in the Netherlands at 90%!

Large language groups tend to have the smallest percentage of people in that country (e.g., Italy 38%, UK 39%, Spain 46%, France 51%) speaking at least one foreign language, while small language groups tend to have the highest percentage (NL 94%, Luxembourg 98%, Sweden 91%) of people who know at least one foreign language. Not surprising that, with only 17 million people in the Netherlands, few people are going to bother to learn Dutch. So the Dutch have to learn other language to communicate internationally.

  1. i.e. people reporting to be able to hold a conversation in that language

Super nice article to read! I´m Dutch and I do speak well English, but still I would like to improve it by doing english course rotterdam. Do you perhaps have any tips on this?

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20 posts

I'm a WASP and I speak Spanish with a Mexican accent. I was raised in San Diego so my ear picked up Mexican Spanish. I get some interesting comments when I talk to a Spaniard using my Spanish.