Recently, I led a talk for the American Women’s Club of Amsterdam about transitioning to life in the Netherlands. One topic discussed within the group was whether or not learning Dutch is important or even necessary to have a positive experience while living here.While there are many advantages to learning the language of your host country, the question remains: if you speak English, even as a second language, is learning Dutch practical or even beneficial for the average expat? Below are five questions designed to help you answer this question for yourself:
How long are you planning to live in Holland?
The amount of time you plan to live in Holland may influence your decision on whether or not it is worth the effort to learn Dutch. For example, if you plan to be here for two years or less, the time spent learning the language may outweigh the benefit you will gain from doing so. On the other hand, if you plan to live here indefinitely, learning the language may actually help with your adjustment process within the Dutch community and will be useful for long-term understanding and communication.
Is your goal to make Dutch friends or are you happy within the expat community?
In a perfect world it would be great to be able to quickly learn Dutch and immerse yourself completely within Dutch society, including making Dutch friends.
Nevertheless, as you may have already discovered, this is often easier said than done. Cultural differences can make it difficult to develop friendships within the Dutch community, despite speaking the language. Therefore, some expats would rather invest time in making friends with other expats who are more likely to have similar experiences and goals.
However, if your partner is Dutch, being able to speak some of the language will probably help you in social situations and prevent isolation.
Will your children be learning Dutch?
If you have children attending a local Dutch school and / or you plan to raise them bilingually, you may need some basic Dutch in order to understand and communicate with their friends. Despite your children also speaking your native language, their friends from school may not. Plus, your own children will most likely at times speak Dutch to each other while you are around and you may want to understand what they are saying as well as be able to participate in the conversation.
Do you have an “all or nothing” attitude towards learning Dutch?
Perhaps you are considering learning Dutch but feel that you need to become fluent or otherwise there is no point. Many people actually hold themselves back from learning something new because they feel that if they can not do it perfectly then this is embarrassing or shameful. Ironically, most Dutch find that their English is not perfect and therefore do not expect your Dutch to be. Usually, they just appreciate the effort and learning even a little Dutch can help you in your daily interactons, for example at the grocery store.
Is learning Dutch better for you or for the people judging you for not learning it?
Sometimes we do things because society tells us that we should do them, not because we actually want or need to. When considering whether to learn Dutch or not, ask yourself why you should learning it; are you learning it for your job, to go back to school, to be able to understand the nightly news on tv or are you learning it because your Dutch neighbour looks at you funny every time you ask to borrow an egg in English?
If you decide that learning Dutch is right for you, then by all means get out there and do it! Taking a Dutch class is a great way to learn a new language and meet other expats in a similar situation. It can also help provide structure to your day as you adjust to life here.
On the other hand, if you decide that it is not in your best interest to learn the language, do not beat yourself up about this! Only you know what is right for you and what you truly want. If others choose to judge you for your decisions then this says more about them than it does about you. While most Dutch will tell you directly what they think, most will also move on with their lives without a second thought. Only you can determine what you tell yourself about what they think and whether or not you care.
If you find yourself struggling within the Dutch community or would like to learn Dutch but are experiencing difficulties, take heart in the fact that many of us have experienced a similar situation. If you notice it impacting your mood or daily functioning, it may be time to seek professional help so that you can figure out the steps you need to take in order to improve your quality of life.
Originally posted 26 May 2010 on Iamexpat