English is not a threat to Dutch

I wrote this article for the Dutch newspaper Trouw (English translation below). You can find the original online version here here.

trouw final

English is not a threat to the Dutch language. This is the view of more than three quarters of Dutch people, according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

By Alison Edwards

The spectre of English looms large in the Netherlands – at least, if you believe those who scream bloody murder in the newspapers. As it turns out, most people don’t.

Let us distinguish between threat to Dutch in the private and the public sphere.

In the private sphere, the threat comes from the influence of English on the Dutch language; say, people incorporating English words and expressions into their Dutch. This is a natural phenomenon in the evolution of languages, and no sensible linguist would worry about it.

In the public sphere, the threat comes from the wholesale replacement of Dutch in certain domains – the education sector, for example. If you’re one to worry about the future of Dutch, the trickle-down effect this may have will concern you.

First, higher education switches to English. To better prepare children for university, secondary education heads in the same direction. In turn, this trickles down to primary schooling. After that, there’s nowhere else to go but into the home, with parents speaking to their children in English in the hopes of giving them a head start.

This would be an encroachment into the private sphere. And it is this that could upset the current balance between Dutch and English; the ‘precarious equilibrium’ as it was so aptly described by the sociologist Abram de Swaan.

This is why, when staatssecretaris Dekker unveiled his plans in July for the expansion of English in primary education, the battle lines were drawn. For some people, this is a step too far. It’s about the kids, after all. Do you want them to grow up half English? Next they’ll be taking milk in their tea.

But as it turns out, Dutch people on the whole are not worried. The idea of raising their children in English is obviously silly. According to new research results, Dutch is safe and strong – and English an excellent addition to it.

We questioned 2000 Dutch respondents from all age groups and population sectors. The results show that while Dutch people value English highly, they are just as enamoured with their own language.

Eight out of ten people agree or strongly agree with the statement that English is personally important for them. At the same time, almost nine in ten say that Dutch is more important than English. And virtually everyone says that knowing both languages is an advantage.

In other words, this is an ‘and and’ situation, not ‘either or’. The Dutch want both Dutch and English.

In the media, the balance between the two languages in the Netherlands is, inexplicably, thought to be zero-sum. In a zero-sum game, if you and I want to share a cake, more cake for me means less for you. In other words, gains for one language are assumed to mean losses for the other.  More school hours spent on English mean less for Dutch, shout teachers and concerned citizens. Better English equals worse Dutch.

But language is not zero sum: a bigger slice of English doesn’t automatically equate to a smaller slice of Dutch. It just means the whole cake gets bigger. So for the average Dutch Joe, English is not a replacement for, but an addition to Dutch, and both languages are valued for their different purposes.

This does away with the truism that the Dutch are underwhelmed by their language, as we are always told. When they emigrate, their mother tongue disappears within a generation. Here, if they detect even a hint of an accent, they dispense with the inconvenience of Dutch immediately. They just don’t care for language, so the story goes.

On the contrary. The Dutch love their languages – both of them. More of the one doesn’t mean less of the other. No – the Dutch intend to have their cake, and damn well eat it too.


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