Research summary: Bilingualism versus multilingualism in the Netherlands

Oostendorp, M. van (2012). Bilingualism versus multilingualism in the Netherlands. Language Problems and Language Planning, 36(3), 252–272

Aim: To explore the hypothesis that the Netherlands is moving becoming bi- rather than multilingual

Data & methods: Discussion of the Dutch Language Union, other language-policy issues, the language attitudes of the Dutch, the rise of bilingual education and the status of minority languages in the Netherlands


  • The Dutch Language Union (Nederlandse Taalunie, NTU), est. 1980, is the official body for Dutch language policy and literature; the government has delegated its mandate for this area to the NTU. The NTU is for the promotion of Dutch but does not pit itself against English; it is mostly focused on corpus planning.
  • The status of the Dutch language is not very strongly anchored in Dutch law, and not in the Constitution at all.
  • The Law on Higher Education (Wet op het Hoger Onderwijs) states (Art. 6a): “Classes should be taught and exams should be offered in Dutch.” The law also mentions two possible (and important) exceptions: a. when the teaching concerns the language in question, or b. if the specific nature, the structure or the quality of the teaching, or otherwise the origin of the participants requires such, conforming to a code of conduct which has been established by the authorities. “The second clause makes the whole article all but vacuous, since one can always argue that ‘the specific nature’ of the education requires using a different language.”
  • We should be wary of exploring discussions about language in the public domain because “only certain parties will raise their voice …. people who are worried about issues such as these are more likely to raise their voice than those who do not have a strong opinion about them.”
  • The Onze Taal association has about 35,000 members. It was established in 1931, initially to combat German influence, but now its stance is quite neutral, its objective to “write in an expert and readable way about all aspects of the [Dutch] language.” Splinter groups have split off which are more radical/militant about combating the perceived threat of English in particular: the Stichting Nederlands and Stichting Taaverdediging. “Neither of them seems to have support of more than a handful of people.”
  • Paulien Cornelisse’s book Taal is zeg maar echt mijn ding is full of playful observations about language change. It sold over 300,000 copies, which may suggest people generally subscribe to the author’s relaxed attitude towards language development, including the rise of English.
  • Besides Frisian, the official second language, there are two other recognised regional minority languages — Low Saxon and Limburgian —as well as two non-regionally defined languages — Yiddish and Roma-Sinti. This recognition is symbolic rather the financially significant.


  • “There are several indications that the Dutch are moving from being a traditionally multilingual population, priding themselves on their knowledge of many foreign languages, to being bilingual, priding themselves on their knowledge of English.”
  • The Netherlands and the Nordic countries are becoming “more like English-speaking countries in their language attitudes, except that they are bilingual rather than monolingual”
  • “Dutch people are not overly worried about the rise of English”
  • Yet there is no indication that the Dutch are about to abandon Dutch in favour of English. “All-Dutch couples have not started raising their children in English, for instance, and Dutch families have not started using English at home.”
  • The cost of societal bilingualism in the Netherlands is “a loss of strength in foreign languages other than English.”

Reader tips: which paper on English in Dutch higher education should I summarise next? Leave a comment!


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