Language learning in Germany and the Netherlands: a comparison

Hamburg Airport. I am going through security for the zillionth time this year and the security personnel asks me whether I speak German or English. I reply that I speak both, and I smile secretly. Hamburg Airport must be about the only place in Germany where people routinely ask me in which language I prefer to have a conversation. For all other purposes here, German it is. Unless you specifically ask for English, you will get German. Outside of the airport, only one person ever offered to switch to English here. I was trying to pronounce something like ‘butterkäseschinkencroissant’.

I have no illusions about my German. I mean, I can get around with ease, even have a relatively intellectual conversation, but there is no way of really blending in with my accent. My tandem partner says I have a very cute Dutch accent, and there are worse things in life than having a cute accent. With my looks I could be your average German girl, but as soon as I open my mouth, people will realize there is no way I was born and bred here. In the Netherlands this would be the point where the conversation automatically continues in English. The Dutch are comfortable with languages, and we tend to switch to English as soon as we figure out someone is not a native Dutchie. Only if you show near-native fluency in Dutch, chances are you are going to be permitted a conversation in Dutch.

International friends in the Netherlands reguarly complain about their lack of language practice, and consequently few really speak decent Dutch. In Germany, the number of international students and expats knowing German to a decent level is a lot higher, as Germany requires you to learn German – and learn German fast. It is for example nearly impossible to deal with German bureaucracy, tax returns or insurances without speaking the language. You might get away with trying to do your daily shopping in English, but for long-term purposes German is a must here. Luckily for you Germany makes it relatively easy for you to improve your German skills. All you need to do is leave the comfort of your home, take the street and start talking to people. Or, when you are a shy chicken like yours truly, wait for people to start talking to you.

The average German resembles the average Dutch: we do not really easily talk to strangers. But if you catch them on their home turf and start talking about a subject they are really into, there is no stopping them anymore. In recent weeks for example I have had long conversations about religion, Hamburg’s Danish past, a socialist leader and forced labour during the Second World War, while visiting a neighbourhood church, a nearby socialist information center and a force labour camp respectively. And although usually the first question I am asked here is where I am from, I did get some misplaced illusions about my German when the lady at the neighbourhood church did not ask about my country of origin during my visit. The euphoria lasted about ten minutes, until she casually mentioned “foreigners such as yourself”. Attempt to blend in: failed. But attempt to practice German: very much succeeded!

Obviously the Netherlands is the best country in the world (after the US!), and we excel in everything we do, including languages. We speak many, and we speak them with ease. But our comfort with languages comes at a price. Switching to English when speaking to a foreigner is well-meant and might make him or her feel more comfortable living in the country short-term, but long-term this is not going to help anyone but the Dutch themselves. The Dutch improve their English, but foreigners will learn little Dutch if the Dutch do not have patience to listen to broken Dutch and allow them to make mistake after mistake – as the Germans so kindly let me. Not learning the language is not so much of a problem if you are only staying somewhere for a few months, but once you find yourself living abroad long-term, can you still justify not speaking the local language? To really learn a language, you need more than one party. It is not enough to study your grammar book or practice your vocabulary using Duolingo. It also needs a society supporting an individual’s effort. And paradoxically, the absence of a Netherlands-style language-learning tradition in Germany might make the circumstances here much more suitable for foreigners to learn German.

Picture: Carsten Frenzl, CC BY 2.0

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