Language mishaps when speaking English in the Netherlands

Language mishaps when speaking English in the Netherlands

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CBE Languages (formerly the Centre for British English) is an independent language school located in the heart of Rotterdam, providing high-quality language training for adults and teenagers for over 20 years.

What does it mean to you when someone says, “I’ll meet you at your house at half nine next Friday?”

There are quite a few linguistic landmines to watch out for!

The chances are that if you’re a native English speaker you’ll interpret the time of this appointment as 9.30 on Friday of the following week. Right? Not necessarily! Such an assumption could result in a serious problem when the said someone not only turns up at your apartment a week early (this week to you) but at 8.30 and not the 9.30 you’d pencilled into your diary.

This confusing state of affairs has probably happened to most expats and can be marked as one of those rites of passage to life in the Netherlands that’s akin to getting your bike stuck in the tramlines. In other words, it happens to everyone sooner or later.

Why? Because to the Dutch "half nine" is the translation of "half negen" and actually means half an hour before nine, or 8.30 in normal parlance. Added to that, next Friday is often used by Dutch people to mean the one coming. Even though they say "aanstaande vrijdag" themselves, literally meaning the coming Friday, they convert it to "next" where we would say "this".

Pitfalls aplenty

Many expats who arrive in the Netherlands are astonished by the ease and confidence with which their hosts speak English. It’s no lie that more that 90% of the Dutch can hold a conversation in English, a fact which is truly remarkable when you realise this includes people of all ages throughout the country. Indeed, some expats never bother to learn Dutch at all, simply because they don’t feel the need.

However, there are quite a few linguistic landmines to watch out for. Here is a selection that most long-term expats have fallen foul of now and then.

Perplexing planners

The difference between an agenda and a diary: In the UK and indeed in other English-speaking countries, an agenda is the list of items you discuss at a meeting, a programme for a presentation or even someone’s underlying motives for doing something. It is definitely not your appointment book.

So, if someone Dutch asks you what’s on your agenda, you might, justifiably, be confused. You didn’t know you were planning a meeting and as far as you know you aren’t involved in any dastardly schemes, so what could they possibly be suggesting? Well, what they actually mean is that they want to know what’s in your diary, daily planner or calendar - all words we use in English for making appointments, but not agenda. Talk about false friends!

Conditional conundrums

Another issue is the somewhat relaxed attitude our Dutch friends have when it comes to the use of "if" and "when". One story goes that an American businessman was highly indignant when his application for funding was turned down by a Dutch bank. “The manager told me that when my loan was approved, he’d contact me to discuss my venture,” he spluttered in outrage. “And now they’ve rejected it.”

The Dutch often use "if" and "when" interchangeably.

What the unhappy businessman didn’t realise is that in Dutch, "als" can mean both "if" and "when" and is often used interchangeably, whereas it’s a very different kettle of fish in English. After all, you’d never tell your partner or spouse that you’ll phone them if you get home, would you? That would be a recipe for anxiety.

Homes and houses

Then there’s the all-embracing use of the word "house". Many an English-speaking expat has been flummoxed when invited to a Dutch friend’s home only to find that instead of a real, complete house, their friend lives in a top floor flat.

“I got a bit lost. I thought you lived in a house,” the expat explains after arriving late.

“Well, yes, this is my house, although I agree it’s actually an apartment,” the host agrees, only puzzling the English expat more. 

In English speaking countries an apartment or a flat is not a house and vice versa, so this is an umbrella word that newcomers to the Netherlands have to get used to.

Interest or rent

While talking about houses and banks, one other word that might come up to bite an expat is the word "rent", which to English speakers means the money you pay for your "house" if you decide not to buy, but to the Dutch means the interest you pay on money you’ve borrowed (rente).

As a result, when talking about the differences between buying and renting a property, don’t be derailed if your Dutch adviser talks about the rent on your mortgage. You really don’t have to hire the money.

Grammar gaffs

Added to these vocabulary pitfalls (or potholes) newcomers have to lurch their way through, there is the problem with tenses (their past is our present and their present is our future), which, combined with the variety of false friends available, provides positive sinkholes for the unwary.

So yes, there are false friends in the grammar constructions too; in fact, lots of them. But it’s all part of the fun of integrating into Dutch life and society, isn’t it? The opportunities for talking at cross-purposes are endless, but while negotiating our way around these linguistic landmines, we can all laugh and learn in equal measure.

CBE Languages offers a full range of general, specialist and examination courses to students from across the world and is also a certified Cambridge Assessment English examination centre. Want to take your language learning to the next level? Don't hesitate to contact them!

Valerie Poore


Valerie Poore

Val Poore was born in London, England, and grew up in both north London and the west of Dorset. After completing her degree in English, History and French at Bournemouth,...

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