Dutch at work: Why you should give it a try

Dutch at work: Why you should give it a try

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Donald Fleming, teacher at UvA Talen, explains why knowing the Dutch language can be handy in an international work environment in the Netherlands.

Have you ever been in a situation where you are the only non-Dutch speaker? And you know that everyone is speaking English for your benefit? Or when Dutch-speaking colleagues revert to Dutch to make a comment or clarification, everyone nods, and you miss the point?

The Dutch are good with code switching - jumping between two languages - and do it with ease. Wouldn't it be nice to join them?

Whether you work in finance or fashion, education or entertainment, real estate or retail, at some point you'll be confronted with the fact that you don't, at least, understand (let alone speak) Dutch. Learning Dutch is a good investment, and one of the biggest benefits of learning Dutch is having greater opportunities in the job market.

The Netherlands has one of the most worker-friendly cultures in the world: a healthy work-life balance, respect for individuality, and a relatively short working week! More and more companies are using English but there's a good chance some Dutch will be helpful.

Do I need to learn Dutch to get a job in the Netherlands?

No, but it might come in handy when…

…applying for a job

When applying for a job (solliciteren), you’ll likely need to write a sollicitatiebrief (application letter) to explain why you want the job, and if all goes well you’ll be invited for an interview. Often, vacancies will specifically ask for candidates with an “excellent command of the Dutch and / or English language”. This reflects the relative significance of English in the highly international work atmosphere in the Netherlands.

Sometimes it won't, but likely the subject will come up: “Do you speak some Dutch?” Speaking Dutch won’t just give you bonus points; it is also one of the best ways to demonstrate that you have worked hard to achieve something difficult.

…you want to move up

Whilst multi-nationals might not, smaller companies generally require a good knowledge of Dutch, which means that employees should be able to participate in a meeting and present in Dutch. If you got a job in the Netherlands without speaking Dutch and you look around your workplace, you may notice that you don't see many managers who do not speak Dutch. If you want to move up, at some point you will be expected to learn the language.

…you get confronted with the limitations of your colleagues

There's a good chance that some paperwork might only be in Dutch, or may be poorly translated. And whilst it might seem that Dutch colleagues have a good understanding of English, they do make mistakes sometimes. Some of them are infectious, to the point where everyone is making the same mistakes. It adds a burden to their workload, having to accommodate non-Dutch speakers, and can sometimes lead to confusion.

…you want to get an insight into the Dutch mindset

One of the biggest benefits of learning Dutch is the insight into, and understanding of, the ideas and concepts that are informed by language. Whilst you may work somewhere where English is the official work language, a Dutch mindset and approach to doing business may still pervade the atmosphere.

The Dutch mindset includes the participatiecultuur (participation culture) in which every person is equal and should be treated accordingly. A horizontal hierarchy can be seen in many Dutch organisations and Dutch directness.

Dutch directness: Get to the point!

The workplace is not only a place to use your Dutch; it’s also a great place to practice. The Dutch style of communication is one of directness: short, clear, sober sentences. This usually results in colleagues who have no problem pointing out the mistakes you’re making.

If you find the meeting room too daunting to practice your Dutch, there’s always the coffee machine. In an official capacity, say an email, letter or meeting - when people are “on the record” - they may be more careful or calculated in what they say. The proverbial coffee machine, or any other informal situation, often make for an easy-going way to exchange information, ideas, and opinions in Dutch.

Give Dutch a try

Whilst at first it may not seem necessary to speak Dutch, and whilst it may not necessarily hinder you, it will improve your chances of moving up the career ladder in the Netherlands, even if it only demonstrates your abilities and efforts.

If you decide to invest in learning Dutch, you might ask your employer to help you pay for it, or at least follow the course on company time. If you need to pay yourself, be sure to check with the tax department to find out the rules for a tax-deducted work-related education.

There are a variety of approaches: Private lessons, group courses, immersion, or intensives. Knowing your schedule and learning style will influence the decision about what works best for you.

And remember, you can do a lot by yourself. Just stay open to letting the language come into your consciousness - don't block it out. Read signs and try understanding the things that you keep hearing over and over.

The fast-paced courses of UvA Talen help students make rapid progress in learning English, Dutch and ten other languages. Follow UvA Talen on Facebook.

Donald Fleming


Donald Fleming

Donald Fleming (New York, 1960) first came to the Netherlands in 1989 to teach at the Theaterschool Amsterdam (AHK). As dancer/performer, choreographer and teacher he worked extensively in Europe and...

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