English and Dutch: A Tale of Two Cultures

English and Dutch: A Tale of Two Cultures

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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.

When I first came to the Netherlands, I made a false assumption which affected my approach to teaching: the Dutch are basically like the English, so I just have to help my students translate language A into language B. I soon found out I was mistaken.

In my defence, the assumption that the Dutch are completely the same as the English, culturally, is an easy one to make if you’re only passing through. Indeed, there is something about the Dutch language itself which gives the English a sense of familiarity.

As one friend from London felt, “listening to people speaking Dutch sounds like you’re listening to a radio which can’t quite seem to tune into the right station, sometimes it’s almost there but then you lose it.”

Similar, but different

Fundamentally, the languages are quite similar in a number of ways: they both have similar cadences and pronunciation sounds, with a few notable exceptions. Pretty much every native English speaker I know finds it impossible to pronounce the Dutch “g” sound; equally the Dutch find it difficult to deal with voiced and unvoiced “th” sounds. Yet, these pronunciation issues tend not to be the main problem I’ve encountered.

In fact, Dutch and English share a lot of vowel sounds, which explains why my British friend felt they almost understood Dutch without actually understanding anything. Another reason why you might think the Dutch and the English are alike is that the countries are closely associated through bonds of history and commerce (we even imported a Dutch king once!).

Yet, if you stay long enough, you start to notice the differences. In some ways, the English are a lot more like the Japanese than the Dutch. This may sound ridiculous when you first read it, but it’s true: the English overly emphasise politeness (when we’re not drunk). This cultural emphasis on politeness leads to a lot of indirect constructions in our language.

I’ve taught a lot of Japanese students over the years and I was pleased to see how, at higher levels, they quickly picked up on indirect constructions. The Japanese intuitively understand this and grasp the need to learn these constructions because they also share this cultural norm of being indirect. This simply isn’t the case with the Dutch.

Directness and simplicity in communication

Just to be clear, I am not saying the Dutch are rude, not at all. I am simply saying that indirectness is almost built into the English language whilst it isn’t in Dutch. The Dutch pride themselves on directness and simplicity in their communication. There is a lot of honesty in circulation in the Netherlands.

For example, where an English person would babble on to make a point about how a plan could be changed, the Dutch are happy to provide a laconic answer just flat-out stating that the plan is incorrect. I must admit this is more efficient. Nevertheless, the Dutch tendency to be direct creates linguistic issues when interacting with native English speakers.

An American friend of mine likes to tell the story of his experience in Burger King at Amsterdam Airport. He had just landed and wanted to get a chocolate milkshake. When he asked for one, he was told: “no, we don’t have it.” He was taken aback by the response because a native English speaker would have said something like, “I’m sorry we don’t have that at the moment, perhaps you’d like something else?”

So, my friend ended up waiting for a follow-up question which never came, leading to an awkward silence which was only resolved when he eventually realised he had to ask for something else.

Different meanings

The issue of English indirectness might seem trivial at first until you start realising that it’s even baked into English grammar. For example, both English and Dutch have a similar construction: present perfect simple. An example would be “I have eaten” and “Ik heb gegeten.” However, due to our cultural differences, this identical grammar construction carries a different meaning in each language.

Usually, in English, we are implying something when we say, “I have eaten.” What we’re really doing is emphasising that we’re not hungry now without directly saying it, whilst in Dutch, it is much more a statement of what has happened. So, I have ended up spending a lot of time teaching my students the implied meanings of certain grammar constructions or persuading them to use modal verbs like “could” when they aren’t strictly necessary.

Often my students find it all a little ridiculous and on some level it is. However, it has a really positive impact on your English to know these intricacies. Many of my students have to interact with international clients and correspond with British and American colleagues.

Don't overlook culture

I find that once they start getting how this cultural tendency to be indirect affects grammar constructions and word use, they develop a much better rapport with their international partners and clients. So, in the end, I have had to learn it really isn’t the case of just translating language A into language B, and that you should never ever overlook culture when teaching a language.

Even the English and Dutch, who are mostly culturally alike, will have great differences in particular areas. If you’re a learner or a teacher, you have to find these cultural differences and understand and work around them.

CBE Languages offers a full range of general, specialist and examination courses to students from across the world and, as of 2016, CBE is a certified Cambridge Assessment English examination centre.

Thinuja Karan


Thinuja Karan



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Etienne 18:00 | 20 June 2019

I'd like to point out that both 'I have eaten' and 'Ik heb gegeten' in response to a question or as a statement, do not sound like complete sentences (even though they are) and therefore equally odd. It's not natural language. However, add for example 'just' and 'net' respectively, and both sentences express the same thing, in a way Dutch people would use it too. So I disagree with your assessment that, in this particular example, two identical sentences are used differently.