Monday, 3 February 2014

To Learn Dutch or Not to Learn Dutch - That is the Question.

Should you have to speak Dutch to live in the Netherlands?
Photo Credit: Danagouws
A week ago, junior social affairs minister, Jetta Klijnsma, put a proposal on the table for temporary welfare cuts for those claimants living in the Netherlands who do not speak Dutch. It's not the first time this idea has been put on the political table, and each time the idea hits the headlines, there is controversy. It certainly opens up a debate. A fierce one at that.

In 2009, Utrecht council wrote to 1300 benefit claimants threatening that their benefits would be reduced if they did not attend a naturalisation course (inburgeringscursus), even though this group were Dutch passport holders and were not obliged to undertake a Dutch course.

In 2011 the council in The Hague put a stop to some benefits after recipients refused to take Dutch language courses. In 2012 85 people lost their right to benefits in The Hague when they failed to begin a language, despite repeated warnings about the consequences.

The theory is, according to councillor Norder in The Hague, that such measures provide an incentive to learn Dutch, and therefore enables participation in the Dutch labour market.

The proviso of receiving benefits from the government is that a claimant makes every effort to find work as soon as possible. Without any command of the country's language this job search is made much harder.

The Green party representative for The Hague, David Rietveld, questioned whether those following a Dutch course were then actually able to secure work, though he did say he had no problem with those people refusing to learn Dutch losing their benefits.

In 2012 the VVD wrote a proposal to this effect - anyone receiving benefits should have to prove that they have a command of the Dutch language, by means of an inburgeringsdiploma, or proof of eight years in the Dutch education system. Without this proof benefits would be reduced.

The latest proposal is a watered down version of the original coalition agreement which wanted to make Dutch language skills a compulsory part of eligibility for Dutch welfare benefits. However, this clashed with international law and had to be revised.

In his first King's speech last September King Willem Alexander announced that the Dutch welfare state is a thing of the past, and instead we need to think along the lines of a 'participation society'.

It is all part of the political pledge to make the Netherlands less of a welfare state and help welfare recipients become more employable. The Netherlands has traditionally been known as a country that looks after its citizens, in many cases, a little too well, and the changing political and economic landscape means changes are necessary. The generous welfare system can no longer be afforded.

As an expat, this is a topic which fascinates me. I'm a linguist, and have been since I started secondary school, so the idea of moving to country and refusing to learn the national language seems odd to me personally. I started learning Dutch before I moved here, in fact I started trying to understand at least the basics as soon as I met my Dutch partner.

When I moved to the Netherlands in 2000 my command of Dutch was basic. And that is an understatement but I kept at it. In the first few months in my new land I job hunted. It's no surprise that without a competent level of Dutch my options were limited to international companies with a working language of English, of which there are surprisingly many in the big cities.

However, with no reasonable command of English or Dutch there is no way I would have been able to find a job in 2000 when I arrived. Had I refused to learn Dutch at that time and therefore reduced my job opportunities significantly, would it have been reasonable to claim money from the Dutch government, from a system I had contributed nothing to? There seems to be only one fair answer to that.

If you search expat fora a common question from people thinking about moving here is, "Do I need to learn Dutch to live in the Netherlands?" And the answer is generally, "Not necessarily." This is because of the number of international organisations based in the country, plus the excellent linguistic skills of the Dutch population. But do those reasons make it right to move to a country and refuse to learn the local language?

I have my own opinions. I'm a linguist. I believe it is impossible to integrate into a society when you don't speak the local language. And no, it is not easy to operate in a second language. There are many personal and cultural situations that make learning Dutch (or any other language) an uphill battle but a flat out refusal to make any attempt to speak Dutch certainly doesn't make a fruitful life overseas particularly viable, in my opinion.

Should benefits be reduced for those refusing to take and then pass a Dutch language course? The answer to that is not a straightforward yes or no. I can perfectly understand the argument to reduce hand outs to those refusing to help themselves in the job market, or who point blank do nothing to help themselves be employable - and that is not just based on the ability to speak the national language. However, there are also some genuine situations where I can imagine it is extremely difficult to reach a competent level in a second language and thus withdrawing benefits would have dire consequences.

It remains a well-debated topic, not just here in the Netherlands, but around the world. Over to you - I would love to hear your thoughts.

Should those moving to the Netherlands make every effort to learn Dutch? Should welfare benefits be reduced for those refusing to learn a local language? Is the same debate raging in the country you call home?


  1. The problem with these laws is that they aren't based on any reality.

    How many foreigners do you know that have "refused" to learn Dutch? Now how many of them do you feel are one disaster away from applying for welfare?

    Do these politicians ever actually research the target of these policies? Do they assume all those who aren't fluent are "refusing" to learn? Pride and frustration can lead people to announce "What's the point? It's a stupid language. Everyone answers me in English..." etc, but that's usually an indication that the learning experience has been extremely negative.

    And using only sticks without carrots doesn't help.

    Tomorrow, I do my luisteren staatsexamen for the fourth time. After almost 10 years here, I'm far from fluent. But to say I "refuse" to learn is an insult to all the work and money I've invested.

    I would say that the majority of people want and intend to learn the language of the country they are moving to. I think the government should find out why some don't succeed before they assume.

  2. I am leery of a
    'one size fits all' reasoning. If a person is doing their level best to learn a language, but are still having difficulty testing out at an appropriate level, then the gov't. should investigate why this is. Some learn slower, some find it difficult (but rewarding) to learn another language due to processing issues ('leaning disabilities').

  3. I would think most people who move to a country with an entirely different langauge to their own would learn, or at least be interested in learning the language in order to make the most of their new home. If you do not speak the langauage, even everyday tasks would be much harder.

    I can see how some people may really struggle to learn to speak to a competant level, which should (like you did) really be looked at and started beofre the move - that would be my consideration too. If I found that I struggled too much, then maybe the move would not be the best thing to do at that time.

    It certainly is an interesting debate as I cannot really see how anyone moving to a new country would outright refuse to learn the language - I wonder what the figures are of migrants who have refused actually is?

  4. I know I'm a bit late to see this post, but it's a topic that really resonates with me. I've been living in NL for less than two years and, like you, I started to learn the language even before I came here. (I'm still not fluent alas!! But I have started to experience those extremely exciting moments when my Dutch is better than my interlocutor's English.)
    These ongoings in parliament are very interesting, and I agree that there is no clear-cut answer. I don't know any expats who are on welfare, but I do know expats who complain about not being to find a job, or who whine about Dutch people's English, and I do find it very hard to be sympathetic ... Simply because I know that these people have been here as long as I have (or in some cases much longer) and have made only minimal efforts, such as attending one informal class. In this sort of case, I would definitely support these new welfare laws, but as the other commenters have already pointed out, the people who have the most to lose from this law are likely the ones we have the murkiest pictures of.
    Anywho, thank you for this informative and thoughtful post :)

  5. This is very interesting. I lived in NL for three years (and have been gone for almost three now) and I left with a good listening comprehension but no real speaking ability I moved to the Netherlands to 'connect' my family as my Dutch partner could not get a visa to the US at the time. I had no interest in learning Dutch when I moved there, I lived there to be with my family alone.

    My opinions have changed, especially as my daughter gets older and we work at keeping her bilingual here in England. My Dutch has greatly improved since I left because I had an incentive to learn.

    I dont know if it is 'fair' to stick everyone into such a policy. There are a million reasons to move to a country, and most of them are not to benefit off of the country's welfare system.

    That being said if the government provides adequate, free, language training (something I couldnt get when I was there) there is no reason for people not to assimilate unless they are in NL for work or school, in which case they probably dont qualify for the benefits anyway.

    These days I am 100% positive that those early days in Holland would have went much smoother had I tried harder to learn Dutch. It is something I recommend to every new expat. I still dont know if taking away assistance is the best move forward...

  6. I can see why this issue has the potential to stir up a lot of emotive debate. From what you say about there being quite a few international companies in the Netherlands whose working language is English, it seems that it is the less well off are being asked to do something that the more well off do not necessarily need to do when it comes to learning Dutch.

    Like one of other commenters has said, I'd like to see more of a focus on carrots than sticks (...which instantly reminds me of seeing some Dutch football fans dressed in orange and waving carrots at the 1998 World Cup in France!). It's easy for a state to place the burden of responsibility on immigrants when it comes to assimilation and learning a language, but there also needs to be a focus on what the state can do to facilitate their integration. In other words, dialogue is really important.

  7. Yet another example that national-socialism is back in the Netherlands.

    Between that, the PVV-meldpunt, torching of foreigners cars and "casual" racism, I've made the decision that I don't want to live in such a xenophobic country, and I'm happy that I've already got my flight outta here booked.