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I'm preparing a trip to Amsterdam. I know that the official language is Dutch but I have read that 90% of population speak English. So, Is it enough to speak English or should I learn some basic expressions for communicating on restaurant, shop, and asking for directions, etc?

I'm asking this because I live in a tourist zone in Spain, but most of people here don't speak English (maybe a little bit). We sometimes feel annoyed when tourists pretend that we spoke their language.

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I've had Spanish people speak Spanish to me while being a waiter in France. I didn't feel annoyed, it's just that they didn't know anything else… –  Relaxed Aug 26 at 8:17
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everyone speaks english but IT IS INCREDIBLY POLITE if you try to at least learn 3 words in dutch. amsterdam is a place where EVERYONE goes out of their way to speak english, and is polite about it, and "NOBODY" bothers to learn 3 words of the local language. –  Joe Blow Aug 26 at 10:27
    
@Relaxed On the whole, people in my location (older than 30-40) doesn't speak English at all. Maybe that is the reason why they fell annoy. 15-20 years ago English wasn't so important. People learnt Frech in the school instead of English. –  JCalcines Aug 26 at 12:14
    
@JoeBlow I was thinking in learning some basic polite words like hello, thank you, yes, no, sorry, etc. but I have afraid of not being able to communicate with locals. –  JCalcines Aug 26 at 12:19
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@JoeBlow you're pretty absolute in your answers... –  CGCampbell Aug 26 at 14:44

8 Answers 8

up vote 21 down vote accepted

English is widely spoken in Amsterdam, as well as other cities in the Netherlands, and you will have no problem navigating the city. Personally, I only know a few words of Dutch and I never had a problem in the city.

You may want to bring a phrase book to help you with greetings and simple phrases. Dutch people, like any other cultures, appreciate when you are making an effort.

The phrase book may also help you with pronunciation.

Wikitravel has a phrasebook that you may want to consult.

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while i can confirm that you'll have no problems speaking only english, the dutch are just like most others in that they do appreciate you making an effort to at least learn basic things like 'thank you', 'please', etc.. –  greyshade Aug 26 at 8:11
    
Agreed. I go as far as my Dutch permits which is not very far. :-) –  David Aug 26 at 8:30
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It's also worth grabbing a pronunciation guide (at least, I felt it was). Otherwise it's often difficult to relate placenames you hear to the words written on the map. I suspect the Dutch mostly know English well enough to compensate going in the other direction (when you mispronounce a Dutch place name as if it were English), although it's fun to make the effort anyway. –  Steve Jessop Aug 26 at 8:36
    
Added comments to answer. Thank you for the tips. –  David Aug 26 at 8:45
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I can add to this that in most places besides Amsterdam people are also fairly capable at English. English is taught in schools (Mandatory) from the age of 10. –  Amber Aug 26 at 8:56

Not sure about the 90% figure but many people in the Netherlands know at least some English and they are very eager to speak it. Dutch people will often switch to English as soon as they sense you don't understand Dutch and I have never felt any annoyance about that (not a concern for you but even civil servants, the police, etc. will happily help you in English). You should therefore have absolutely no problem whatsoever in Amsterdam.

It's not unusual to meet someone speaking German or even French or Spanish but it's obviously more difficult to rely on that.

On the other hand, learning a few words of Dutch and saying “thank you” (“bedankt” or “dank u”) in the local language never hurts.

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In Amsterdam, I got the impression that asking someone "do you speak English?" was a bit like asking someone, "can you read and write?", or if they're in a public-facing role, "are you remotely competent to do your job?". It's not that those who don't speak English are necessarily uneducated or incompetent, just that those who do seem to consider it part of their basic skillset. Of a small sample (albeit selected on the basis that they could speak English), they've been learning English since forever. Ofc not everyone in Amsterdam was educated in the Netherlands. –  Steve Jessop Aug 26 at 8:42
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@SteveJessop You do encounter people who don't really speak English well enough, e.g. to give directions. Especially middle-aged people often know some English but aren't really comfortable having a conversation. But everybody will enthusiastically answer “yes” to your question and try anyway, so the OP has no reason to fear annoying anyone. –  Relaxed Aug 26 at 9:47
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@Relaxed: instead of waiting impatiently to hear you butcher our language, we'd rather let you wait while we butcher English... –  RemcoGerlich Aug 26 at 11:46
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I've also heard the same as Steve Jessop - that a polite "Hello, good day" in Dutch before talking in English goes down well, but that standards of English are so high in the Netherlands that "Do you speak English?" would leave most people under 40 wondering why you think they're uneducated. –  user568458 Aug 26 at 16:46
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Older people tend to know English (and more often German and/or French) but have far less opportunity to practice it and may thus be less secure (and have a thicker accent). English has been mandatory for ALL children from age 12 to 15 or so for at least 35 years, for ALL children from age 10 (and now 8 I think) for 15 years or longer. So yes, the vast majority of the country at least speaks some English, even if they're not experts at it (classroom taught languages tend to fade when you don't use them regularly). –  jwenting Aug 27 at 7:17

In my personal experience, you will be fine with speaking English in Amsterdam. Most people will be able to understand you. However I do suggest you learn some key phrases, not out of necessity but out of respect. I think you will find that people are more willing to help you if they can see you are trying to speak their language then when you just assume they can speak English. But I found that people in Amsterdam are mostly friendly and willing to help.

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For a long time, Dutch TV-makers had no budget for voice-over translation, which gave many children from the '70s and '80s an early advantage over their counterparts in countries like Germany and Italy. That's still noticeable, although more and more English cartoons have been translated over the past few years. It's still very rare to find TV-shows and movies that have been translated to Dutch, commercials are the only common exception.

Furthermore, we start learning English at the age of 10, which means nearly every Dutch person you will encounter will at least be able to understand you very well. Most of them will also be able to respond. The Dutch-English accent can be thick, but it leans more towards overarticulation, which makes it easy to get into. If you want to prepare yourself for that, Louis van Gaal's recently been appointed as the manager of Manchester United. His post-match interviews have it all.

One little piece of advice: when asking for the time or making dinner reservations, we don't mean half past five when we say "half five", we mean 4:30.

Update: @gerrit: Was it really about budget?

I don't have any sources for this (I tried to find some), so let me clarify what I do know. I've been told by someone who worked in public TV back then (note that we didn't have commercial TV until the late '80s) that it was a lot cheaper to add subtitles than translating the show and hiring voice actors, which was something the Dutch channels simply couldn't afford. I do suppose there's a big difference between voice-overs (like in Poland) and real "dubbing", but I remember that Germany also did voice-overs back then instead of dubbing, while they were on a significantly higher budget (including the budgets of other German speaking countries, like Austria and parts of Switzerland). I suspect that the low quality of Eastern-European voice-overs of the '80s and early '90s would simply not have passed any quality standard in The Netherlands, so @DavidMulder certainly has a point, of course. As for @Relaxed, I've been to Poland and their English is certainly worse than the Dutch's. Portugal and Greece speak the kind of English I expect from high-tourism countries: functional, but no more.

Also, I've read here that apparently, most Bulgarian voice-overs of American movies, for instance, were actually shot with hand cameras in movie theaters showing the German dubbed version of the movie after which a single person did a voice-over track. I suppose you don't need a big budget for that.

Another update

I did find a second source from a newspaper TV-critic suggesting that it was a budget issue saying:

Er was eens een Duitse filmcriticus met een origineel argument voor nasynchronisatie en tegen ondertitels: zo zag je tenminste de voeten van de acteurs. Wijlen Richard Roud, filmhistoricus, had een interessante theorie over de verdeling van Europa in nasynchronisatie- en ondertitel-landen. Aan de ene kant bevinden zich Groot-Brittannië, de Benelux, Scandinavië, Zwitserland, Oost-Europa en de helft van Frankrijk; aan de andere kant Duitsland, Oostenrijk, Italië, Spanje en de andere helft van Frankrijk. Die lijstjes deden Roud op de een of andere manier aan de Tweede Wereldoorlog denken. Toen ik de Franse ambassadeur in Nederland (je probeert eens wat conversatie) deze Roud-theorie voorlegde, liep hij zo rood aan van woede als Louis de Funès. Het had met iets anders te maken, met grote en kleine taalgebieden. Want, bien sûr, nasynchroniseren is te duur in talen die door minder dan twintig miljoen mensen gesproken worden. Dat wij niet de voeten, maar wel de stem van Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando en George Clooney kennen, danken we dus aan een eenvoudige economische wetmatigheid.

To summarize: He's saying a German movie critic once said that they were doing these voice-overs so that we would be able to see the actors' feet for a change. The French ambassador in the Netherlands contested that and said it was simply a matter of audience size, where countries with an audience size of under 20 million would simply not have the money to do it. I think the Dutch audience was way under 10 million in the '80s.

An interesting statement in this column is that The Netherlands started flirting with dubbing in the '90s which appears to have been lucrative enough to start doing it more, suggesting that we (and especially the younger generation) don't detest it as much as you'd think.

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I doubt this explanation. Polish TV does voice-over on a shoestring budget (with a single voice and the original soundtrack still audible) and Portugal or Greece also mostly have subtitles, without any dramatic effect on English ability as far as I can tell. –  Relaxed Aug 26 at 15:18
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Yep, this was about mentality, not budget. Subbing vs dubbing however is a key reason for why the Dutch know english so well. –  David Mulder Aug 26 at 15:42
    
Was it really about budget? –  gerrit Aug 26 at 15:42
    
I seriously doubt it was about budget. Might have played a part, but more likely a Dutch company produced the subtitling equipment and it was only natural for Dutch TV to buy that rather than import something else. –  jwenting Aug 27 at 7:21
    
@Relaxed Polish dubbing is so loud, you can't understand the original even if you know the language relatively good. It's even more annoying if it jams the soundtrack and any other sounds as well –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Aug 27 at 7:42

I am going to make a bit of a controversial claim in this post, but from my experience working with a lot of expats in the Netherlands it can be considered quite true:

The amount of Dutch you should learn depends entirely on whether you're from a 'western' country (western Europe, north America, Australia), or one of the countries the Dutch tend to look down on (middle and eastern Europe, Africa and nowadays more and more southern Europe as well). If you fall in the first category and know good English you should just address people in English and not care about Dutch.

On the other hand, if you fall in the second category and your English isn't exceptionally good either you should not be surprised even if Dutch actually act as if they don't know English. Don't ask me why 'we' do it, all I know is that 'we' do it. We have gone from one of the most culturally open and welcoming countries to one of the countries with the worst discrimination (we recently even ended up as the most expat unfriendly country in the world in a big survey). So practically if you're in the second category I would indeed advice you to prepend anything with "Excuse me, do you speak English?" or something along those lines and be as respectful as possible (no matter how undeserved, the Dutch are known for their bluntness (commonly known as arrogance), but they only accept that from fellow Dutch people). Now, let's finish this of with a piece of good news, as long as you stay in the central parts of Amsterdam this is far less of an issue and you don't need to worry about it all that much (though there are certain quarters of Amsterdam where this still applies strongly).

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-1: I am Dutch and I do not recognize your statements. –  Bernhard Aug 26 at 17:47
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@Bernhard: Read the comments on this page, maybe that will change your mind about the vote. And yes, I had heard people complain about those things for years due to the international circles I lived in, but always thought it wasn't true because I didn't experience those things as a native Dutch. –  David Mulder Aug 26 at 17:50
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@DavidMulder I am too lazy to read all those comments, but as far as I can see from what I read, it has nothing to do with tourist trying to communicate with people. –  Bernhard Aug 26 at 17:53
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@David Mulder: I think the Dutch are annoyed by people living and/or working in NL without learning the language and make assumptions about that based on where you're (perceived to be) from. If you're clearly a tourist you won't run into that, if you come around to, say, clean someone's windows or install his kitchen it's more likely you're expected to be able to speak Dutch. –  AVee Aug 26 at 17:56
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@JaapHaagmans: When family of expats come by to visit I would indeed consider them tourists, and yes, except when it's overly clear they are tourists (which normally is not the case) they will be treated with typical Dutch arrogance (case I know about: total stranger verbally attacking someone for not teaching her son Dutch... whilst they were just visiting for two weeks...). –  David Mulder Aug 27 at 10:57

I'm Dutch. A lot of people speak English but most people have a weird Dutch accent. There are also a lot of words which almost sound the same in both English as in Dutch (bier or beer). But with just English you should be able to make yourself clear to a lot of people. If you speak a bit of Dutch is nice but not required. Dutch is a very tough language to learn. At school I have better grades in English than in Dutch.

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I really don't know how you put up with it, SuperDJ. :O Compare countries like < censored > where people speak english fine, but are unbelievably rude about having to do so!! –  Joe Blow Aug 26 at 10:28
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I love the Dutch accent! As a native English speaker, I always find Dutch-accented English very easy to understand. Sure, the pronunciation is different but it's still very clear and consistent. I also find I can understand written Dutch fairly well, even though I don't know a word of the language. I learnt German at school and written Dutch looks a lot like German transcribed into that same Dutch accent! –  David Richerby Aug 26 at 10:59
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@DavidRicherby: If you know both german and english, dutch should indeed be quite easy to understand. Just like you can understand English quite well if you know French and Dutch, just such a pity it doesn't work the other way round :P –  David Mulder Aug 26 at 15:53
    
@JoeBlow Dutch have always been a country in full knowledge that they're small, and rely on foreign relations for most everything (from national security to economic prosperity). That attitude helps a lot. And historically, it's always been better to have to speak English than German or French (the latter having left very sour memories of their occupation of the Netherlands under Napoleon and Hitler). –  jwenting Aug 27 at 7:19

English is de-facto second language in the Netherlands, in the sense, that practically every child 10 years or older is able to communicate in it. One of the reasons for that can be the fact that English movies and TV programs are shown with subs and never dubbed (except programs for small kids). In Amsterdam and other tourist areas chances to get lost because you don't know Dutch are very low (except if someone would deliberately refuse talking in English to you). Outside of Amsterdam the situation can be different. Some older people might also have difficulties speaking English.

In general, comparing the level of English in the Netherlands and in Spain (from my personal experience, though I didn't stay in Spain as long as in the Netherlands, and my Spanish is a joke, so I might be biased), if you rate the knowledge of English in Spain (on average) as 6 on 1-10 scale where 10 is the best, then the Dutch must be around 8-9.

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the main reason is that English is mandatory for ALL children for several years, and most tend to take it as an elective topic after that until highschool (equivalent) graduation. –  jwenting Aug 27 at 7:25
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My own kids who grew up in NL learned English even before they started getting official English lessons (they could speak it quite confidently and read books at the age of 9-10 years without any efforts from our side). I am not a native Dutch speaker though (but on the other hand, our home language is not English either). –  Ashalynd Aug 27 at 8:31

I can only agree on the above answers. Keep in mind that when you try to learn some Dutch words and address someone in Dutch, it is very likely that you get your answer in English. It is a matter of customs, not being rude or kind doing that.

Used to work for a US company where alle the native English people went to Dutch class, where everyone but tweo collaegues were dropout after five lessons: when they tried to order bread at the bakery in Dutch, the rest of the conversation was always in English.

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