When you come from a tiny country with a long history of trade, you learn to adapt or wither.
Amsterdam has always looked outward, and as a result most people you will encounter in the city speak English very well. Foreign films and TV are shown with Dutch subtitles, and the Dutch have long used other languages in their dealings overseas. Many websites (especially tourist publications) are published in English, with the occasional publication in German, French, Italian and, increasingly, Turkish and Arabic.
Part of the reason for this outward focus may be that the Dutch language is confounding. Many linguists believe that Dutch is a close relative to English, but it won’t be apparent to the uninitiated. If you’ve studied German, Dutch will make sense grammatically, and once you get past some spelling differences you’ll probably be able to get the gist of it, especially written. Spoken Dutch is another matter entirely – its pronunciation is a minefield of diphthongs (vowel combinations), throat-clearing g’s and ch’s, roiling, rolling r’s and v’s that sound like f’s.
The Dutch speak English so well that visitors will rarely have the opportunity to practice Dutch. When they do, the most valiant attempts at pronunciation will probably be met with quizzical looks. Nevertheless, a few words in Dutch are always appreciated, especially the phrase Spreekt u Engels? (Do you speak English?) with older people. Foreigners who have settled in the Netherlands report that speaking Dutch, while hardly compulsory, warms their Dutch friends and colleagues.
For more extensive coverage of the language, pick up Lonely Planet’s Western Europe Phrasebook.
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