Is Dutch dying in Amsterdam?

Edition 19 April 2019, by Lorre Luther

Every Saturday afternoon, worshipers flock to De Krijtberg, a picturesque Catholic church in the heart of Amsterdam, to celebrate mass. The priest leads the congregation in English. Head to a restaurant or cafe inside the grachtengordel, and you’re more likely to hear “What can I get for you?” than “Kan ik iets voor je inschenken?” In churches, schools, sports clubs, stores, restaurants and cafes in the Dutch capital, English is fast becoming the dominant language.

The labor market is a major driving force behind this trend. The city is a popular destination for highly-paid knowledge workers from the United States, Germany, India and the United Kingdom. Large numbers of non-Dutch speaking retail and hospitality workers swell the international, English-speaking mix.

These two groups will most likely continue to grow. According to research conducted by Joblift, an online recruitment platform, the number of positions demanding English fluency and a university education has increased by 3% every month since the summer of 2016. Demand for foreign retail and hospitality workers also continues to soar. According to Pim Evers, spokesman for a national organization of restauranteurs, Dutch retail and hospitality businesses are increasingly turning to non-Dutch speaking workers in response to a shortage of native workers. “The Dutch labor market is extremely tight, a trend that will probably continue and may become more pronounced. As a result, many companies are focusing on recruiting foreign staff.”

Known for its high quality of life, Amsterdam typically experiences more immigration than emigration, a pattern which steadily increases the number of non-Dutch speaking residents over time. In 2017, 38,488 immigrants settled in the Dutch capital while only 25,747 departed. Estimates predict the city’s population will hit 1 million by 2032.

Opinions about the Englification of the city appear to be divided. Proponents argue it’s a bonus that attracts investment and tourists — a development that Amsterdam, as a tolerant business-friendly metropolis, should embrace. Others, including Annette de Groot, professor of language psychology at the University of Amsterdam, see the trend in more critical terms. De Groot argues that the continual use of English is not only irritating but also harmful to the ongoing development of the Dutch language. According to De Groot, academic Dutch is losing dynamism as a result of the emphasis on English in higher education. This stagnation runs over into the technical and business fields, where Dutch students educated in English tend to work, and from there, radiates throughout society.

She also points to the language shift’s ability to create social winners and losers, with the spoils going to highly-educated individuals comfortable expressing themselves in English. “We’re becoming a province of the Anglo-Saxon world in which large numbers of people are excluded from participation. We’re creating enclaves of privileged citizens,” says De Groot.

Others fear the loss of identity that comes with the decline of a living language. Vivien Waszink of the Dutch Language Institute argues that language forms part of one’s identity. Englification, she says, creates a sense of alienation among some city residents. Her research indicates that large percentages of Dutch speakers resent the use of English in daily life, with marked generational differences in how they experience the trend. “Young people often find it quite normal to speak English and can do it well, so it’s not so much of an issue for them,” she says.

Supporters of Englification point to the area’s success as an international business hub. According to Sako Musterd, professor of city geography at the University of Amsterdam, the trend has played a critical role in attracting international business. Amsterdam, Musterd argues, punches above its weight in the business world, in part because of its residents’ command of English.

Sabine Rock-Speelman of Mercer, a bureau that advises international workers moving to the Netherlands, understands both perspectives. She acknowledges that Englification has increased the city’s attractiveness for multi-national employers and foreign workers, but also understands why not everyone welcomes the change. “It’s about what you find most important. If you place more emphasis on economic factors, then this trend is fantastic,” she says.

The issue is no longer limited to Amsterdam or likely to go away anytime soon. On 1 January 2020, English will become the official language of Eindhoven University of Technology. According to a university press release, the “new language policy at Eindhoven University of Technology means that English will become the lingua franca and Dutch the informal language.”