The Dutch have radically changed their language rules for immigrants

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Hi, just want to say thanks for all the reviews at Apple Podcasts.

If you haven’t rated and reviewed us, please consider doing it. It takes just a couple of minutes. Thank you.

Patrick Cox: You’ve probably seen one of those encounters recorded on a phone. It’s usually in a market or a restaurant.

YouTube video: “You need to speak English!”

Patrick Cox: One person telling another to “speak English.”

YouTube video: “Get the f*** out of my country!”

Patrick Cox: Not fun to listen to. And I don’t know if the people who object to Spanish being spoken — it’s usually Spanish — I don’t know if those people know that the US doesn’t have an official language.

Also, it’s hard to tell if there are more of these kinds of confrontations these days. Or if there are just more ways of recording them and posting them online.

What we can say though, is that in the past dozen or so years, more prominent politicians have been pushing the idea that everyone should just speak English. The White House has got in on the act too with a proposal for a new immigration law.

Donald Trump: “Future immigrants will be required to learn English and to pass a civics exam prior to admission.”

Patrick Cox: And these kinds of ideas and confrontations — they’re not just happening in the US.

From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox.

Today we take you to the Netherlands, a country where ideas about immigrants and language have changed, 180 degrees.

And where the Dutch are going, other nations are following.

Patrick Cox: I meet Hassnae Bouazza in a suburb of Amsterdam, in a room overlooking a school. Hassnae is in her 40s. She’s the youngest of seven children. In the 1970s, her father left Morocco to seek work in Europe. He ended up in the Netherlands.

Hassnae Bouazza: And then in 1977 we all joined him, to live in Holland.

Patrick Cox: A lot of Moroccan families were doing the same thing at the time. The Netherlands had a labor shortage, and so they invited so-called “guest workers” to the country. They came by the thousands every year. And no one in Hassnae’s family was sure how long they’d actually be there.

Hassnae Bouazza: There was this idea of, we knew at one point we will be returning back home. And but that idea just vanished. And we settled and we stayed.

Patrick Cox: Most Moroccans lived in Dutch cities. But the Bouazza family moved to a village. It set them apart from other Moroccans — and it set them apart from their new neighbors too.

Hassnae Bouazza: We were the only Moroccan family. And we were the only ones for years and years and years. And I was the only Moroccan girl in my class.

Patrick Cox: Did you learn Dutch by going to school?

Hassnae Bouazza: Yeah. And I do remember very vividly the moment that I realized that I had learned Dutch very quickly. I was playing with children at kindergarten and that I all of sudden realized, you know, I speak Dutch. And it went very quickly.

Patrick Cox: Hassnae’s Dutch came in handy in all kinds of ways.

Hassnae Bouazza: When there were papers to be filled in. That’s what we did, the children. We would translate and go along with them to doctor appointments, all that sort of stuff. That’s what we did.

Patrick Cox: These Dutch-speaking Moroccan siblings — they might have been called model immigrants, if the Dutch government had any kind of a model in mind. But it didn’t. Instead, it just let things take their course, which for guest workers and their families meant: sink or swim. That’s what it was like at school too.

Hassnae Bouazza: I had a teacher who wasn’t that kind and who wasn’t that positive about Moroccans or Arabs or foreigners in general. So it was a bit much.

Patrick Cox: A lot of kids, too, left her feeling the same way.

Hassnae Bouazza: They never fail to remind you that you’re different.

Patrick Cox: Hassnae didn’t know it at the time, but her family was an exception. The vast majority of guest workers from Morocco, and Turkey and elsewhere — the ones who lived in the cities — their children were being taught in separate classes from the Dutch kids. They were often being taught in their own native languages.

School officials at the time thought, why bother teaching them Dutch? They’re going to go home in a few years anyway.

Ricky van Oers: Nothing was done to integrate them in the society.

Patrick Cox: This is Ricky van Oers who is an immigration law specialist at Radboud University in the Dutch city of Nijmegen.

Ricky van Oers: The authorities thought too easily of asking someone to come over to work, stay for 20 years and then go back. They didn’t realize that they were roots in society, especially after they brought the family members over. And after that, I guess there was a point of no return because the children started coming over, started learning Dutch in school and making friends. So it took a while that the authorities realized that these guest workers are not going to return.

Patrick Cox: When the penny finally dropped, the Dutch government realized it needed to treat these families as permanent fixtures in the country. The government offered free Dutch language classes to parents, and enrolled kids into regular classes at school, taught in Dutch.

By the 1990s, Ricky says, there were signs of progress. Moroccans, Turks and others were “becoming Dutch.” It was clear it would take time — a generation or two — but the language barrier was gradually falling away.

The optimism, though, was short-lived.

Sound of Dutch news program announcing World Trade Center attacks

Patrick Cox: 9/11 transformed Dutch public opinion. Before then anti-Islamic politicians were fringe figures, mainly ignored. But all of sudden demagogues like Pim Fortuyn became popular.

Fortuyn speaks in Dutch

Patrick Cox: Islam is an “import culture,” Fortuyn is telling supporters in a small town. He puts it another way: “The guests can’t be allowed to take over the house.”

Fortuyn was assassinated not long after this, not by an immigrant but by a Dutch-born man with a personality disorder. But because Fortuyn spoke out against Islam and immigrants, he became something of a martyr to that cause. Since his death, one anti-immigrant firebrand after another has climbed the ladder of Dutch politics.

Right now it’s Geert Wilders. He’s nearly reached the top of the ladder: he’s helped broker legislation, and his party has collaborated for a time with the ruling coalition. Here’s the kind of thing he says about Moroccan immigrants.

Geert Wilders: We’re asking Moroccan scum in Holland. Once again not all are scum but there is a lot of Moroccan scum in Holland who makes the streets unsafe. Mostly young people.

Hassnae Bouazza: One of the Dutch values used to be or least that’s something that they were very proud of was the tolerance.

Patrick Cox: This is Hassnae Bouazza again. Dutch tolerance is well-known. It turned the Netherlands into a pioneer, legalizing gay marriage, prostitution, and marijuana. Also…

Hassnae Bouazza: It was a tolerance of the other. A tolerance of the other cultures, of other ideas. And that’s — it’s nearly lost.

Patrick Cox: So, who’s considered Dutch now? And how much does speaking the language have to do with it? That’s after the break.

Patrick Cox: How do you define your nationality? What is it about you that makes you carry a particular passport?

I’m willing to bet that for most Americans, it’s not the English language. There are too many other people whose first language is English: Irish, Aussies, Canadians, even Brits who Americans had to kick out in order to become America. Sorry about that.

I think most Americans define themselves in a different way. Something to do with ideas. Different ideas for different people. Like, “Live Free or Die” maybe. Or, “The pursuit of happiness.” Or, “All people are created equal. “The right to worship.” Even, “The right to bear arms.” But English isn’t exclusively American. Sorry again.

By contrast, take a language like Icelandic. Virtually no one outside Iceland speaks Icelandic. The language defines Icelanders: it certainly helps that it’s related to Old Norse and all those wild sagas. And Icelanders have a song, an anthem that’s more popular than their national anthem: it’s called “Land, Nation and Tongue.” That’s how much their language means to them.

Dutch, is somewhere between Icelandic and English. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch had an empire — which means that today there are a few isolated spots around the world where Dutch, or a close relation to it, is spoken: Suriname, South Africa, parts of Belgium.

But for the most part when it comes to Dutch, the people-to-language equation is simple: Dutch is spoken by Dutch people in the Netherlands. Which is partly why Dutch people want foreigners to learn Dutch. Why their government insists on it — with some exceptions. More on that in a bit.

So as much we outsiders associate the Dutch with windmills and canals and coffee shops…Coffee shops??? That is the dumbest euphemism. As much as we associate these things with being Dutch, we shouldn’t overlook the language. Dutch people don’t.

Around the time of 9/11, the Dutch government stopped offering free language classes to immigrants. More and more politicians declared that integration had failed, that multiculturalism was an ideal that didn’t work in practice. This despite a government report that painted a far rosier picture. Assimilation and language-learning, it said, was well on the way to achieving its goals. But no one wanted to hear that.

So the Dutch government changed its policies again. They told people who wanted long-term work permits that they had to take private Dutch classes, paying for it themselves with the help of a €10,000 loan from the government — and then pass a language proficiency exam.

Ricky van Oers: And if they don’t pass this exam within a certain period of time — currently, that period of time is three years — they are fined.

Patrick Cox: This is legal scholar Ricky van Oers again. She’s not impressed with most of the small companies that offer Dutch classes to immigrants.

Ricky van Oers: There are a lot of dodgy language centers promising immigrants free laptops, taking their money. And then after three years, they still haven’t passed their exam.

Patrick Cox: Fewer immigrants are passing the language test, either because the required level is higher or because they can’t afford the classes. But look at it another way: fewer people from poorer countries like Morocco are bothering to take the test in the first place and even trying to get a work visa.

Which of these scenarios is it? It may depend on what you want: more assimilation or fewer immigrants. Fewer people are coming to the Netherlands, from Morocco and other poorer countries. And that, to some Dutch people, does look like success.

Whatever it is, Ricky says, in Europe the Dutch have been ahead of the game.

Ricky van Oers: I think the Netherlands can be perceived as sort of a guiding country. The Netherlands is very proud to have taken up that role. And you see that different European countries have copied the Dutch model.

Patrick Cox: In spite of that, some in the Dutch government recognized they have a broken system on their hands: Immigrants don’t learn Dutch, the government doesn’t offer proper support — and there’s no end in sight to right-wing politicians calling immigrants “lazy” and “scum.” A small, centrist political party called D66 in the ruling coalition is pushing to revamp the system. And it thinks it has the support of enough other coalition members to actually pass new legislation I spoke with a D66 Member of Parliament about this. His name is.

Jan Paternotte: Jan Paternotte.

Patrick Cox: Jan Paternotte.

Jan Paternotte: That’s very good.

Patrick Cox: Politicians, eh? They know how to butter you up. Anyway, he told me that under the new plan, the private language schools will be regulated, licensed and subsidized.

Jan Paternotte: There won’t be completely free market with all the cowboys involved anymore. And that’s a lot better. And also, people won’t have to take this loan of €10,000. We know that most people aren’t able to pay it back anyhow. So we’re gonna make people borrow money to first date. Have a status here in this country so you won’t have to start their life here with a significant deficit.

Patrick Cox: So free language classes. It may work — or the legislation may get watered down so that the loans and the debt remain part of the system. And by the time of the next election, right-wingers will say Moroccans and others just don’t want to learn Dutch.

Patrick Cox: There are of course fault lines, between the Dutch-born and the foreign-born, and learning the language isn’t gonna solve everything.

But there’s something else that many people overlook: something that makes it seem as though, there’s kind of a two-tiered system in operation here. Earlier I said there are exceptions to the Dutch insistence that immigrants learn their language — pretty big exceptions. In the European Union, there’s freedom of movement. Anyone with an EU passport can move to the Netherlands and stay there without speaking a word of Dutch. Many do. And rather than learn Dutch, they find they can get by in a language they’re likelier to have learned at school: English.

Jan Paternotte: It’s true. Many people can can live here and be quite successful without speaking Dutch, but only English, especially in the bigger cities.

Patrick Cox: I ask Jan Paternotte about this — surely that’s a threat to Dutch language and culture? No, he says.

Jan Paternotte: So many people feel that this language is threatened but I think that’s a that’s a sensation that people tend to have from time to time. And I mean, in the 17th century, people were worried that Latin was taking over science. Many Dutch scientists only wrote their books in Latin. In the late 18th century, people were worried that French was taking over our country. We have many French words in our language. And now the same is true for English.

Patrick Cox: Several Dutch people told me similar things. And it seems like there’s a lost irony here: I mean, who’s more integrated? The children of a Moroccan guest worker who went to Dutch schools and learned Dutch? Or a Brit or an Italian or Latvian who lives and works in Amsterdam in an English-language bubble?

Patrick Cox: Hassnae Bouazza is a successful writer today. She writes in Dutch about being Dutch, and she talks me in English about it.

Dutch values, she says, need to change — not fundamentally but in ways that allow for a few more accommodations. The make-up, after all, of the population has changed. There are now around 400-thousand first- and second-generation Moroccans who call The Netherlands home.

And enough, she says with that whole idea of Dutch tolerance.

Hassnae Bouazza: Tolerance means that you have one person tolerating the other. But what you want is acceptance. Full acceptance. No ifs or buts.

Patrick Cox: Hassnae lives in the Dutch countryside, not far from the small village she grew up in. She doesn’t stay in touch with too many people from her youth. But one way or the other, she gets plenty of reminders of those times. Like recently when she was interviewed.

Hassnae Bouazza: I went on a radio show and there was some subject I had to talk about. And one of the two presenters, one of the co-hosts: her sister was one of the teachers in my elementary school. So we did the interview on the radio, and then when I was finished and was leaving, she said to me “Your Dutch is so good. My sister did a good job.” I was like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” And it was just…when is this going to stop? My Dutch is good because of me! It’s not something that you can claim. I’ve been here practically my whole life. Stop it! That’s not a compliment. It’s not kind. It’s just another way to tell me that I’m different — and also, to be thankful or something. I don’t need to be thankful. What I did is, — I only can thank myself or my parents. I don’t need to thank anyone else for my Dutch or for what I’ve accomplished. And there is a sense in Dutch society that we, you know — bi-cultural Dutch people need to be grateful. But that’s not going to happen because we’re claiming this as our country as well.

You can read more about Hassnae Bouazza and her writing here.

The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey.

Thanks to Sara Wallace Goodman, Ben Coates, Jeremy Helton, Liesbeth Siers, Tracey Keij-Denton, Jos Beelen, Carol Zall, Clark Boyd, Laura Rumbley and everyone at Rose Stories in Amsterdam. Thanks also to our partners at the Linguistic Society of America, the Hub & Spoke audio collective and The World public radio program.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.



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