They’re overwhelmingly tall. They ride their bikes everywhere (without helmets). They’ve reclaimed land from the sea. And now, for the second year in a row, they’re ranked first in English. In the most recent EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) ranking, the Netherlands came in first out of 80 countries in English skills, with 90 percent of respondents claiming to know English. For a country better known for its windmills, “coffee shops,” and tulips, these results beg the question: Why are the Dutch so good at English?
Small country, big voice
This tiny country of 17 million people punches well above its weight with the 17th largest GDP in the world, and the seventh largest in the EU, according to the IMF. While South America or the Middle East can rely on the market potential of large worldwide Spanish and Arabic-speaking populations to drive growth, there are only 27 million Dutch speakers. So, to ensure a global presence and market access to the world’s two billion English speakers, the Dutch have made learning English a priority.
Brad Pitt and Fred Flintstone speak English
The Netherlands doesn’t dub foreign language TV and movies. As a result, Dutch children grow up hearing English in popular culture from a very early age. Countries with a large enough audience for dubbed TV programs and movies, like France or Germany, dub everything, and as a result, have much less success in integrating English into their cultural life. Dubbing seems to render people linguistically numb to foreign languages, a condition the Dutch have successfully avoided.
Where there’s business, there’s English
The Dutch have always been enterprising—the Dutch East India Company was established as the world’s first multinational company in 1602. That same year, the first modern stock exchange was set up in Amsterdam to facilitate international trade. The country’s business-friendly legacy lives on as many iconic multinational companies (Royal Dutch Shell, Unilever, Heineken, and IKEA) are headquartered in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is in a self-perpetuating cycle where strong English leads to strong business, which in turn encourages the best English proficiency in the world.
The Dutch advantage
Before the advent of the EF English Test, the Dutch already had a hand up from their linguistic ancestors. Dutch is a Germanic language, just like English, so they share many roots and characteristics. De? The. Bier? Beer. Wafel? Waffle. While many language families don’t talk at the dinner table, cross-language similarities give the Dutch something to say when it comes to learning English.
The Dutch have benefited enormously from their high English proficiency. Anyone who remembers that New York was once New Amsterdam will know that the adventurous Dutch have always been a country with global ambitions. Countries a little further down the EF EPI’s English rankings would do well to pay attention. The Netherlands is a great example of how a country’s English proficiency can make it globally competitive and ensure it stays relevant far into the future. Adds a whole new meaning to the phrase “going Dutch,” doesn’t it?
[Full disclosure: The writer is married to a Dutchman who speaks excellent English.]