9 juli 2018

Dutch spoken here - How Amsterdam is becoming a bilingual city

De Kinkerstraat

When you walk through the Kinkerstraat, the long shopping street to the west of the Amsterdam inner city, you can easily catch six or seven different languages. At the western end of the street it can be Portuguese, because of a small cluster of Brazilian shops and bars. It can be Arabic or Turkish, or Dutch in an Amsterdam accent, because despite gentrification the street has not yet lost its working class and multicultural character. Money transfer shops, clothing repairers and massage parlors are mixed with affordable chain stores. As you get closer to the inner city, you will more likely hear the French, Spanish or Italian of tourists.

One thing that is certain in the Kinkerstraat is that you will hear English. Sometimes with an American or British accent, but more often the international English that is the language of choice in mixed groups. Many times it is the Dutch doing the talking. Not any longer in broken English (the famous steenkolenengels or ‘coal English’), because most young Dutch in Amsterdam speak excellent English. More and more restaurants and shops are using only-English chalkboards. 'We are proud to use local products', I once read on one of them.

Things have changed especially fast after the opening in 2014 of De Hallen, the old tram depot that has been converted into a cultural center. From that moment on this part of the Oud-West neighborhood has become an extension of the inner city. In the local supermarkets you will see young tourists with ready made sandwiches, looking puzzled at the cashiers question whether they own a bonus card. Some of the employees are Polish. They can show you the way to a product, but you have to ask them in English. (I was so surprised that I started stammering spontaneously, unable to translate kersen op sap as cherries in syrup).

And then of course there is Airbnb. In my neighborhood De Baarsjes, just to the west of the Kinkerstraat, former social houses have been sold by the housing corporations for relatively low prices and resold for much higher prices, in the range of 250.000 to 300.000 euros for a 50 m2 appartment. According to city policies, the new owners are allowed to let their appartments to guests for two months a year, although nobody seems to check if two months is actually two months. The rattling of trolley cases on the pavement has become a common sound. Recently I was talking to the chief occupant of one of these appartments (I did not ask if she was the owner). A young Romanian, good job at an international company, away for business a big part of the year. It was a nice conversation, too nice to spoil with criticizing Airbnb. I did not go beyond a teasing "So you are the hotel manager?”, which she seemed to think was rather funny. She made an apology that I had heard many times before in Amsterdam: "Sorry, I do speak a little Dutch, but I haven’t had the time to learn it better’. Meanwhile she probably thought the same as I did: we are doing well in English, so why bother about Dutch?

Still, the Baarsjes is nothing fancy, just an ordinary residential quarter that was on the list of deprived neighborhoods only fifteen years ago. Two kilometers to the east, in the inner city, the anglicisation is much more advanced. When I cross the Singel on my bicycle, the canal that encircles the inner city, it feels like entering a kind of international zone, in which an ever growing number of bars, restaurants and shops are using English as the language of preference. Suddenly you are faced with a choice that seemed unthinkable in the past: will I speak Dutch or English here? It is somewhat reminiscent of Brussels, the once Flemish-Dutch speaking city that turned francophone, where as a Dutch visitor it is always a challenging game to figure out whether a shop-assistant, waitress or clerk is part of the Dutch-speaking minority, or at least willing to speak Dutch.

And it's not just shops and bars. During the occupation in 2015 of the Bunge Huis, a building of the University of Amsterdam, the protesting students were (at their request) spoken to in English by mayor Eberhard van der Laan. During the municipal elections in the spring of 2018  the VVD, nationwide the largest party, campaigned with If you love Amsterdam vote VVD. The party's website had a page in English, with an emphasis on issues like international schools and ‘a safe and clean city’. Remarkably there was nothing about immigration and integration, usually important issues for the right-wing liberals. Apparently you are more than welcome as long as you bring money and English; don’t worry about the language, we’ll adapt to you. Amsterdam is the only city in mainland Europe where you just need English to make it, says entrepreneur Yossi Eliyahoo in an interview in local newspaper Het Parool. The Israeli, who started ten years ago in Amsterdam and is the owner of eleven restaurants in the city, admits that he only knows a few words of Dutch. 

The importance of English could easily be dismissed as something that belongs to the pocket-sized metropolis that Amsterdam is, and always has been. But what if this is different? What if this is one of those cases in which things move so fast that it is hard to see what exactly is going on? This could very well be the beginning of a new language area: the center of Amsterdam, with a few extensions, where English is steadily conquering ground, until the area becomes truly bilingual.

Should something be done about it? The question, it seems to me, is if something can be done. There is no doubt the housing market needs regulation to avoid the city turning into an investor’s paradise full of temporary housing. In the academic world efforts should be made to protect Dutch as a scientific language. But it will not prevent the presence of English in the city to get a permanent character. Some of the expats and international students will stay. The immigration of 'foreigners from western countries’, for many years the fastest growing immigrant group in the city, will continue. More people will decide that English is the best language to use, as it is the language in which the greatest number of people will understand what you are saying. It is also the choice that requires the smallest common effort in a mixed population, because learning Dutch is much harder for the non-Dutch than it is for the Dutch to improve their English.

Regulation will always be overtaken by events. What is still a concession to English speaking ‘guests’ in the city, will shift to bilingualism. Until a point is reached where the use of Dutch will be a concession to the shrinking group that has a problem using English. The laggards. The natives. Then we will have signs with ‘Dutch spoken here’, as if it is something special, a symbol of excellent service.

An exaggerated picture of the future? Will not happen? That must have been the thought of many people in Brussels in the 19th century, when their fellow citizens gradually started to replace Flemish with practical and status-enhancing French.

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