The Netherlands is a country in Western Europe that is bordered by Germany to the east and the Atlantic Ocean in the west. This close geographical location has influenced not only political relations between these two countries, but also linguistic ones. But, how common really is German in the Netherlands?
German is spoken by 71% of the population of the Netherlands and is the second most spoken foreign language, after English. It is taught at Dutch secondary schools and commonly spoken in the border areas, especially since citizens of both countries frequently cross the border to work or shop.
If you’re interested learning more about the commonality of German in the Netherlands, read on to find out about the close proximity of the two countries as well as the relationship between Dutch and German, and how this has evolved through the years.
- 1 How Does German In The Netherlands Compare With The Rest Of Europe?
- 2 Where Is German Likely To Be Found In The Netherlands?
- 3 Can German Be Heard On Dutch Television and Movie Screens?
- 4 Is German Commonly Used In The Workplace In The Netherlands?
- 5 Can German Be Read On Road Signs In The Netherlands?
- 6 Why German Is So Common in The Netherlands Today?
- 7 The Final Talking Point on How Common Is Spoken German In Netherlands
How Does German In The Netherlands Compare With The Rest Of Europe?
German has approximately 95 million speakers in the world. The majority of them live in northern and central Europe. Due to the economic power represented by Germany, it is not only spoken in countries where it has official designation. German is the language of trade and diplomacy in Europe that rivals any other.
The countries that have German as their official language all are in close proximity with the Netherlands, which also plays a role in how prevalent German is along side Dutch and English. There are six countries that include German as an official language. They are all in Europe.
- Germany (Deutschland) – population 84,900,000 – 92% of the population speaks German natively with 7% speaking it as a second language.
- Austria (Österreich) – population 8,838,171 – 93% of Austrians speak German natively and 6% of them speak it as a second language.
- Switzerland (die Schweiz) – population 8,508,904 – 65% of the people in Switzerland speaks a dialect of German known as Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch). 5% speak some form of German as a second language.
- Luxembourg (Luxemburg) – population 626,108 – The tables turn in this country to where German as a native language is spoken by 2% of the people and 68% speak it as a second language.
- Liechtenstein (Liechtenstein) – population 37,370 – In the small country of Liechtenstein, German is native to 86% of the population and a second language to 14%.
- Belgium (Belgien) – population 11,420,163 – The Belgian German speaking population is generally on the border with Germany and only about 1% of the country speaks it natively. As a second language 22% of the nation speaks it.
Although the Netherlands does not have an official designation for German it has a different, but notable connection with the German language. It is quite and overwhelming one at that.
The amount of German language proficiency is greater in the Netherlands than in any other country outside of those with official language designations. And of those that do have an official recognition of German, the Netherlands has more German speakers than Luxembourg and Liechtenstein combined.
In total, 71% of the citizens of the Netherlands can speak German. It should be also noted that this is a highly multilingual country with 92% of the population able to speak English. Some of reasons for such high German speaking abilities is the subject of a later section.
Where Is German Likely To Be Found In The Netherlands?
There are areas and cities that have a higher concentration of people that can speak and read German. This also applies not only to how many, but their level of skill with the language.
On the border between Germany and the Netherlands there is understandably a larger number of people that speak German. This doesn’t mean they do so in lieu of Dutch. On the contrary, the day to day conversations, business, and interactions of all types are primarily in Dutch.
Yet, these people have grown up with German as part of their lives. Their fluency may even have little to do with the compulsory language classes they took in secondary school. They tend to visit and be visited by the German people, culture, and language more regularly.
Here are some examples of the cities that fall into this category on the Netherlands German border:
Emmen – population 57,010 in the city proper and over 100,000 in the surrounding area – This small town in the 19th century was a tiny area with only approximately 3000 inhabitants. It was developed around a group of farms which later expanded to industry and local tourist attractions like a popular zoo.
Enschede – population 153,655 with much more in the immediate vicinity – This popular crossover point for train lines between Germany and the Netherlands is a prime example of a Dutch speaking area with a large contingent of German speaking people. For example, the Museum Twentse Welle located in the city has exhibits about the region and its people in Dutch and German, but notably not in English.
Venlo – population 92,403 with 100,000+ around the area – Venlo is an important industrial and trade city in Eastern Netherlands near the border with Germany. It not only has many train lines bringing people to and from major German cities, but also many bus lines connecting the nearby German cities of Essen and Cologne (Köln).
Heerlen, Kerkrade, Landgraaf, and surrounding cities – population approximately 250,000 in total among the cities and towns – This area is known as a ‘project city’ and is an attempt to combine in the future several smaller localities under one central city authority. Many of the people here are bilingual in German and Dutch with a large amount being conversationally fluent or better. Everything from shopping in the nearby German cities of Aachen and Cologne (Köln), to travel for work across the border makes this area a prime place to find the German language in the Netherlands.
Like we find a propensity to speak Spanish in the south west United States, or French in Southern Belgium (I have written an article on the commonality of French in Belgium here.), in the eastern portions of the Netherlands, German is common and sometimes part of everyday life. Though their daily interactions may be mostly in Dutch, many in these cities and towns watch German movies and shows, read books, and even speak in German regularly.
This is not only done in the times they travel over the border, but it is part of their lives even in their hometowns and villages. German is part of the life in the east of the Netherlands, at least to some degree.
Can German Be Heard On Dutch Television and Movie Screens?
The Netherlands is relatively a small country even by European standards. Though they are proud of their culture and heritage, the pragmatics of so many other people in the world speaking other languages encourages its citizens to speak many of them. The two most prevalent are English and German to hear on their televisions and ‘Big Screens’.
When it comes to movies, in order to foster understanding among its people, Dutch subtitles are used. Though unless it is a children’s film or show, the original language is kept. Dubbing of the Dutch language may be commonly found on media for kids, but not films for teens and adults.
This also applies to interviews and commentary originally done in another language. Subtitles will be added in Dutch, but the language will be left untouched.
What does this means for German? With the German indie film scene thriving in larger cities like Berlin and Cologne (Köln), German banks and news dominating Europe, and Deutsch Welle teaching and spreading German language and culture, it is no wonder that the Netherlands has a great many opportunities for speakers to hear, read, and speak the German language.
There is also a link between the Dutch film industry and the occupation of German troops on the soil of the Netherlands. Undeterred by the attempts of the people of the Netherlands to remain neutral as they did in WWI, the Nazis invaded in May of 1940.
The entire film industry, regulated by political pressure from Germany beforehand, became a tool of the German state afterward. This had long lasting effects that are just now nearly 100 years later being relegated to the past.
Is German Commonly Used In The Workplace In The Netherlands?
With the rise of the English language in much of the world, old ties to traditionally taught and sought after foreign languages have been weakened. Nationalistic tendencies are beginning to rise once again as things throughout history tend to do, and this mean that in the future this could revert back.
Yet for now, the teaching of German in high school levels in the Netherlands cannot completely combat the rise of the dominance of English as a foreign language. Most companies that tend to be international in their focus will more often lean this way.
On the other hand, for more localized companies and those near the border with Germany, German language proficiency is actually a highly rated skill. This is for good reason. Though Germans speak a high level of English as a general rule, German is strongly mandated in their schools even for immigrants.
Germans tend to be unforgiving in respect to their language and the national identity it connotates.
There is a famous line by an official that sums up how Germans command the economic business of the countries around them and even most of the EU.
If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.Former West-German Chancellor Willy Brandt
What does this mean for the Netherlands? If you are doing business with Germany, it is a high priority to have good German speakers on your team. Though Dutch usually dominates the day to day dealings in most firms in country, those dealing with clients outside of its borders will usually converse in English, German, or French.
Can German Be Read On Road Signs In The Netherlands?
The short answer here is, no. For the most part, unless there is a German named street or area (and that will be more likely near the border with Germany) you are going to see either Dutch or maybe some English.
There is also the international tendency to make all traffic and hazard related signs in pictograph form. This cuts out the need for text in any language. Though, it could be argued that they form a language all their own.
The English, German, and French translations on signs can be found like many European countries at larger airports and major train stations. This will also depend on the area.
When we were in Amsterdam airport, my husband Mat was wearing a t-shirt with a joke on it in German. Several people commented on it and struck up a conversation in German. Once they found out that we were from America, they would promptly switch to English, much to Mat’s chagrin. This is how it commonly goes in airports and major cities.
What we didn’t find in the airport was much in the way of German on signs. It would be here and there, but for the most part it was Dutch and English. Of course, there could have been much that we missed in the times we were in the airport there. Our planes tended to land or take off in the middle of the night.
Why German Is So Common in The Netherlands Today?
To investigate why spoken German is so popular in the Netherlands, we should first examine the linguistic ties between German and Dutch. Like we have already discussed, geographically it makes sense for the two languages to have some degree of proximity, and the border area, in particular, is rife with the two of them overlapping.
Although the languages have evolved separately from a shared root, there remains a commonality between them that even allows for some mutual intelligibility, even for those who don’t speak the other language. Let’s take a look at how the history of these languages, and the evolution of their dialects, shaped the influence of German in the Netherlands.
The Linguistic Origins Of German And Dutch
German and Dutch belong to the Indo-European language family, which includes most of the European languages. German and Dutch are even more closely related by belonging to the same branch, West Germanic, within the Germanic grouping.
Interestingly enough, the same thing can be said about English. Many think of English as a Latin based language because of its large amount of shared vocabulary with languages from that group. In fact English, like Dutch and German is a West Germanic Language.
The West Germanic branch contains many languages but is usually divided into two sections:
- German: Includes modern Dutch, Low German, and High German.
- Anglo-Frisian: Includes English, Scots, and Frisian.
German and Dutch are both connected to English, and many similarities can be found between these three languages, but it is the first two that are more closely related. During their early stages in the West Germanic branch, they existed in a language or dialect continuum throughout the Middle Ages.
A language continuum occurs when two or more languages, usually used in proximity of one another, merge in a way that can’t be easily divided. German and Dutch have evolved from this shared space and only started becoming separate following linguistic standardization that was prompted by an increased drive for nationalization.
Old Dutch by some accounts predates Germanic languages in the region that we know today and is said to be one of the original languages of Europe. Though the Dutch spoken today in the Netherlands resembles the Old Dutch of the Iron Age very little, just like the German of today looks nothing like the German of earlier eras.
The Shifting Dialects
German, like Dutch, is comprised of many dialects, but some have had more impact than others. When we think of German, there are two primary subsets for the language:
- Low German: This dialect, spoken mainly in Northern Germany, is most closely related to English and Frisian.
- High German: Also known as the modern or standard German, this dialect has mostly displaced Low German and has been influenced by the consonant shift.
Despite its displacement, Low German continues to be spoken in the Netherlands, particularly in the country’s northeastern region. It is commonly known as Low Saxon there, and it is more similar to Dutch in structure than High German.
The standard form of Dutch used today in the Netherlands is derived from a group of Low Franconian dialects that came from Low German. Standard Dutch has not gone through the consonant shift that High German experienced and continues to carry linguistic or phonological similarities to Low German.
These different influences can have a marked impact on the relation that Dutch people have to spoken German, and this can be observed in other dialects in the area. In neighboring areas around the border between Germany and the Netherlands, similar dialects have appeared on each side.
Spoken German in the Netherlands
The prevalence of spoken German in the Netherlands can be explored through two lenses influenced by the split of Low and High German. As mentioned in the previous section, Low German had a distinct impact on what is now standard Dutch.
Beyond the survival of the Low German dialect in the northeastern region of the Netherlands, the people living in the border areas of both countries can have limited intelligibility with those speaking either Dutch or Low German. It is easier to find commonality in the two languages, especially in terms of sounds, when it’s those two variants.
It is also far more common for Dutch people living around the border to interact with German speakers using the Low German dialect. This will influence the type of German that the Dutch in the area will speak when looking to communicate with their neighbors.
Despite this connection between Low German and standard Dutch, something interesting occurs in the case of High German. Like in Germany, the High German dialect may be the most familiar to people in the rest of the Netherlands, because this version of the language is the one that is taught in Dutch secondary schools.
Despite concerns that the study of German is dying out in Dutch schools, it is still a compulsory subject in most secondary schools in the country. It becomes an optional subject in high school, but there is still a vested interest in learning it, especially due to Germany’s geographical proximity.
In areas near the border, there is a higher number of bilingual schools with a German-Dutch profile. In these cases, High German is introduced in areas more familiar with Low German’s sound, which can lead to a richer knowledge of the German language.
Languages in the Netherlands
We’ve seen that High German is more familiar to Dutch people, while Low German is more linguistically similar to standard Dutch. Still, there are plenty of other influences at play in the linguistic landscape of the Netherlands. This landscape becomes even more fascinating due to its reach, which goes far beyond Europe and into the Caribbean.
These are the main languages and dialects spoken in the Netherlands:
- Dutch: The official language across the Dutch territories, from Europe to the Caribbean, where the Netherlands continues to have municipalities in Sint Eustatius, Saba, and Bonaire
- English: The main foreign language spoken in the Netherlands, as well as an official language in Saba, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, and Curacao.
- West Frisian: A co-official language in Friesland in the northern part of the Netherlands, derived from the West Germanic Frisian languages.
- Papiamento: Spoken in the Caribbean territories of Bonaire, Aruba, and Curacao, this creole language mixes elements of Spanish, Portuguese, and various African languages.
- Dutch Low Saxon: A grouping of dialects derived from Low German, commonly spoken in the northeast
- Limburgish: This dialect is formed of many others and shares a continuum with Low Saxon. Spoken in the south of the country, this dialect is very influenced by the proximity of neighboring Belgium and Germany.
- Standard German: The second most spoken foreign language in the Netherlands, used by around 71% of the population, as opposed to the 91% of English speakers
As seen here, standard or High German has a great deal of influence across the Netherlands, and it is commonly spoken as a foreign language. Although English speakers are higher in number, this is due not only to it being a popular choice but also because of being an official language in some of the Caribbean Netherlands territories.
There is a great difference between the number of Dutch people speaking German and those speaking French, the next foreign language in line. French only features in 29% of the population, followed by Spanish at 5%. This is another indicator of the importance of German.
The Final Talking Point on How Common Is Spoken German In Netherlands
Spoken German is common in the Netherlands, in great part due to the influence of sharing a border. There is also the fact that Germany is a world leader in industry and a player on the EU and global scene when it comes to politics.
It is one of the most popular choices to learn as a foreign language, and it is present across the Kingdom of the Netherlands (Dutch territory) in both its Low German and High German forms. It can be found in cinemas, on television, in schools, and in print.
Though in recent years English has been more in demand overall, there are many places in the Netherlands that German would not only be useful, but would be more needed than English.
I’ve also written about how common is spoken French in Belgium, too, if you’d like to check that out!