|Should you have to speak Dutch to live in the Netherlands?
Photo Credit: Danagouws
A week ago, junior social affairs minister, Jetta Klijnsma, put a proposal on the table for temporary welfare cuts for those claimants living in the Netherlands who do not speak Dutch. It’s not the first time this idea has been put on the political table, and each time the idea hits the headlines, there is controversy. It certainly opens up a debate. A fierce one at that.
In 2009, Utrecht council wrote to 1300 benefit claimants threatening that their benefits would be reduced if they did not attend a naturalisation course (inburgeringscursus), even though this group were Dutch passport holders and were not obliged to undertake a Dutch course.
In 2011 the council in The Hague put a stop to some benefits after recipients refused to take Dutch language courses. In 2012 85 people lost their right to benefits in The Hague when they failed to begin a language, despite repeated warnings about the consequences.
The theory is, according to councillor Norder in The Hague, that such measures provide an incentive to learn Dutch, and therefore enables participation in the Dutch labour market.
The proviso of receiving benefits from the government is that a claimant makes every effort to find work as soon as possible. Without any command of the country’s language this job search is made much harder.
The Green party representative for The Hague, David Rietveld, questioned whether those following a Dutch course were then actually able to secure work, though he did say he had no problem with those people refusing to learn Dutch losing their benefits.
In 2012 the VVD wrote a proposal to this effect – anyone receiving benefits should have to prove that they have a command of the Dutch language, by means of an inburgeringsdiploma, or proof of eight years in the Dutch education system. Without this proof benefits would be reduced.
The latest proposal is a watered down version of the original coalition agreement which wanted to make Dutch language skills a compulsory part of eligibility for Dutch welfare benefits. However, this clashed with international law and had to be revised.
In his first King’s speech last September King Willem Alexander announced that the Dutch welfare state is a thing of the past, and instead we need to think along the lines of a ‘participation society’.
It is all part of the political pledge to make the Netherlands less of a welfare state and help welfare recipients become more employable. The Netherlands has traditionally been known as a country that looks after its citizens, in many cases, a little too well, and the changing political and economic landscape means changes are necessary. The generous welfare system can no longer be afforded.
As an expat, this is a topic which fascinates me. I’m a linguist, and have been since I started secondary school, so the idea of moving to country and refusing to learn the national language seems odd to me personally. I started learning Dutch before I moved here, in fact I started trying to understand at least the basics as soon as I met my Dutch partner.
When I moved to the Netherlands in 2000 my command of Dutch was basic. And that is an understatement but I kept at it. In the first few months in my new land I job hunted. It’s no surprise that without a competent level of Dutch my options were limited to international companies with a working language of English, of which there are surprisingly many in the big cities.
However, with no reasonable command of English or Dutch there is no way I would have been able to find a job in 2000 when I arrived. Had I refused to learn Dutch at that time and therefore reduced my job opportunities significantly, would it have been reasonable to claim money from the Dutch government, from a system I had contributed nothing to? There seems to be only one fair answer to that.
If you search expat fora a common question from people thinking about moving here is, “Do I need to learn Dutch to live in the Netherlands?” And the answer is generally, “Not necessarily.” This is because of the number of international organisations based in the country, plus the excellent linguistic skills of the Dutch population. But do those reasons make it right to move to a country and refuse to learn the local language?
I have my own opinions. I’m a linguist. I believe it is impossible to integrate into a society when you don’t speak the local language. And no, it is not easy to operate in a second language. There are many personal and cultural situations that make learning Dutch (or any other language) an uphill battle but a flat out refusal to make any attempt to speak Dutch certainly doesn’t make a fruitful life overseas particularly viable, in my opinion.
Should benefits be reduced for those refusing to take and then pass a Dutch language course? The answer to that is not a straightforward yes or no. I can perfectly understand the argument to reduce hand outs to those refusing to help themselves in the job market, or who point blank do nothing to help themselves be employable – and that is not just based on the ability to speak the national language. However, there are also some genuine situations where I can imagine it is extremely difficult to reach a competent level in a second language and thus withdrawing benefits would have dire consequences.
It remains a well-debated topic, not just here in the Netherlands, but around the world. Over to you – I would love to hear your thoughts.
Should those moving to the Netherlands make every effort to learn Dutch? Should welfare benefits be reduced for those refusing to learn a local language? Is the same debate raging in the country you call home?