How to escape the expat bubble in the Netherlands?

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The Netherlands is a popular country and because of that, each year a lot of expats come here to work and to experience life in Holland.

But before they know it, they are stuck in what’s called ‘the expat bubble’. This bubble means that your social environment consists exclusively of expats and foreigners. You have no contact with Dutch people, and this may lead to not really understanding or immersing in Dutch culture.

First experiences in the Netherlands and with the Dutch

It’s not unusual to hear from foreigners that at first, it is quite easy to make contact with the Dutch.

In the street during a festival, they are open to having short conversations. What most expats find difficult is the next step, making friends.

“Taking the next step” – Don’t be afraid

As several students say in the video:

‘It takes time to get out of the bubble.

What is important here is that you should make the effort to take the next step. If you take the initiative, you will see a lot of Dutch people are open. But be aware that you should not wait for them to invite you. Because then the chances are high that you could wait a long time.

Another great way of stepping out of the bubble is getting a Dutch partner. But you’re not always in a position to make that decision…

Examples of struggles

Over the years I have spoken with a lot of expats who had difficulty in getting out of their bubble. Here are some examples:

‘Everyone answers in English (or in a strange dialect!)

English is often the main language in the big city centres in the Netherlands, and the people there will switch to English as soon as they hear that you’re not a native Dutch speaker. Or in some places they even start by speaking English.

So what is the best thing to do? You go to a small place in the less touristy areas. And yes, here they are glad to speak Dutch with you. The problem? They speak with a very difficult accent that is far from the Dutch you are used to…

Some of the students talked about their difficulties with pronunciation

‘I called my neighbours farmers.’

The [uu] sound can be quite difficult. Most of the time this isn’t a big deal, but sometimes the meaning of a word can really change.

So if you talk to your buren (neighbours) and you pronounce it as boeren (farmers), you might get some funny looks.

‘I asked for information about how to finance the prostitutes’

The wrong way of pronouncing the [uu] sound can lead to more problems.

If you have to pay the rent, you pay de huur. Pronounce huur with the [uu] sound more like the [oe] sound and you end up saying that you want the pay the hoer (the prostitute).

This happened with a student who lived in Tilburg and wanted to get some information about huursubsidie. The employee at the gemeente had to ask three times to really understand what he meant, because subsidie for the hoeren is kind of a strange thing to ask for.

‘Biertjes definitely help (although, that is what I thought)’

During the summer school there are several events where you can enjoy a drink or two. Dutch beers can make you feel more confident and also make your pronunciation more fluent. At least, the students thought the biertjes improved their Dutch. But the sober bystander wouldn’t have had the same impression!

There are people who have difficulties. But on the other hand, I hear people making excuses for not to getting in touch with Dutch people.

Excuse: I’m not sociable enough

You don’t have to be this super outgoing extrovert person. Learning a new language doesn’t mean you have to change your personality. You can stay the way you are.

Yes, communication with other people is really important in learning Dutch. But you can practise with anybody you like. Even if you just meet one person, that is okay.

Going to the summer school is always a good idea to help with this.

Excuse: Dutch is too hard

Your first impression might be that Dutch is a difficult language. Hearing sounds you never knew existed. Not being able to distinguish any words or structure.

But wait! Dutch is from the same family as English and German. This means there are quite a few similarities. But you have to know them to hear it.

Also, the Dutch language is open to new influences. Nowadays, that’s mainly English. So every day new English words enter the Dutch vocabulary.

Step out of your comfort zone

Stepping out your comfort zone is something a lot of experienced expats mention. This could be done in a lot of different ways.

TIP: Join a sports club

One of them, and a popular one, is joining a sports club. Doing sports in the Netherlands is often more than just showing up and playing the sport. The sports club often plays a significant part in people’s social life and in the community. So it’s not just the social interaction before and after the game. It can also be about volunteering for the tennis club or helping out with events.

If you’re not into sports that much, hobbies are another way of getting to know Dutch people. There are a lot of clubs and associations for different hobbies.

Stepping out your comfort zone may be more difficult, depending where you live. For example, in big cities with a large expat community like Amsterdam and Den Haag, it’s definitely easier to stay in the bubble than in small towns in the countryside.

Learn Dutch to step out of the expat bubble

I’m not just speaking as the founder of the BLC School. Learning Dutch really helps. It helps you make contact with the locals and not to be an outsider all the time.

Also, the BLC Dutch Summer school or Winter school is a good place to meet new people. In fact… the Dutch Summer school has even been the start of some new relationships.

Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School