Is Dutch a useful language to learn? It depends!

So, you’re considering learning Dutch, but you’re not sure if it’s actually worth it? Totally understandable! There’s no generic answer because it depends on your situation and priorities. So, we’ll look at the question from various angles, which will give you all the information you need to decide if it’s worth it for you.

How many people speak Dutch?

A good starting point when deciding to learn a new language is to look at the number of speakers.

Worldwide, about 24 million people speak Dutch, the vast majority of whom are native speakers. Of those people, 17 million live in the Netherlands, 6.5 million live in Belgium, and 400,000 live in Suriname (a former Dutch colony in South America). Dutch is also spoken in the Dutch Caribbean, but those islands have small populations and Dutch is only one of the official languages there.

So, Dutch is a small language. There are roughly fifty languages with more native speakers than Dutch. And even if we look purely at European languages, we still find ten languages that have more native speakers: Spanish, English, Portuguese, Russian, French, German, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Romanian.

So, when viewed through this lens, Dutch is not a particularly useful language to learn. But this is just one lens, and we should look at it through other lenses as well.

The level of English in the Netherlands

Because the purpose of a language is to communicate with others, it’s also important to take into account how many speakers you can already talk to. And for Dutch, this is actually quite a substantial number.

Virtually all Dutch people speak English, and they generally speak it well. In fact, according to the EF English Proficiency Index, the level of English in the Netherlands is “very high.” Every year, countries where English is not the first language are ranked, and the Netherlands often ranks first. It has never ranked lower than third.

So, learning Dutch doesn’t actually allow you to speak to more people. It allows you to speak to people in their first language who you can already speak to in their second language. So, that also makes it a less useful language to learn.

And there’s another implication that people often overlook. Given that the level of English in the Netherlands is very high, your level of Dutch also needs to be very high before it even makes sense for Dutch people to talk to you in Dutch. As long as their English is better than your Dutch, conversations will default to English.

Do you need Dutch to study in the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands, the usage of English goes up with the level of education. While an increasing number of Dutch high school students are being taught in English (part of the time), that is still the exception. By the time you get to the master’s degree programs, however, English is the norm and Dutch is the exception.

In the academic year 2021-2022, 53 percent of the 418 unique bachelor’s programs at Dutch research universities were taught exclusively in Dutch, 28 percent were taught exclusively in English, and the remaining 19 percent were taught in both English and Dutch. So, students who don’t speak Dutch still have access to almost half of the bachelor’s programs.

The following table shows the percentage of programs in each field taught in each language:

Agricultural & Natural Environment28%0%72%
Natural Sciences22%15%63%
Language & Culture14%30%56%
Behavioral & Social Sciences13%36%51%

That same year, of the 723 master’s programs, 77 percent were taught exclusively in English, 14 percent were taught exclusively in Dutch, and 9 percent were taught in both English and Dutch. So, being able to speak Dutch barely gives you more choice when picking a master’s program.

This table shows the percentages at the master’s level:

Language & Culture61%25%15%
Behavioral & Social Sciences74%15%11%
Natural Sciences95%2%3%
Agriculture & Natural Environment100%0%0%

The Netherlands is home to well over 100,000 international students. Together, they make up about 14 percent of all higher education students in the Netherlands. So, not only is it easy to study in the Netherlands if you don’t speak Dutch, you’re bound to meet fellow students who also don’t speak Dutch.

Do you need Dutch to work in the Netherlands?

As in many other countries, there are a lot of manual labor jobs in the Netherlands that don’t require you to speak the language. A significant number of these jobs are done by the hundreds of thousands of Polish immigrants that reside in the country. Only a third of them say they speak English quite well, and only one in ten say the same about Dutch.

Those manual labor jobs generally don’t pay well, though. Polish immigrants take them because they can still make three times more than what they would make in Poland, and this applies to some other immigrants too, but immigrants from wealthier countries are usually less interested in them.

When it comes to other jobs, the vast majority do require you to speak Dutch.

In fact, 71 percent of employees in the Netherlands indicate that internal communication (with colleagues and superiors) at their jobs is always in Dutch, 18 percent say it’s a combination of Dutch and English, and only 3 percent say it’s always in English. The percentages don’t add up to 100 because there are also other options involving other languages (like the regional language Frisian).

External communication (with customers, clients, students, etc.) is slightly more often in English, but Dutch is still clearly the dominant language there as well.

Job postings line up with these findings. On Dutch job posting sites, only 5 percent of job postings are written in English.

There are significant differences per sector, though. The following sectors have the highest percentages of job postings written in English: tourism, recreation and event management (11%), administrative and business operations (11%), automotive (17%), advertising, marketing and communication (21%), media, art and design (23%), research and science (30%), software and information technology (31%), and human resources (46%).

So, all in all, it’s definitely possible to find a job in the Netherlands if you don’t speak Dutch, but you’re at a significant disadvantage. The number of jobs that don’t require Dutch is limited, and you’re competing for these jobs with Dutch people who also speak English. So, if you want to work in the Netherlands, then Dutch is absolutely a useful language to learn.

Four arguments in favor of learning Dutch

I’ve included a lot of data so far because I want you to be well informed, so you can make a decision based on accurate information. But I also want to emphasize that Dutch is not only useful if you want to work in the Netherlands and don’t have a job yet. Dutch is also useful in four other ways, they’re just harder to measure.

First of all, even though Dutch people generally speak English well, the vast majority of them still don’t speak it as well as they speak Dutch. This doesn’t matter if you’re on vacation and you’re just trying to order food or make small talk, but if you actually live in the Netherlands, then it’s a lot more convenient if you can talk to people in the language in which they can express themselves fully with the depth and nuance that certain conversations require.

Secondly, group settings can be complicated if you don’t speak Dutch. Of course, Dutch people will speak English to each other when they’re consciously trying to include you. But real life is full of situations where it’s not entirely clear who’s part of a conversation and who isn’t, and sometimes people simply forget. So, when living in the Netherlands, you might find yourself listening to Dutch classmates or colleagues talking to each other in Dutch and feeling left out, or feeling like a nuisance whenever you have to ask them to switch to English for you.

Thirdly, there’s no better way to signal that you want to be part of Dutch society than by learning the language. Everyone likes it when a foreigner makes an effort to integrate, and Dutch people are no different. They may understand you just fine in English, but being able to talk to you in Dutch will make them feel more connected to you. And even if you have a job where you don’t need to speak Dutch, it will get noticed if you learn the language anyway and that can benefit your career.

And fourthly, you miss out on a lot of culture if you live in the Netherlands and don’t speak Dutch. I’m not just talking about your ability to read Anne Frank’s diary in its original language, although that does count, but also about the type of culture you encounter in everyday life. American entertainment is everywhere in the Netherlands, but so is Dutch entertainment. If you can’t pick up a Dutch book, understand a Dutch song, watch a Dutch TV show, enjoy a performance from a Dutch comedian, or even watch the news, then your experience isn’t nearly as rich as it could be.

So, is Dutch a useful language to learn?

It depends! Dutch is useless in most of the world, it’s not necessary for a vacation in the Netherlands, and you can even study or work in the Netherlands without speaking it. But it opens up more job opportunities, and it makes living in the Netherlands easier and more fun. So, if you want to live in the Netherlands, it’s worth learning Dutch.