Most Americans visiting the Netherlands feel pretty much at home, I think, although there are a few oddities, like the large number of bicyclists and the fact that the trains run on time. But at a deeper level, the Netherlands is really a very foreign country.
Last fall, the editors of Onze Taal ("Our Language") asked readers for their favorite German word. They got 3,358 responses, with a suprisingly clear winner, as they explained in an article earlier this year:
|1||fingerspitzengefühl||30.1%||flair, intuition, tact|
|2||überhaupt||15.2%||actually, at all, even, generally|
|3||sowieso||12.7%||anyway, in any event|
|6||ins blaue hinein||10.7%||into the blue (= "at random"?)|
|7||quatsch||8.9%||nonsense, hogwash, baloney|
|8||weltschmerz||8.1%||world-weariness, sentimental pessimism|
|9||himmelhoch jauchzend||7.6%||exulting sky-high|
|10||heimwee||6.6%||(typo for heimweh "homesickness"
or heimweg "way home"?)
(The English translations are mine, and therefore not to be relied on, since I know little German and less Dutch.)
Perhaps this particular selection of words tells us something about the Dutch national character, though I'm generally skeptical of such linguistic tea-leaf reading. For me, the real sign of Netherlandic otherness is the fact that this question was asked (and answered!) in the first place.
There's no glossy popular magazine in English anything like Onze Taal. But if there were, it's hard to imagine its editors asking readers for their favorite words in some nearby language (Spanish, French, Dutch, etc.). And it's even harder to imagine them getting such a large number of responses — if we were to scale the response rate according to the ratio between the overall U.S. and Netherlands populations (about 309 million to 17 million), their 3,358 responses would scale to more than 60,000.
The source of this difference, of course, is that the Netherlands is a small country whose citizens need to learn their neighbors' languages in order to prosper. But the fact that the difference is easy to explain doesn't change the fact that the difference exists.
Interestingly, these large differences don't prevent Dutch and Flemish linguistic nationalism from having surprising similarities to the U.S. "English Only" movement.
Thus in the Flemish- (i.e. Dutch-) speaking regions of Belgium, there's an on-going argument about whether the French-speaking linguistic minority should be made to learn Dutch in order to deal with the local government, to send their children to school in Dutch, and so on, despite the fact that Belgium is officially a bilingual country. In fairness to the Flemish, I gather that they feel that the situation is asymmetrical, in that a larger proportion of native Flemish speakers are competent in French.
In the Netherlands, the main linguistic controversy deals with immigrants — mainly from Morocco and Turkey — who don't assimilate well in to the larger society, and similarly don't learn Dutch very well. Since 2006, would-be immigrants need to pass a "civic-integration examination" as well as a Dutch language test.
The dominant worry in the U.S. has to do with the status of Spanish, where the situation is a sort of mixture of the Flemish/French and Dutch/other conflicts. Like French with respect to Flemish, Spanish is the language of nearby countries, whose speakers have been in the general area at least as long as the English speakers have. But like the Dutch with respect to Turkish and Arabic, relatively few U.S. native speakers of English are competent in Spanish.
What all of these situations have in common is that language differences align with ethnic differences, in a situation with considerable (and perhaps increasing) ethnic diversity in a given geographical area. Given that alignment, the amount of bilingualism or multi-lingualism seems to be secondary in determining whether controversies will arise about the use of minority languages.
In a post on "The folly of English-only" at Psychology Today, Derek Bickerton raises the example of Switzerland:
I know one country that's had hardly any trouble, inside or out, for several centuries. And … not merely does that country allow guns–it mandates that all men of military age have guns in their homes, and ammunition, and that they be ready to use them at a moment's notice. Just like the old Minutemen.
I'd like to hear from some people who are more familiar with the Swiss situation than I am. I gather that it's complicated — as this article explains,
According to Swiss jurisprudence and legal doctrine, the principle of 'linguistic freedom' means the right to use any official language in communications by private parties with the state and between themselves.
The protection of this constitutional right is, however, qualified by the territorial principle, which permits linguistic freedom to be limited to preserve the traditional makeup, boundaries and homogeneity of linguistic territories. By ensuring that linguistic communities have the space they require, the territorial principle recognizes that an individual can only realize himself or herself as a member of a linguistic community.
And there is some history of traditional language-related conflict in Switzerland, according to William R. Keech, "Linguistic Diversity and Political Conflict: Some Observations Based on Four Swiss Cantons", Comparative Politics 4(3) 1972:
While Switzerland is correctly known as a country in which different ethnic groups live together peacefully, there are a few Swiss setting in which there is conflict among these groups, Of the twenty-five cantons and half-cantons, four have historical linguistic minorities. Of these four, three have been rather free of sharp conflict among language groups, while one has known almost constant tension for many years. [...]
In Bern, … there is intense conflict among language groups. [...] Over the last twenty years, French-speaking spearatists have committed arson, blown up railroad tracks and military barracks, defaced statues, broken up meetings, and the like, using terrorist tactics to punish opponents and to call attention to their plight.
In addition to this residue of traditional ethno-linguistic divisions, Switzerland is presumably facing new linguistic issues due to the fact that it has one of the highest immigration rates in Europe, with nearly a quarter of the population now foreign-born. I haven't seen much discussion of linguistic issues — maybe the immigrating Eastern Europeans, North Africans, etc. are mainly learning German or French, or perhaps knew one of these languages before they arrived. But I can't imagine that the SVP would be very tolerant of any immigrants who insist on quasi-official status for native languages that are not already part of the established Swiss linguistic structure.
None of this should be taken as support for the various "English Only" or "Official English" movements in the U.S. As far as I can tell, these are potentially damaging attempts to solve a perceived problem that is continuing to solve itself, just as it has throughout American history.
A few relevant earlier LL posts:
"When smart people get really stupid ideas", 4/2/2004;
"Palatine Boors and their Maryland descendents", 5/14/2004;
"Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be considered harmful", 5/21/2004;
"Nativism clings to life at 100 or 101", 6/24/2004;
"The secret Netherlanders among us", 7/2/2004;
"English under siege in Pennsylvania", 7/25/2006;
"No Spanish on the school bus", 2/9/2008