Oh… You’re English!

English Accent Detection

I have come to the conclusion that the Dutch have a very special ability. It might even be possible to call it a super power. I am not sure if it is a skill that they are born with or one that they develop naturally over time but it is something that I have encountered a lot.

Every time I try to talk Dutch with an unfamiliar Dutch person they are able to detect, analyse and identify my accent before I’ve even fully formed the first syllable of the first word of my sentence. It is entirely possible that the Dutch can hear my accent as I breathe.

“Ohhh. You,re English,” they will often interject as I stand there with my mouth open having only muttered the sound ‘umm’ or ‘err’ or simply having coughed. They even managed to say it with a hint of surprise that suggests they should have identified my accent sooner (before I entered the room for example).

It is either a form of super human hearing that allows the Dutch to do this or they have just had a lot of practise hearing people mangle their difficult language beyond recognition. The second option seems more likely because it is probably something that happens so often that they have been able to fine tune their accent detection instincts. Maybe they have even learnt to identify certain mistakes with certain countries (thus aiding the identification process).

“Oh. You pronounces the ‘ei’ sound as ‘aaa’. That’s a classic English mistake.”

Wherever I go in Holland it is almost impossible to say anything in Dutch without being immediately identified. This must make life very stressful for any spies who are trying to lay low in the Lowlands. They must be in constant fear of detection just from having to have a casual conversation with a passer by.

Even at an early age Dutch children seem to have this special power. Have you ever attempted to speak Dutch to a small Dutch child? It rarely goes as you expect. In my experience they might not be able to identify your accent yet and they might not even be able to fully understand that there is such a thing as a non-Dutch person but they will know something is wrong. They know it just by hearing your attempts to speak the language that, they themselves, have not even fully mastered yet. Then they will just stare at you in an awkward silence (awkward for you, not for them) as if waiting for you to stop being strange and start making sense.

No one can hold up to that kind of pressure for long and if you are a spy there is no dignity in having your cover blown by a three year old.

33 responses to “Oh… You’re English!”

  1. Sharon says:

    You must have (a) a southern accent, and (b) mix only with smart Dutchies!

    Because I have a northern accent, all I ever hear is ‘Oh, you’re English? Really? I thought you were Polish.’ The worst one was my poor son who at the time was working as a waiter in a Haarlem restaurant. He was publically humiliated by a customer (Dutchman) who loudly accused him of being a liar – trying to pass himself off as English when he was obviously Polish.

    So yes, not all Dutch are that great at identification of Brits.. (unless you speak like the Queen or someone off Eastenders).

    • Invader_Stu says:

      Wow. That customer sounds like they were not all there. Sorry to hear your son had to go through that.

      I do have a southern accent and I’ve been told I, “look very English.”

  2. Antoine says:

    Coming from a small country means that people rarely think of Malta when they hear my accent.

    The Brits think I sound continental.
    The Italians think I’m British. If I speak Italian, the Romans think I’m Sardinian, the Sardinians think I’m from Milan and people from Milan think Sardinians are idiots.
    The Spanish sometimes wonder if I’m American
    The Americans think I’m British, unless I’ve been drinking in which case, I have an Italian accent, apparently.

    • Eden says:

      What about the French and the Greeks? Do they think you sound Italian? As long as they don’t think you are Sardinian…

    • Princess says:

      I am sardinian, but i never met anybody from Malta, so i do not know how you sound. But Sardinia is a beautiful place with lovely people! :-)

  3. Alison says:

    There’s also the way they automatically switch to English, even if you’ve only said “goedemorgen” (and you’ve been working on your Gs).

  4. Perhaps if I tried really hard to learn the Dutch language, I could pass off as a foreigner with a good pronunciation.

    Then again, even after so many years of learning and speaking French, I still have a perceptible accent. The only thing is that the French are unable to pinpoint what it could be.

    “Yes, you speak very good French, but are you Spanish? Italian? Portuguese? German? Polish?” Any anglophone nationality is tacked on as a last resort in the guessing game.

    • Invader_Stu says:

      The the French accent a hard one? It sounds like it is and I can imagine the French are very good at detecting when something is not quite French.

      • What makes the accent difficult for mastering the pronunciation is not only the lack of inflection, stressed syllables and aspirated consonants that aren’t supposed to be carried over from sing-songy English, but also the rounded vowels, particularly with words that have a “u.” That sound simply doesn’t exist in English. (I think the French “u” is similar the German one or the Dutch double “uu.”)

        Even if you have a perfect pronunciation, they will indeed detect something is “off” when you hesitate to finish a sentence because you are trying to remember a word or grammar tense. Try as I might, I highly doubt I will ever be good enough to be a spy in France. :P

  5. Rosie says:

    This drives my half-Dutchie husband crazy! He spends ages boosting himself to speak Dutch and then gets the ahh english reply and feels so deflated. His Mum is from Rotterdam so he had hope he could hide his accent a bit.

    He has now developed stealth. He will listen to a Dutch conversation at a slight distance and then wait and reply in English to make the point that he does understand.

  6. dragonlady says:

    What happens if you are from the North of England? Gordie or perhaps a Brummy.
    Who was this three year old?
    I like Rosie’s husbands idea.

  7. Perovskia says:

    This is true! Except for me it gets worse (nothing against the English, I promise). They hear me talk, or if I flat out speak English I get the, “Oh, you’re English.” No… I’m Canadian! Why is it assumed that if I speak English I am in fact English?! *facepalm*

    Also.. about the Dutch children.. so true.. lol.

    • Invader Stu says:

      You hate the English?! Just kidding.

      It must be very annoying to have people telling you are English all the time when you know you are not.

      • Annette says:

        It drives my boyfriend up the wall, you will always be met with a stern ‘I’m Welsh’. But I’ve seen my Scottish friends react in a similar way. Perhaps a better question would be ‘oh, you speak English’, which is more neutral. I really try to avoid the ‘oh you are English’-phrase, but it is really hard. It must have something to do with the fact that first of all, we mostly get taught in school that things are English (even when they’re in fact more British or even Scottish or Welsh) and it never occurs to us that A: people who speak English might come from other countries then the UK (England to most of the Dutch anyway) and B: people don’t realise how offended people can be when you misjudge where they’re from. I guess you have to experience it before you know why people don’t like the question. After having being accused of being American so many times (or of at least having American parents! Because you can’t speak like that and be 100% Dutch, according to a lot of Brits) I do sympathise though!

  8. Eden says:

    That’s it! I am going to ship my future kids to live in Holland, so they speak native Dutch and grow up to be stress-free spies.

  9. Linda says:

    I think it’s their default choice. Regardless of whether I was speaking Dutch or English, Dutchies almost universally assumed I was English – except for one older man in Utrecht who thought I was German (!). I’m American, so go figure.

    • Invader Stu says:

      From all the comments I’m starting to think you’re right. They just guess English. I’ve been fooled into thinking they knew what they were talking about.

      • Lin says:

        I can assure you, they have those mad skills for identifying German accents as well. I am doing fairly well when it comes to Dutch communication skills, but too often I can’t even finish my second word before I get a “oh, je komt uit Duitsland”. And after I got the message across, I get a compliment, that my Dutch is really good :-S

  10. VallyP says:

    Uncanny, isn’t it, Stu. Well that’s one career you won’t be moving into then, isn’t it? ;)

  11. Charlotte says:

    Everything you’ve said is sooo true! My Dutch is almost non existent, I’m unable to string more than two words together (at best), but can understand quite a bit (on a good day). However I have semi mastered the smiling, nodding and saying ‘ja’ without giving myself away as a foreigner. Sometimes it backfires and they look at me as if I’ve escaped from somewhere. Other times they’ll ask where I’m from, and seem genuinely surprised when I say England. They’ll often reply by repeating ‘England’ in a very surprised voice, as if they were expecting me to say ‘New York’ or something. But yes, they certainly aren’t surprised that I’m not Dutch, and seem to detect it before I even open my mouth to speak. Perhaps its the not being 6 feet tall thing that gives it away, but most seem to assume I’m American rather than English.

    • Invader_Stu says:

      I used the nod and smile for so long (I still do sometimes). There is nothing worse than when you have been doing this for 5mins, getting away with it but then they suddenly ask a question you don’t understand.

      I’ve never had anyone think I was American. That’s a new one.

  12. dragonlady says:

    A lot of Dutch (and peopleof other nationalities) sound American to me when they speak English.

    • Frits Onland says:

      That is because we have a lot of american tv series on telly here. And they are subtitled not dubbed (we only do dubbing for children’s movies from disney etc. otherwise no dubs just subtitles) so a lot of kids pick up an american accent (even though the english tought in school is according to british spelling and rules). It took me ages to get rid of my american accent (I don’t like the american accent, personally)… I have been told I sound a bit like a Soouth african now when I speak english.

  13. Annette says:

    The British seem to have the same ‘super power’ when it comes to identifying foreigners, because even though there seem to be a trillion different accents in the UK (even though most sound the same to me) they do seem to be able to pick up on the fact that you’re not from the UK. But sadly their ‘go to’-nationality when it comes to someone who is quite fluent in English and doesn’t have a distinctive European accent is ‘American’. Because you couldn’t possibly be from Europe if you don’t sound like a stereotype from the movies.

  14. Arnoud Roele says:

    Funny you should mention the spies. In WW2 passwords of the Dutch Resistance often included ‘Scheveningen’, a suburb of The Hague. No foreigners could ever pronounce that!

  15. derGomez says:

    I’m Dutch and I have to agree that people speaking Dutch, with an English-accent all have the same distinct accent. I think it’s in the way you pronounce your vowels, that instantly sets of our “Oh…you’re English !” -alert.

    But I think it’s even worse the other way arround… There’s something with Dutch (Belgians included, in my oppinion…), when we’re speaking in English. Dutch people, being interviewed on television for example:
    “NO !!!!!! …euhm… What I think is dat het not zo is, als you say !” and at the same time being totally convinced, that they’re being totally fluid…

    Gotta love Dutch confidence ! :P

  16. I don’t speak any Dutch, but I don’t really remember where people thought I was from when I was speaking English in the Netherlands. They did think I was speaking Polish when I switched to Portuguese to speak to my partner, though.
    And I think I’ve only ever met one non-Brazilian who could speak Brazilian Portuguese with absolutely no accent.

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