The Netherlands and Flanders: Siblings or Estranged Cousins?

One of the reasons I chose Fulbright in Belgium and not the Netherlands was because I was hoping for a new experience in a country that I didn’t know so well.  I spent more than a year and a half in the Netherlands, and thought that Belgium would be a chance to learn about a new country while still being able to speak Dutch.  But what do these countries have in common?


They both like flowers? They both like flowers?

This suspicion that Holland and Belgium would be very different countries seems to hold true.  Although I don’t know much about the French-speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia, I have heard repeatedly that Wallonia takes its cultural cues from Paris.  I have also heard that the French in Wallonia differs only slightly from Standard French, and that the accent is not too much to overcome that you cannot understand people.  I don’t think that this relationship is the same as the relationship between Holland and Flanders. (As a side note, I tend to use Holland and the Netherlands interchangeably.  This is technically incorrect, but most other countries and language make no distinction between the two). Although it is certainly true that the Netherlands and Flanders have a lot in common, there are many differences between the two regions that I didn’t expect.  Here are eight of them:

1. Directness vs. Modesty

Although both countries pride themselves on unadornment and frugality when it comes to having a large house or extravagant shows of weath, Flanders seems to do it a lot better.  A student at my English table remarked that, like the Chinese, Flemish people will deny that anything they have is special, beautiful, or accomplished. Dutch people, on the other hand, are known for their unabashed directness, nearly always calling a spade a spade or a idioot as an idioot.  A Belgian student I have talked to explained how appalled she was when a Dutch stranger called her fat (dik) outright. In Amsterdam, directness is something that I had to get used to, especially when it came to speaking Dutch, which leads me to my next point.

2. Willingness to speak Dutch

Although I still struggle sometimes to speak in Dutch with friends of mine, I can and do speak Dutch with my Dutch speaking friends in Belgium.  Yes, occasionally I have to fight to get them to speak with me in Dutch, but the fact that I can break through that barrier in Dutch is a good sign.

Furthermore, I have yet to have an encounter in a shop or café where someone has switched to English when I try to order in Dutch.  This seemed to be a nearly daily occurrence in Amsterdam.  This is not to say that English skills are any worse in Flanders, but merely to say that people are more willing to speak Dutch with foreigners.  I have heard that Dutch is a secret language that they don’t want foreigners to know, but it seems to be less the case in the more southern regions of the low countries (lage landen).

3. Food vs. ?

Average beer selection at your local minimart

Over and over and over, I have heard about how important food is to the Belgian population.  This seems to be more pronounced the further south you go, but the difference in cuisines is stark between the Netherlands and Flanders. In Belgium, you have mussels (mosselen), fries (frieten), waffles (wafels), chocolate (chocolade), beer (bier), lots of good Italian food (Italiaanse specialiteiten), and basically just a ton of delicious food.  In the Netherlands, you have…um,,,,Heineken and um…stamppot. I love it, of course (not Heineken), but it is true when they say Holland doesn’t really have much of its own cuisine.

4. Credits (studiepunten)

Belgian grades go up to 20. Dutch grades go up to 10.  Not a huge difference, but it gets very confusing when people start talking about the grades they got last semester.  Is a 14 good??

5. Bikes

Bikes are a way of life in Holland.  There are more bikes than people, and getting around by bike is just the way you do it. If you don’t have a bike in Amsterdam, you are sucker because it is the easiest way to get around the city.  Bikes do not seem as common in Antwerp. Yes, there are much more bikes here than the U.S., but I would probably put it on par with Portland in number of bikes per capita.  For the U.S. that’s a lot of bikes.  For Holland, it’s a joke.  Luckily, though, they have a great system in Antwerp with shared bikes (gemeenschapelijke fietsen).  For just 25 euros a year, you can use shared bikes within the city center, of which there seem to be more than 100 places to pick them up and drop them off.  It is very convenient, and it just shows another way in which the U.S. lags behind in terms of public transport.

6. Speaking in class

Dutch people love to speak in class.  They are known for being extremely opinionated and will fight for their argument vehemently even if they know it is a loosing argument.  Flemish students, with notable exception, tend to be very shy to go out of their way to speak up in class.  This is both because of Belgian modesty and because of the teaching methods here, which have historically relied heavily on lecturing. This is very strange to me, because many of my students are shy to speak English even though they speak it seemingly perfectly, while even if Dutch people speak steenkool engels, they will make sure to let their opinion be known.


The age-old linguistic debate of the low countries

The age-old linguistic debate of the low countries

I could write a whole blogpost on how different Belgian Dutch or Flemish (Vlaams) is from Dutch Dutch (Nederlands Nederlands). The reason they are so different is because originally Belgium was not a “Dutch” speaking country but instead had many different Germanic dialects that seemed to be distinct languages.  This could continue to be the case, perhaps, depending on who you ask.  My students have said that the people in West Flanders can’t understand the people in Limburg and vice versa.  I have even heard of Dutch people speaking English in Flanders because of a perceived ease in communication.

The problem for me is not that I can’t understand the Belgian accent.  It’s that I can’t understand the Belgian dialect.  In class, the professors use the standard dialect, but outside of class, students use all kinds of dialects that are difficult for a foreigner to catch.  I have heard many times that people can understand me when I speak (I tend to speak with a more Northern accent than Belgians), but the problem comes when I can’t understand them.  Luckily, for my Dutch, they don’t switch to English, because they just think I’m from the Netherlands.  Unluckily, this can cause problems for my sanity when someone thinks I speak their language, but can’t understand half the words coming out of their mouth.

Some differences in Dutch in Belgium v. the Netherlands I have noticed so far (listed by Flemish, Dutch Dutch and then English):

Ik heb goesting – Ik heb er zin in – I feel like doing (something).

Ik vind het plezant Ik vind het leuk – I like it (lit. I find it pleasant, nice)

griet wijf – semi-derogatory slang term for girls/chicks

job baan – job (Belgians use the English term)

ge/gij je/jij – you/you (emphasis)

schoonmooi – beautiful (schoon more often means ‘clean’ in Holland)

Furthermore, Belgians use a lot more French terms in their speech. For instance:

Salut Daag – Bye

Croque monsieurTosti – Grilled sandwich with ham and cheese

Merci is also another way to say thank you.

Allez is often used as a filler (stopwoord) where Dutch people might use zeg maar.

There are also a TON of differences in pronunciation, but I might leave that for another post.


Here’s a preview. This is what google might sound like in West Flanders.

8. Country pride

This might be the most humble country I have ever seen. No flags in the streets, no crazy nationalistic holidays like Queen’s day (Koninginnedag) or National Day in ChinaWhen Belgian talk about their country, they continually talk about how small and boring and insignificant it is.

This country’s modesty also has something to do with the fragmentation of the country, which honestly has four separate parts: Flanders, Wallonia, the small German-speaking region, and Brussels (where English could surely become an official language with all the expatriates and eurocrats living and working there.)  This fragmentation is what allowed the Belgian federal government to shut down for more than a year with little effect on the country itself, and it is what also allows for the fact that nationalistic pride seems to be just as nonexistent.  Except when it comes to soccer (voetbal). Belgium qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 12 years a few weeks back and you can bet that Belgian flags were out in droves the week following.

Belgium for the win!

Belgium for the win!

In summary, it does seem like Flanders and Holland have a lot of dissimilarities. However, these should be taken with a grain of salt.  As a Dutch friend said to me this weekend that he thought the countries we very much the same, and his opinion might me more valid than mine, only being in Belgium for around five weeks.  I would say that some of the differences are real, but some of them are a result of  wishful thinking, perhaps due to historical conflicts between the two countries. However, I would also take what my friend says with a grain of salt too, because he comes from the south of Holland in North Brabant (Noord-Brabant).  They say that the cultural divide occurs at the Meuse River (de Maas). Perhaps a Amsterdammer would come to Belgium and wonder “Waar ben ik nu beland?”  (Where the heck am I?)

Tot de volgende blog! Until the next blog!


8 thoughts on “The Netherlands and Flanders: Siblings or Estranged Cousins?

  1. I agree with your final reflection. Historically the southern provinces of what is now the Netherlands and northern Belgium have had more to do with each other than either has with the northern Netherlands – in fact, both of these territories were once called “the southern Netherlands”. This is very obvious when you look at the traditional dialects – Zeelandic is close to West Flemish, and both Brabantic and Limburgish spread across the border. However, nowadays Noord-Brabant, Zeeland and northern Limburg have been heavily influenced by Holland (the nothern Netherlands) and their speech is getting closer and closer to the standard, while Netherlandophone Belgium has gone its own way and developed into “Flanders” (historically only West Flanders and East Flanders were considered Flanders – Limburg and Brabant were separate countries).

  2. Very thoughtful, especially since you’ve been there for only 6 weeks. As a dutch guy (brought up in Noord-Brabant) who studies in Leuven, I think your analysis is spot on. There is a gap between the nations, in terms of language, communication, nationalism, etc. But the bond between Flanders and the Netherlands is stronger than those with other countries, because the bridge between us is easy to cross. It’s pretty easy to work or study over the border (for both of us) and enjoy books, tv, comedy, etc. from the other side. Yes, there are a few odd words (great summary btw) or a difference in style, that to me makes it all the more fun. That’s why I’ll always think of Flanders as the closest to our borders, in every sense.

  3. Hi!! I am in kinda the same situation than you, I’m mexican and lived like year and a half in Noord Brabant so I learned the little I know in a city called Tilburg, so for me to begin with dutch is pretty difficult but I learned to get used to it and tried to practice, as you said without a lot of success….. Now, I’m coming back to Europe but now I’ll go to Belgium, (I wanted something different but familiar at the same time) to take propper lessons to try and be more fluent in the language, now I knew they have differences, but now I’m a little hesitant about it, I’m I getting myself in trouble and i signed up for a whole, new, different thing??? HELP!!

    • Don’t worry! There are differences but it just takes time to adjust to them. After a year, I was actually more comfortable speaking Belgian Dutch than ‘Hollands’ 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s