If you’re thinking about learning Dutch, you may have wondered where - or in which countries - you can speak it.
After all, it’s a great way to measure a language’s usefulness to know where it can be used.
English, for example, is spoken by over a billion people worldwide - you can go almost anywhere and be rest assured you’ll meet somebody who at least knows the basics.
Dutch doesn’t have that kind of reach, sadly enough, but it still has broader reach than you may think at first glance.
Let’s go over the countries and places where Dutch is spoken, as well as some of its offshoots.
Native Dutch speakers: 17 million
Unsurprisingly, the first and foremost country where Dutch is spoken is the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
It’s a small country in northwestern Europe with just over 17 million inhabitants, almost all of whom speak some kind of Dutch (there are more than a few Dutch dialects).
Dutch has been the official language of the country in some capacity ever since the Middle Ages, and the first written Dutch was found in a manuscript dated back to the 11th century.
This text is almost unreadable to modern eyes, but it shows that the language goes back centuries.
Currently, the language is alive and vibrant, with new words sneaking their way into it from languages spoken by immigrants as well as English, yet keeping its old character in all the ways that matter.
Learning Dutch isn’t all that difficult, and speaking it will make your stay there, short or long, a lot more fun.
Dutch overseas territories and constituent countries
Native Dutch speakers: approx. 500,000
Generally when people speak of the Netherlands, they mean the small country on the European mainland.
However, there’s more to the kingdom than that; there are also six small Caribbean islands that are part of it.
Three of them — Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten — are their own countries within the kingdom, while Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius are special municipalities within the Netherlands proper.
Whatever their status now, these possessions are a legacy of the Dutch colonial past, with almost all of their population the descendants of African slaves.
Dutch is widely understood on the islands and is to some extent the official language on all of them — there are some exceptions, like Aruba — but most people will also speak their native language, Papiamento, among themselves.
Papiamento is a Portuguese-based language that has a lot of Dutch loan words; however, unless you’ve learnt Portuguese to a high level, I doubt you’ll understand a word of it.
Native Dutch speakers: 6.5 million
The next country where Dutch is spoken is, of course, Belgium, its neighbor to the south. It has a population of 11 million, of which about 60 percent speak Dutch.
Dutch speakers generally live in the north of the country, the region called Flanders. The rest of the population either speak French or German.
Officially, the Walloon French speakers of Belgium also know Dutch, but in practice very few will speak it; the nominally bilingual capital of Brussels is also a French bastion.
Like in the Netherlands, Belgian Dutch, called Flemish though not officially, is a vibrant language that’s spoken across all walks of life.
On paper, the languages aren’t too different, but the spoken language can be very different indeed, to the point that people from opposite sides of the border can have trouble understanding each other; I’ve compared Dutch vs Flemish in another article.
If you’re going to live or visit Flanders, Dutch is a very useful thing to know, though you may want to find a course that focuses on its specific dialect.
Native Dutch speakers: approx. 300,000
The final country that has Dutch as an official language is again a remnant of colonialism, Suriname.
Once known as Dutch Guyana, it’s a small country neighboring Brazil and sandwiched between Guyana and French Guyana.
Its population is around half a million, of which about 60 percent speak Dutch. It’s the language of the courts as well as government.
Despite the status of Dutch, most people will speak Sranan Tongo (an English-based creole) at home, though there is a large Indonesian population there, too, which speaks their native language.
As a result, visitors to the country can speak Dutch and get around, though most of the people around you will not be speaking it.
De Nederlandse Taalunie
Interestingly enough, there’s no separate institutions for each kind of Dutch; the Netherlands, Belgium and Suriname all work together to pass spelling reforms and the like through the Nederlandse Taalunie or Dutch language union.
Though they are three very different countries with very different cultures, it very much is one language.
New spelling reforms are passed through het groene boekje (“the little green book”) and institutions across all these three countries adhere to these changes.
It’s a pretty interesting system, one that’s probably quite alien to English speakers.
Native speakers: 7 million
Though these three countries are the only places Dutch is spoken, there’s one offshoot that bears mentioning: Afrikaans, the language spoken by Dutch settlers in what’s now called the Republic of South Africa and its neighboring country, Namibia.
It’s very much a separate language that split off roughly three hundred years ago from the rest of the Dutch speaking world.
In those intervening centuries, it’s changed a lot: while many sounds stayed the same, much of the vocabulary changed and the spelling is completely different.
However, a Dutch speaker that takes their time and listens carefully can probably pick up the gist of an Afrikaans conversation.
For their part, most Afrikaans speakers I’ve met said they can understand slowly spoken Dutch, especially if more old-fashioned words are used.
As a result, if you speak either Dutch or Afrikaans, the other is pretty easy to learn, which may be something to keep in mind for people looking to visit both countries.
These are all the main places where Dutch and Afrikaans are spoken, but there are others, too, though the number of speakers in those locations number in the low thousands, at best.
In Europe, a form of Dutch is also spoken in parts of Germany along the border.
The dialect spoken in some of those areas is a dialect of both Dutch and German at the same time.
This means that people in these regions often can switch between the two languages as well as their own dialect, which is pretty cool.
Dutch used to be spoken natively in the very tip of northern France in a city called Lille, which even has its own Dutch name, Rijssel.
The last native speakers died out ages ago, but the local dialect apparently still has some Dutch words in it.
There’s also an off-chance you may be able to find Dutch speakers in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Both countries were colonized by the Dutch and while it’s no longer taught in schools, it’s still a language in jurisprudence as many laws still date from the colonial period.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend randomly starting conversations with Dutch there; colonial rule was beyond brutal and many Indonesians don’t like to be reminded of their oppressors.
North America and Australia
In the 50s and 60s, there was a huge emigration out of the Netherlands to North America and Australia - mainly dairy farmers looking for better opportunities.
As a result, in the United States, Canada and Australia you can still find pockets of people that speak Dutch at home, if they appear to of completely naturalized.
If you’re ever in a dairy in any of these countries, try speaking Dutch and see what happens. 🐄
I had some pleasant results in California in 2016 which ended up with me being served coffee and home-made cookies!
Dutch isn’t as much of a language of the world as English, Spanish, French or even Chinese are.
However, it has had enormous spread and influence, and is key to some interesting and unique cultural experiences you wouldn’t get otherwise.
Adding to that is the fact that it’s spoken in two economic powerhouses, and it may very well be that learning Dutch is a great use of your time.
Give it a shot, and good luck!
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