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Languages and Languaging in Multilingual Amsterdam - By Virginie Mamadouh

Publication date 02-02-2014

In Amsterdam we speak many languages, as in any city across the world. Somewhat specific however is the high prevalence of English, next to Dutch, the national language of the country, and the wide range of languages represented. Moreover, the city has a long history of multilingualism. Its nickname is Mokum – a reminder of the Yiddish custom to call cities after their initial and the times when Amsterdam was Mokum Aleph. This testifies of the importance of Yiddish in its cultural heritage and the local slang. In the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was both a global trade centre and a cultural centre. It was a free place where authors from the rest of Europe convened to get their work printed in many languages, including Hebrew, and more in general a safe haven for people fleeing religious persecution elsewhere: Portuguese Jews and German Jews, as Sephardim and Ashkenazim are known in Amsterdam, Huguenots, etc.

Spuistraat 199: Slangenpand ('Snakehouse') with bilingual banner


In recent decades the arrival of a diverse array of migrants, prompted by guest worker schemes, displacement and asylum, free movement between EU member states, and the internationalization of many economic sectors and academia, have boosted the linguistic diversity of the city. The many languages of Amsterdam are visible in the linguistic landscape with messages in different languages, such as the banner for the safeguard of the mural on a former squat in Dutch and English (see picture above). Most signs are meant to communicate content to city dwellers and visitors who do not speak the national language. Most common are signs in English while others are in Turkish, Arabic, Chinese or Sranan Tongo and engage more specific groups. However many signs (like Chinese street signs – see pictures below) are meant to look attractive and cosmopolitan to the local population, both Dutch and non-Dutch speaking. In addition, the many languages of Amsterdam are present in the soundtrack of the city through the cacophony of the many voices in public spaces. Amsterdammers are languaging the world in many tongues simultaneously!


This new linguistic diversity raises specific challenges to (local and national) processes of inclusion and integration. The plurality of languages may promote feelings of exclusion when one does not understand what is said in one’s surroundings. The backlash of tolerance is intolerance for each other’s tongues, irritation, disturbed feelings of belonging of natives that feel alienated by a more polyphonic soundtrack, but also disturbed feelings of belonging of newcomers confronted with the requirement to demonstrate their mastery of Dutch in domains they had not expected to have to do so. If English is the unproblematic default language in pubs and shops, it might not be sufficient or appropriate to get things done at the phone company or the tax office, or to chat with colleagues during coffee breaks and with other parents in the schoolyard.

Chinese street signs in downtown Amsterdam


And although multilingualism is celebrated, for example at the yearly Drongo festival, it is not undisputed. Recent controversies raised about electoral campaigning. Some fear that candidates have different discourses in say Turkish than in Dutch; some feel excluded by posters and meetings in another language than Dutch; and others think that electors that do not understand Dutch should not have the right to cast a vote as they are unable to evaluate local and national politics properly. Obviously local party branches that do use other languages than Dutch, want to reach potential electors in their own languages but their attempts to include newcomers de facto alienate and exclude others. This is one of the most difficult paradoxes of dealing with linguistic diversity in public space.


Another key issue pertains to education. Local politicians have supported the national campaign “de Nederlandse taal verbindt ons allemaal” (ie. “The Dutch language connects us all”) launched in 2007. They have sometimes also suggested that non-Dutch speakers should abandon their language to speak Dutch with their children. While no one would want to deny the importance of the mastery of the national language to perform in the educational system and later on the labour market, it is worrisome that some outdated ideas about multilingualism still inform restrictive and exclusive policies that try to enhance skills in Dutch by way of repressing skills in other languages. By contrast, inclusive policies should value multilingualism, encourage young Amsterdammers to develop their diverse linguistic skills and help all (those with only one language too!) to navigate and feel at home in such as super diverse linguistic territory.

Geldersekade and Chinese translation underneath


How individuals and groups negotiate their way through the linguistic diversity of the city and participate into transnational networks through their linguistic ties remains poorly understood and studied. Despite the recent reassessment of Dutch as “the language that connects us all” Amsterdam remains a tolerant place where many languages of the world do coexist and interact, and a fascinating laboratory to analyze the geographies of urban multilingualism.


Virginie Mamadouh

Virginie Mamadouh is Associate Professor of Political and Cultural Geography at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests encompass multiscalar place-making and other territorial issues, ranging from urban social movements through European integration and transnationalism to geopolitics, especially when these topics are related to multilingualism. Her project on the Geographies of Urban Multilingualism in Europe is part of the Research Programme Mobility and Inclusion in Multilingual Europe (MIME). MIME is co-funded by the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development of the European Union and was launched March 1st 2014 under the coordination of François Grin at the University of Geneva UNIGE. See .