skip to content

History of Dutch at Cambridge

Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


Testimonials from former students of Dutch

Some of the experiences of learning Dutch are reflected in reminiscences of former students.

Peter Ede

Choosing to study Dutch was a wonderful decision for me. It opened up for me a love of the culture of the Netherlands that has lasted for decades. I already spoke German and French and wanted to do something ‘special’ and unusual, rather than following the obvious path of taking them both at university. I essentially wanted to learn a language precious few people either bother, or have the opportunity, to do. Dutch was my choice! 

From a professional perspective, I found Dutch singled me out in my City law firm: there were even fewer Dutch speakers than German speakers there, so I was rewarded with a glorious 6 months in our Amsterdam office working in our Dutch corporate law department. This was one of the happiest times of my life to date, and even now returning to the city still feels like going home.  I also worked on an assignment that involved going through archives of old documents in Monaco for a couple of months. They were in English, German, Dutch, French and Italian, and I was probably one of a handful of young lawyers in the U.K. able to do this. In addition, my general language ability landed me the opportunity to work on the single largest Anglo-Saxon private lawsuit (a $3 billion case) that took me to live and work in Bermuda for 2 years. I was given responsibility way beyond my seniority simply because I was the only one with the language ability. And yes, once more, Dutch was involved.

Dutch has also helped me with my “fun” sideline job over the last 30 years. This has been taking US high school students around Europe on educational tours. Whenever a trip comes up that involves the Netherlands (and/or indeed Flanders) I’m usually first in line to be given the tour. You can’t really authentically pass on an insider’s understanding of a country and society, unless you have a good knowledge of the language and literature.  I’m so fortunate to be able to do this with my students in respect of the Low Countries. As much as they see my enjoying sharing London and Paris with them, somehow I always give myself away with my special love of the Netherlands. Without my knowledge of Dutch that intensity would just not be there.

I genuinely still get a little frisson of pride and pleasure on saying to Dutch people “yes, actually I speak Dutch” and seeing their reaction. It’s surprising how often this comes up: bumping into Dutch people, recognising the accent, and unexpectedly breaking into the language; or surprising a friendly Dutch person on Instagram whilst chatting about photos of my dogs. 

I love the language, and am so pleased I was able to gain the knowledge of it I did. Dutch and the Dutch will both always have a special place in my heart. 

Yasmin Broersma

Du5 has got to be one of the highlights of my Cambridge education. Even though Erna’s style of teaching grammar was fun and engaging, it was her ability to explain Dutch culture through literature that made it a memorable class for me, especially the section on Dutch Naturalism and colonialism!

Viuna Rafati-Afshar

I had the best time learning Dutch in second year. Erna is a wonderful teacher and I remember our classes and supervisions being great fun - our literature supervisions in particular were some of the most interesting and helpful supervisions I’ve ever had. Despite the year being disrupted towards the end by covid-19, I got a lot out of Du5 and am hoping to spend some time in the Netherlands after I graduate!

Anna Asbury

I took the Dutch certificate in 2002 and diploma in 2003, alongside undergraduate and MPhil studies in linguistics. (Having taken the German diploma the year before, it seemed the logical decision to study a related language when there was such amazingly high-quality, free language tuition on offer.) Erna took the lead in teaching both courses, with conversation support from Eva Bohn for the certificate and Alison Martin for the diploma. Besides really enjoying the classes, it felt reassuring to be working on a practical skill alongside my degree (I was a classicist for my degree before switching to theoretical linguistics).

I spent the following four years working on a PhD in linguistics at Utrecht University, something I would never have thought of had I not studied some Dutch before. While in Utrecht I took some courses in literary translation in my spare time, and since returning to Cambridge I have worked as a freelance literary translator from Dutch into English. It’s sad to know Dutch will no longer be on offer in the department. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities I had as a result of studying it. 

Liam Downes

I absolutely loved Du5. The syllabus was really interesting and it was great to have the opportunity to read the literature of the Low Countries, a geographic area I previously knew nothing about. I think back so fondly on our supervisions with Erna and I’ve tried to keep up my Dutch (and with some success)! 

Andrew Francis

After finishing a first degree in English at Cambridge in 1972, followed by a career in commerce, I studied for a PhD in the Faculty of English from 2005-2009 on the Asian fiction of Joseph Conrad, most of which is set in the former Dutch East Indies. However, little of the specifically Dutch East Indies aspects and context of his fiction had been written about, and this was something that became an integral part of my thesis. But I could only have done this with the benefit of the teaching by Erna Eagar on the intensive Certificate in Modern Languages (Dutch) course in 2007-2008 and with the additional assistance of Elsa Strietman.

My continuing research after my PhD was further helped by studying for the Diploma in Dutch in 2010-2011 which, like the Certificate, benefited so much from being taught with other students of Dutch, including those studying for the Tripos exams. The ability to understand Dutch published and archival material from the nineteenth century – including, for example, reports from government officials in Dutch Borneo, as well as Dutch colonial literature – was crucial for me, and has continued to be so. The Netherlands has been an influence on a global scale, culturally, politically, and economically, and for these reasons Dutch remains a highly relevant subject for academic study. 

This type of cross-cultural study, something that has been a growing part of literary and cultural studies for some years, is simply not possible without being able to read material in the languages involved. I have gained hugely too in the sheer pleasure of learning to understand another culture – learning a language is not only about language acquisition, but the opening of a door to a culture. I am presently editing and co-translating essays in Dutch on Conrad written by an Indonesian professor that are important in understanding more of the European and the global reception of one of the world’s most important writers. Multatuli’s Max Havelaar (1860), one of the most significant works of Dutch literature, is involved in that reception. 

To the student and the scholar, the opportunity to learn a language intensively under rigorous conditions, with substantial cultural and literary content, is vital if we are to advance our understanding of not only cross-cultural matters but of our national literatures themselves. It is about building and understanding the widest connections of our shared humanity.

Sophie Reece-Trapp

We were like a family - older students looked out for the new intake, and our lecturers looked out for everyone, and we were invested in each other’s successes and disappointments throughout the academic year. Bound by this special experience in Cambridge, and experiencing years abroad in such destinations as Maastricht, Leiden and Leuven, we drew inspiration from each other and delighted in the fact that we had chosen to study such a different and interesting language. This courage to do things differently, a hunger to learn new things and a team spirit still defines alumni of Dutch in Cambridge.

Having a Unique Selling Point (USP) is considered necessary for individual professional or organisational success. Mastering the Dutch language and studying literature from the Netherlands and Belgium is certainly a USP. Rather than closing down options it created them – imagine one of the few english native speakers to speak a language and to have studied the span of its literature? And what a brilliant icebreaker abroad or selling point for a prospective employer?

Few of our cohort studying Dutch picked the language with a related career in mind but for those who wished to work with or in Dutch after university the opportunities were there, and we left Cambridge with the confidence, enthusiasm and high calibre of education to pursue a wide range of opportunities in the UK and abroad.

It always made us laugh to hear how Dutch had never quite fitted in anywhere in the Faculty, from being put into a Department of ‘Other’ Languages to being put together, awkwardly, with German. Far from this suggesting that our language was the wrong shape or size, we knew that this was actually because Dutch at Cambridge was too special to slot in neatly alongside anything else.

Lewis Tuthill

Taking the Du5 paper in my second year at Cambridge was a fantastic decision. I've always been obsessed with learning new languages, so jumped at the chance to try one that is less widely spoken than those I'd previously studied. We all made so much progress in just one academic year. The literature on the course was genuinely fascinating, which led me to write my Year Abroad Project on Dutch literature in translation, a challenge I thoroughly enjoyed. Another highlight was a trip that I took with five classmates to Amsterdam in the Easter holidays, where we took intensive Dutch classes in the run up to our exam. 

Although I have not continued to study Dutch actively, I do hope to pick it up again one day. I'm currently living in Beijing, where there is a surprisingly large population of South Africans. Whenever they speak Afrikaans, I love trying to use my Dutch to decipher what they're saying and surprise them. 

Back to History of Dutch