10 tips for speaking English to visitors, from a native-speaker tourist guide

Nigel Saych is a former teacher from England who guides tourists through the Dutch village of Nuenen and tells them all about Dutch cultural icon Vincent van Gogh. He is also my former boss and a good friend. I decided he would make a great first interviewee for my series about how Dutch culture interacts with the English language.

Nigel is from Peterborough in England. He moved to the Netherlands in 1976, originally to spend one year working at a hotel in Amsterdam. When he was asked to put his degree in primary school education into use at an international school in Eindhoven, he ended up staying.

He’s one of those people who likes to keep busy: he worked at the Regional International School for more than two decades, ran a travel agency and owned a successful international translation company. At 73, he is still not quite retired; his translation company Interlex Language Services is still going strong, and he is also a volunteer guide at the soon-to-be reopened Van Gogh Village Museum.

What was it about the Netherlands that made you stay?

Initially it was financial reasons; the job at the international school paid much more than I was making as a teacher in the UK. But it was also the lifestyle. I was young and single, and so were many of my colleagues. Frequently, someone would say “why don’t we go to Paris for the weekend!” and we would all drive down. Belgium and Germany were also just down the road. You can’t hop to another country when you’re living in Bedfordshire! And the school was amazing, it had all the latest technology.

As the years passed, I met a nice Australian lady and settled down with her in Nuenen. We still enjoy the fact that the rest of Europe is so close. We have a motorhome that we take out many times a year, driving to wherever the weather is good.

I like the open and uncomplicated lifestyle in the Netherlands, especially in Brabant, where they like to describe themselves as ‘Burgundian’, but which simply means ‘easy-going’. It is a safe, efficient and convenient country, even though it may have lost some of the tolerance it was once famed for. I took Dutch nationality seven years ago and feel fully integrated into society here, even though there are some things I will never understand, such as Carnaval and Sinterklaas…

Were there any culture shocks when you first moved to the Netherlands?

No. When I came here as a young man on a gap year, I had an emergency envelope with just enough money to get me back to London. I am happy to say I never felt the need to use it!

In the end, the Netherlands and the UK are quite similar. They’re both in Europe. I think it is different for somebody coming here from Asia or America.

Anyway, I’m not sure I believe in the word “culture shock”. When I was a teacher working at an international school, I was always impressed by the way many foreigners just deal with the differences and take them in stride. And recently, helping friends from Ukraine who have been forced to move here, I have seen so much resilience as they have coped with their new life. I think the trick is to keep an open mind and approach people with kindness.

Why did you become a tour guide?

My translation company was doing the translations for the newly opened Van Gogh Museum in Nuenen, which was then called the Vincentre. I developed a personal interest in the material I was translating about Vincent van Gogh, and joined the team of 160 volunteers.

A year or so after the museum opened I organised a get-together for translators, and I thought it would be nice to include a Van Gogh tour of Nuenen and the museum. When everybody was there, waiting expectantly, it turned out there was only a Dutch-speaking guide.

“Who is doing the English tour?” I asked, and he said “you are”.

I knew quite a lot about Vincent van Gogh and Nuenen through the translations I had been doing, and my own interest, so I went ahead and did it. I’ve never looked back since!

As a tour guide, do you have a set script?

I don’t. I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years now, and I have learned to adapt my knowledge to the kind of group I am faced with. It’s a skill that comes with the years! However, new guides are given a comprehensive introduction course and are supported by more experienced guides.

What is an advantage of being a tour guide in a country that is not your own?

I think I notice things that Dutch people don’t realise about their own country, which I can then explain to visitors.

For example, I have always found it interesting that the Dutch don’t have rocks and stones like we do in England. Everything is made out of brick, because bricks are made out of something the Dutch do have: clay. In England, old cottages and village walls are made of natural stone. You won’t find structures like that in the Netherlands. Any stone we have here in Nuenen has been imported and is a valuable commodity.

While Vincent van Gogh lived in Nuenen, the village council knocked down a church tower that wasn’t being used, so they could use the bricks to pave the road between Nuenen and Eindhoven. Van Gogh fought against that and called it vandalism, and my tour groups also tend to be dismayed when they hear about it. But I tell them: bricks and stones were a precious resource here, and what they were doing was what we would now call recycling.

Vincent van Gogh in Nuenen

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen, by Vincent van Gogh

For two years of his life, Vincent van Gogh lived in Nuenen, near Eindhoven. His masterpiece The Potato Eaters was created there, as well as quite a few other works depicting peasants, local mills, churches and other landmarks.

To celebrate its connection to Van Gogh, Nuenen opened a museum in 2010, which is currently being expanded to twice the size and will reopen its doors in April 2023. Museum visitors can also take walking tours through the village and see landmarks that feature in Van Gogh’s works. These tours are guided by volunteers in Dutch, German, French, and of course English.

Artist impression of new museum

Nigel’s tips for speaking English to visitors

Even if you are not planning to guide a group of tourists through your home town anytime soon, Nigel’s tips are still sure to be helpful to you when speaking English to foreigners!

Tip 1: Visitors don’t care that your English is not perfect, and neither should you!

I just helped to train a group of volunteer guides who will be giving English tours of Nuenen from April when the museum reopens. Because of the increase in foreign visitors, many of the Dutch guides have been asked to start giving tours in English.

Some of them were understandably nervous about their English. My most important message to them was: “Your audience is not there to try to trick you out. They are visiting your country. They are grateful that you are taking the trouble to speak to them in their language, which is not the local language, and not your native language. They will not be looking for mistakes.”

It’s different if you visit the UK or the US, but if you are in your own country, people should adapt to you rather than the other way around.

Tip 2: If you cannot think of a word, or don’t know how to pronounce something: ask your audience!

I tell the guides I am training, If you are struggling with a word, just ask the people you are speaking to. “What do you call this thing in English” Someone will be glad to help you.

Tip 3: If you have trouble pronouncing a word, just choose a different word

English famously has many synonyms at its disposal, so if you are preparing a talk, and you find there’s a word you always stumble on: just look up an alternative and use that one instead!

Tip 4: How to pronounce the “th”

I actually quite recently came across a great tip for pronouncing the “th”, for example in the word “think”. Put the tip of your tongue between your teeth, and as you say the word, let go. After many years of trying to explain it, I have found this to be a simple and effective way of getting people to do it right.

Tip 5: Try to gauge the English level of your audience

If I have a group of non-native speakers, I always start by keeping my English very simple. No nuances, no idioms. Stick to the facts, don’t try to be clever. I look at the faces to see if people seem to be understanding me, and I try to interact with the people in my group to get a feel for their level of English.

If you are guiding people in Dutch or French, almost all the people in your group will be native speakers of that language. Not so in English. Tourists that choose English as their language to be guided in come from all over the world: America, the UK, but also non-English-speaking countries like, say, Japan or Italy.

This means that if you are guiding in English, you have to be very observant: how well does your group speak English?

I often guide groups of business people who are in the Netherlands for their work. They are on my tour as a kind of light relief from sitting in a boardroom all day. These people often have very good technical English, but they have trouble understanding flowery language. So I keep things simple.

Tip 6: Use British and American English

One of the practical matters of speaking English to people from all over the world, is that you have to be aware of some practical differences between American English and British English.

Take the numbering of floors. Dutch and English people speak about the ground floor, the first floor and the second floor. Americans, and people who have learned American English at school, call the ground floor the first floor, the first floor the second floor and so on.

You can imagine that this can cause a problem when a guide tells their group “please explore the museum, and we will meet by the lift (or ‘elevator’!) on the first floor in ten minutes”.

In fact, Americans often also press the wrong button in the lift, pressing “1” and expecting to be getting off at ground level.

I like to find out where most of my group is from by talking about the difference in pronunciation of “Van Gogh”. Americans say “Van Go”, but Brits say “Van Goff”. That gets us chatting about where people are from, and then obviously if my whole group speaks American English I know I can safely use American terms.

But if you have both kinds of speakers in the group you have to get more creative. One way to deal with the floor-numbering issue is by always naming both variants: “please explore the museum, and we will meet by the lift on the first floor in ten minutes. That’s the second floor for those of you who speak American English.”

Another way to get around it, and the one I usually choose, is by saying “this floor”, “upstairs” and “top floor”.

The two other main issues are “restroom” (US) vs “toilet” (UK) and “elevator” (US) or “lift” (UK). Again, I tend to use both terms, so everybody understands.

Tip 7: Be wary of telling jokes in a language that’s not your own

I have years of experience as an international teacher, English is my native language, and I am very practised in adapting my British sense of humour to the group that is in front of me.

When I’m guiding a group in Dutch, which rarely happens, I am very aware that I am not speaking in my native language. I therefore cut out all the witty comments; they just don’t work very well, and often badly, if you are working with a language that is not fully your own.

Tip 8: Don’t overload people with dates and names

To end with, three tips specifically for tour guides (or people who are thinking of showing English-speaking friends around their home town!)

Don’t overload people with too many dates and too many names. People aren’t interested. Give them maybe three names and some ballpark years. If they want to know any more, they’ll ask!

Or they’ll look it up – nowadays, everyone has Google on their phones. This also means guides can no longer make facts up if they don’t know something!

Tip 9: Stand with your back to the object you are talking about

Always stand with your back to the object you are describing. If you stand turned so you are looking at it yourself, your audience will be looking at your back, and they won’t be able to hear you clearly.

Tip 10: While practising your tour, hang or project a picture of the object behind you

When we were training our new guides, each guide had prepared a talk about one building on the walking tour, but due to logistics and the weather we were not actually at the location. We found that it was enormously helpful to project the building onto a screen behind the speaker. Even though the speaker couldn’t see it, the audience could, which made it that much more realistic.

Interviews for English and the Dutch

You just read one of the interviews that I conducted for my newsletter English and the Dutch.

I interview people who work on the boundary between English and Dutch. There’s a lot of them out there! Teachers, translators, people in the tourism sector, people who promote Dutch-speaking regions abroad, and so on.

If you know someone I should interview, or if you would like to be interviewed yourself, please let me know! Just send me a message via my contact page.

Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and a translator from Dutch into English. She thinks about languages way too much, for example about how strange it is that these little blurb things are written in the third person.

Heddwen has two children, two passports, two smartphones, two arms, two legs, and two email newsletters.

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