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In this new post, I’d like to compare the language education systems in a few countries where I’ve had some experience. Because I suppose most people properly educated in English have a fair idea about the education systems of Great Britain and the United States of America, I only draw a few parallels where this seems practical, but I’m not going into details there. I also have very little first-hand experience about the US.

Firstly, I’d like to discuss the situation in the Netherlands. This is the country that has come out on top of Europe in a recent poll about the ratio of people speaking at least one foreign language, so it can be assumed that language teaching is of utmost importance and in a very modern state here.

As far as I can see, in the Dutch education system, there are lots of choices for people as to denomination, educational philosophy and the like: this is a country for catholic, protestant, muslim, Montessory, ‘themaonderwijs’ (theme-oriented teaching), Dalton, Jenaplan, adaptive or development-oriented schools and a lot more. I personally haven’t seen a system in which the force of competition led to a greater variation of idea-based, philosophy-based, theory-based schools than in the Netherlands. There is great pressure on schools of different levels to stand out in one way or another, perhaps at all cost. True, this leads to a variety of choice perhaps unprecedented elsewhere. This also means that it is next to impossible to generalize about the kind of educational practices followed, it’s only possible to draw a few wild conclusions. However, that’s what I’m trying to do below.

The different levels of education in the Nethe...

The different levels of education in the Netherlands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As can be seen in the chart, education in the Netherlands starts at age four and secondary education starts at twelve. How much foreign language education goes on between these two points depends on the kind of school the kid goes to. From secondary age, studying at least two foreign languages is compulsory, often one changed to a third one after a couple of years. There’s a wide range of choice, but at schools in the VWO section, which prepare students for higher education, especially at ‘gymnasia’, students must choose between Latin and ancient Greek. The number of lessons for modern languages is very low, maximum two or three in all three types of secondary schools, but students often have only one class per week per language in HAVO or VMBO-schools. One may wonder whether the system itself is designed to give no chance for students to learn a language properly, or to economize on the likelihood that they will do so later anyway. For the brighter ones, some larger, comprehensive-like institutions, like in lyceums, give the possibility to upgrade their studies by shifting upwards from VMBO or HAVO level, but then they get a compulsory dead language for their efforts.

English: Education System in the Netherlands N...

English: Education System in the Netherlands Nederlands: Schema van het onderwijssysteem in Nederland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What really strikes me as a language teacher and a foreigner is that teachers at interviews and other colleagues admitted that most students don’t speak English until about age fifteen, or two or three years of instruction. This is further attested to by former student friends, who maintained that they didn’t really learn anything about English at their schools, especially at the more technically-oriented HAVO and VMBO. The stress here is on learning about the language, as if English was one of the classical, i.e. dead languages. It seems widely accepted that classical languages are necessary for higher education, which may or may not be the case from other points of view.

What is further interesting is the opinion of a colleague at an institution between secondary and tertiary institutions, where English language training for university entrance exams takes place for those who have failed first. The course at his institution consists of test- and reading practice and a little writing, but apart from occasional listening to their own reading, there’s no listening practice, and no speech practice. Out goes the complex views of language learning prevalent in the English-speaking world, or where they have strong impact. The reasons are that students must be prepared for reading almost all, or at least most, university material in English, have to write in English for their papers, and there’s no time for other activities at the course. Besides, the students can practice listening from the television, and speaking in their private lives.

This all points to a strong leaning on the grammar-translation methods of yore. At an interview, I felt that time has stopped in that one school, and since then I feel it has stopped in this country as a whole. My own experience supports the now wide-spread wisdom that teaching through grammar and translation without real communication slows down the learning process. I’ve reached a stage in my Dutch studies when I’m able to just talk Dutch without thinking first in my own language or English about what I want to say. This is the aim of all learners, but it has to be on a level when one can really express everything. I’m not at that level, so when I can’t find a word in Dutch, I try to fall back on my English, and that’s the point when I find that not only can I not say that particular word in English, which I’ve been speaking for over forty years, but in my own mother tongue either. So, how can, I wonder, Dutch English teachers effectively teach their students a foreign language through Dutch? I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask the panel this at the time of being asked how I can teach without Dutch. Obviously, they have no idea about the truism that translation is a separate skill, to be taught separately from the others.

I should perhaps add that the Netherlands has a strong system of teaching Dutch to immigrants, with support from ‘vrijwilligers’, or volunteers from all walks of life. The preparatory phase for full-time employment in education, as well as with perhaps all jobs, called ‘stage’, is general, which creates the foundations of effective workers in the education as well. On the other hand, the job of teacher assistant is not wide-spread at all to the extent it is in Britain, although it exists. For foreign teachers trying to get a job here it would be a useful step.

So how does it come about that the Dutch are so proficient in foreign languages in general, and in English in particular?
As was suggested above, the Netherlands has come out on top of a recent survey of Europe about language proficiency. Irrespective of methods, this result shows a wide-spread use of second languages here. We can hear it in the streets of most towns and cities, and it not only means the use of their mother tongue by the lot of immigrants to the country, but also the use of English, German, French and other major languages. True, it’s not very usual to hear German, French of Spanish, perhaps because visiting speakers of those languages already know that if they speak English here, they will surely be able to communicate. So one hears mostly English by tourists asking for tickets, ordering hotel rooms or asking for beer at pubs, and even train or bus conductors answer them as a matter of fact.

People in the Netherlands like to travel and discover the world. One of the closest neighbours is also one of the most popular destinations: Britain. The reasons could be anything from studies or work to following a match of favourite football clubs there. Instead of animosity, there’s a strong sense of rivalry towards the English in the Netherlands. Historical animosity may already have been forgotten towards England, much more, than towards Germany. I know of young people who have been to Spain or France to work in the summer holidays, and they have gradually learned those languages, especially if they already had a course about them. I also know about German spouses or Dutch people who live in Germany, but on the whole, the use of these languages seems to be very limited. Besides personal and possibly historical reasons, these languages are also not very often used in television programmes or in cinemas. On the other hand, English-language programmes and films abound in the Netherlands. Young people have the opportunity to watch relatively good quality English soaps and at least one TV channel airs an English or American film every evening, often without subtitles, but those with subtitles also benefit learners a lot. Besides, programmes about fashion, famous people and lots of other, sometimes strange topics abound on several channels even in peak time. I have to underline the fact that dubbing is not used in this country at all. Besides, to follow university courses, one has to be able to read any literature pertaining to their subject more or less fluently, as a colleague has pointed out. All this leads to an overwhelming knowledge of English (87% of the adult population, 5th in Europe after the English-speaking countries, and Norway and Sweden, according to a recent survey here, or the latest full results downloadable here), but less so of other second languages, or the others are simply and clearly far less popular and accessible.

If we look beyond the convenient everyday use of everyman, then specialists of English, like travelling businessman, language teachers and linguists, must rely on more than watching films. The businessman meets native speakers often enough to have no problems with English, or other languages, and the Dutch are a great nation of travelling businessmen. On the other hand, they may be less great with linguistics, as far as I can see. University students, or those aspiring to become one, must rely on dictionaries. In this field, I must feel sorry for them, because dictionaries available in two languages are not unlike their Hungarian counterparts: some words are translated with only a single word, many without example phrases or sentences that would help the learner to understand the contextual use of the word or phrase, and I’ve come across several mistakes, whereby the equivalent is given in an English word that is not used or doesn’t exist in that sense. I find this mostly with my big van Dale Studiewoordenboek, but sometimes with Kramers too. It disturbs me as a learner of Dutch greatly, but this is also the source that learners of English are supposed to rely on. Enough? Hardly so sometimes. I also find it conspicuous that it’s very difficult to find the single-language English dictionaries and specialized dictionaries like slang, or phrasal-verb dictionaries here, just like it’s next to impossible to find internationally-published, modern coursebooks that abound in Hungary and other countries. I still have to dig deeper into the local offer to offer views on those, but if the Dutch coursebooks we receive at the Dutch course are anything to go by, I have little to expect in organization, methodology or life-like interest enticing the young learner.

Just as a by-thought, I’d like to add that the perhaps largest and best institution to teach English as a foreign language around the world, IH, or International House, only has no school in Europe in the Netherlands, Denmark and the two Scandinavian countries mentioned, thereby ridding their learners of English of a direct possibility of learning from native speakers, or their highly competent equivalents. May it be down to self-confidence, or self-deception, or sheer arrogance, which countries like Germany or Switzerland give a wide berth to by giving the possibility to their learners to study with IH?

Next, I’d like to give a general overview of the Hungarian system of language education. So that each post doesn’t become too long and tiring to read, I’m going to do that in the following post.

regularly updated with new ideas if possible

by P.S.