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I’ve discovered a number of outstanding features about language education in the Netherlands during the few years I’ve spent here. Perhaps the most special kind concerns teaching Dutch to foreigners, ‘Nederlandse taal voor andertaligens’, as it is called here.

It has been an important issue for the country because the Netherlands has been one of the few countries in Europe where the country has received a very sizable influx of foreigners for years. As a result, the Dutch comprise only 80% of the population, which means that teaching Dutch to fast growing numbers of immigrants has been big business and important for the country. My educated guess is that with a 1.76 fertility rate, the long-term and steady population growth of around 0.50% is to a large extent due to immigration.

Availability of Dutch course-books in libraries reflects this importance, but not that in book-shops. A couple of recent forays into local book-shops strengthened my earlier feelings that course-books in general are not publicly available. This holds true for any languages, be it Dutch, English, or German. It contrasts starkly with the availability of foreign language course material even in smaller towns in Hungary or at bigger places in China, and also with the availability of a very wide range of dictionaries that conforms to the colourful presence of so many ethnic groups in the country. The availability of Dutch course material in libraries indicates a healthy effort to supply for the needs of immigrants, but the lack of it in book-shops strikes one as strange. Even the rather muted efforts to widen the teaching of the native language in Hungary seems huge in comparison on this basis, not to mention the presence of Chinese courses available in China in spite of the weak state of teaching methodology. One seriously wonders how to get a picture about what students are taught from at school.

Insider opinion I’ve met recently holds that languages are taught using course material made in the Netherlands, not internationally. The same opinion also stated that choice usually depends on conservatism versus the over-valuation of the new. This would also support the conclusion I’ve drawn elsewhere and also from the fact that one can’t find Dutch participants at international events, that is, the profession is over-confident and isolated from international influences in language teaching. It also indicates that teaching languages is big business for Dutch professionals, though the quality may not always match international levels, which can be deducted from the price per quality ratio of the new series of books used by our regional MBO school for teaching Dutch, Code: the content is sometimes very strange, sometimes really modern with live video; the looks of the books reminds one of the quality of the Alexander-series of yore from Britain, or the quality of the first Hungarian course-books published in the late 1970’s; and the price is about four times that of international publications by Cambridge or Macmillan. If it is anything to go by about other languages, somebody does make big business out of teaching English, French and the other languages at school at the expense of those who need to buy their products in the absence of foreign competition.

Because ‘inburghering’, that is, helping immigrants learn the culture, administrative systems and everyday life as well as the language, is so important in the Netherlands, teaching is widely supported and delivered in a large number of various institutions and also by the population. One evidence is that schools are able to draw quite a number of volunteers, ‘vreiwilligers’ in Dutch, to help teachers with their work in class. This means that ordinary Dutch people with enough time feel it nice to come to classes and take part in group work making sure that good enough language is used by the groups. They are not teachers, but as natives, they can help the foreigners understand and use ordinary Dutch. Some of the volunteers also hold regular “office hours” in a separate place to help those in need of something extra after or before class, which takes the form of short one-to-one talks and discussions. I find both these kinds of help extremely useful and kind of the people involved.

But the most outstanding and unique feature takes us outside school. The system is called ‘taalmaatjes’, which means that a lot of Dutch people volunteer to regularly meet foreigners interested in the programme for a few hours a week and share their culture and language with them just for the sake of spending a few hours usefully and with communication with strange people. Such ‘language partners‘ also do this free of charge, for the joy and friendship in their free time. As this is also face-to-face, but regular as well, people get used to the foreigners’ needs, and can concentrate on them personally a lot more than teachers in class could. I can personally thank more to my taalmaatje now than to my teachers because my language partner is intelligent and can provide invaluable information on the one hand about collocations and idioms in the language, which are the most difficult to practice in class circumstances, and because, on the other hand, make it possible for me to speak intensively in supported circumstances for two hours. Such intensity and density of information about the language can’t be achieved in a normal Dutch class. Besides, the programme adds a lot to the understanding and the accommodation of newcomers in the country, so it is a basic ingredient to the much-needed mutual understanding and acceptance of differences among peoples.

With economic problems hitting this country too, schools in the Netherlands don’t have to see their budgets seriously cut, but, to my amazement, the ‘taalmaatje’ program was officially scraped in the middle of 2011. I find this very strange especially because the system only needed a small number of administrative people who have other tasks in their jobs as well, while the people involved in the actual work of helping learners, i.e. the ‘taalmaatjes’, didn’t get any remuneration. A proof of the success among Dutch people of the program is that a lot of those who were already participants at the time of the cuts have been keeping contact with their foreign friends ever since. This was and still is, through its intensity, perhaps the most effective way of language teaching coupled with tolerance and cultural understanding, while it costs next to nothing.

A great pity the government doesn’t support the program, but perhaps it is in connection with a kind of turning away from the long-term trend of welcoming foreigners in the country. Financial support to help immigrants learn Dutch has also been scraped on the whole, which is very likely to represent an emerging trend among the population against easy integration and further welcoming of immigrants. This trend was represented, for example, by one parliamentary party’s web-site earlier this year against Polish workers in the country.

To let you better understand the impact of such moves on a small country like the Netherlands or Hungary and the like, I’d like to give you a personal example. I’ve known a very nice young man from Iraq for years, who came here, and received refugee status and financial aid to live here and follow his studies at one of the best Dutch universities. His specialization is in microbiology, and after receiving his MSc mostly in English, he’s now pursuing his PhD studies in Dutch. Had he not received any financial help and language support over the years, he wouldn’t be able to do this, he would have left for Great Britain, for example. He may not stay very long after graduation because his field is very specific and this country is too small to support further researchers and research in it. It is far more likely that he’ll be able to get a research job in one of the English-speaking countries. By extension, we can safely say that any people with talent coming here would not stay here without language help, would not be able to utilize their talent to its full potential and wouldn’t make it possible for the Dutch economy to invest more in, and benefit more from, R&D on a scale comparable to the potentials of larger economies speaking the largest world language. The Netherlands can’t really become larger, but is still attractive to foreign talent, but only if the language barrier is surmountable in the first place. As R&D is the real measure of economic growth potential, and its source, besides capital, is the brains and intellect of the country’s inhabitants, talent shouldn’t be lost at the very first hurdle, on the language front, in any small country.

by P.S.

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