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They’ve never told me about it, because they’ve never suspected it could be otherwise … I’ve never asked about it because I’ve never suspected it could be so …

But here it is. There is a possible solution to the problem of why an English teacher can’t get a job without talking superb Dutch. I’ve uncovered it through my efforts to get that elusive job, and voilá! The other day, I received a sample of the kinds of tests secondary pupils face while being tested at a VMBO-school. Here is the beginning:

Tekst 1

(1p) 1 Wat vindt Katie het engst aan de gebeurtenis die hieronder beschreven wordt?

A dat er mensen zijn die haar bang willen maken

B dat het horloge na een jaar opeens weer opduikt

C dat het kennelijk echt spookt in hun huis

D dat hun huis inbraakgevoelig blijkt te zijn

And then comes an English text to go with this item. The test goes on like this, and even when one of four choices needs to be supplied into gaps of another text, the last question is of the translation/interpretation kind:

7 Geef van elk van de volgende beweringen aan of deze juist of onjuist is op grond van de alinea’s 6 en 7. Omcirkel ‘juist’ of ‘onjuist’ in je uitwerkbijlage.

a Bij een half uur joggen verbruik je meer calorieën dan bij een half uur touwtjespringen.

b Bij touwtjespringen worden alleen de benen goed getraind.

c Touwtjespringen is volgens veel jonge mannen typisch iets voor meisjes.

d Sommige vechtsporters trainen ook door touwtje te springen.

Which means, of course, that not only do the students have to translate for themselves all the time (I’ve already written about the drawback thereof), but the teacher also has to understand and be able to explain why some answers are incorrect and others are correct.

On top of this, the final year of the lower-high and upper-high-school is a test-year, which means students are given test practice throughout the year. I can’t imagine how much drilling of grammar and translation goes on there because I’ve always worked on the principle that if the language is well-based and fluent and assured enough corresponding to the level of the applicant, the test won’t be a problem. If students converse and read and write freely on, let’s say, B2 level, passing a test on B2 level will also be easy for them with a minimum of test preparation, which I consider a very ineffective and time-consuming way of language development itself. It is necessary to give such practice for the sake of understanding what the testers want from them and how.

As far as I remember – which is more than 40 years ago, when I began to study English at grammar school – our books and tests were written by the Hungarian authors and our teacher in English. I’ve done state examination training, corrected university entrance tests and the like, but I’ve never seen a test given in the students’ mother tongue … well, perhaps there were a few in China, but as far as I remember what they showed me there, they were tests written in English. The student has to understand the task in English. This is simply a reading task, also measuring in itself the understanding of the target language, full-stop. I can imagine no reason why the Dutch have to make it extra complicated for their children by making them translate even if they have a chance of understanding it in English – and that’s the point of the test, isn’t it?

It makes me a bit more optimistic that others tell me students at the higher-level theoretical schools, like ‘gymnasium’ and the like, get tested by English-language tests. But I’ve also got insider information which suggests that that the level of English of even some HBO-groups are so shaky that students need Dutch-language instruction and testing.

My other discovery is connected to one school’s brochure, which states that

De docenten van de moderne vreemde talen van het … College hebben de afgelopen twee schooljaren gebruikt om de lessen, de toetsen en de schoolexamens aan te passen aan de kwaliteitseisen die aan het ERK zijn verbonden.

English: CEFR and ESOL examinations correspond...

English: CEFR and ESOL examinations correspondence diagram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which is to say that the school’s teachers of modern languages have been adjusting their classes, tests and examinations to the Common European Framework of Reference for the last two years. Which is to say … two years. The first draft of CEFR came out in 1997, although it is true that the Reference Supplement came out in 2009.

I have very big doubts about the application of the CEFR in the Netherlands. Although a Dutch committee prepared the Reading/Listening Grid, I doubt that the team-leader, J. Charles Alderson of Lancaster University would really have advocated the use of the mother tongue with these items, and because the committee had members from France, Germany and Finland, I don’t think they all used their mother tongues while formulating the common reference points. Saying this, I have to admit that I haven’t read CEFR and I’m not intending to in the short term, so I could also say, anything goes. But then, why do they have CEFR? And if they do, how could anyone not speaking Dutch solve such a test? Does this conform to CEFR?

English: Map of the Council of Europe members ...

English: Map of the Council of Europe members and other European countries with their population figures. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My personal feeling is that most of the earlier tests were not re-written in the Netherlands, although some texts are said to be from sources around 2009. Also, this is how they’ve been making tests for as long as they remember … And see, even the Council of Europe deems Dutch test-makers to be worthy of preparing a large chunk, so it must be alright. Nobody thought it could be otherwise, as I pointed out above. Also, two years is not a long period, they may be waiting for what’s happening in the longer term.

In the Netherlands, testing is in the hands of the highly-regarded CITO, the Central Testing Agency, and they don’t expect any primary pupils to understand tasks in English or other respective languages, so all their all-important final exams for primary education have Dutch instructions for foreign languages. So that’s what teachers have to prepare their students for, obviously in Dutch. By extension, logic dictates that, if test solutions have to be discussed in Dutch, teachers have to explain grammar and other stuff in Dutch during preparation to tests, so the language of instruction is also Dutch. And if the system doesn’t change for secondary levels, nobody is going to complain there, right?

For me, though, Dutch foreign language education does not seem a jot better than its Chinese counterpart, as long as I can’t see it from inside. What makes the two systems very different in terms of efficiency is the social and economic system surrounding them in general, and the outside-school possibilities for learning in particular.

Some professional opinion points towards change, though, saying that in the very last few years there seems to have begun some tendency to implement target-language instruction in language classes. I dearly hope that the ‘Age of Latin’ is on the wane here too, at long last, and I may ride a wave of target-language instruction to my first teaching job in the country. Touch wood …

by P.S.