Learning Dutch at the Maastricht University Language Centre
December 2, 2007 5 Comments
Here are Jeroen, Henny, Lisette and Katja, some of the Dutch teachers at the Maastricht University Language Centre.
And here are some of their students at the Comprehensive Dutch language course. They come from Brazil, Russia, France, Nigeria, Japan, Iran, Afghanistan, Mexico, Guatemala, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Canada, Poland, Moldavia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Greece, Bosnia, Indonesia…
The teachers say they enjoy the international groups of students because “they are very enthusiastic and motivated”. As for the students, some of them are prepared to pay almost EUR 4000 for the language course. What makes it worth it?
Learning Dutch: choice or necessity?
Anne-Sophie from Belgium, Christina from Greece and Javier from Spain want to learn Dutch to improve their contact with their Dutch colleagues at Maastricht University’s Law faculty. Antonin from France, 23, says that his main motivation is his interest for languages. He just started the Dutch course but is already busy thinking about which language to learn next. As for Ana Catherina, a 34 year old art expert from Portugal, she is studying Dutch because she likes the language: “I must not learn it but I want to”.
For some students however, learning Dutch is not a matter of choice. “It is compulsory according to the new integration law,” says Jessica from Guatemala. The new law stipulates that newcomers* aged between 16 and 65 years old who wish to settle in the Netherlands first have to pass an oral exam at the closest Dutch embassy or consulate from their original place of residence to be eligible for a temporary residence permit. For Anna, from Moldavia, the closest Dutch embassy was in Kiev, Ukraine. According to the Dutch Minister for Integration Ella Vogelaar, applicants for the temporary permit should be able to answer the question: “What time is it?”
To be eligible for a permanent residence permit, applicants should pass the Dutch Integration Exam within 3,5 years (exceptionally 5 years) of their stay in the Netherlands. If a candidate fails the Integration Exam or does not comply with the rules established by their municipality, s/he will have to pay a fine which can vary from EUR 250 to 1000.
Even if learning Dutch is compulsory for some newcomers in the Netherlands, not everyone is admitted to the Comprehensive Dutch language course at Maastricht University’s Language Centre. Applicants are required to possess a secondary education qualification granting access to higher education in their own country. Furthermore, they should speak at least one foreign language (German, English or French).
Students like to talk about their goals in learning Dutch. Mojgan from Iran wants “to speak without making mistakes” and “to be done as soon as possible in order to start working”. Ngozika from Nigeria says that it is very important for her to speak Dutch because “my child is now starting to talk Dutch”.
Some of the students “had to leave their countries of origin and are trying to build a better future here,” says teacher Henny. Her colleague Jeroen adds, joking: “Some of the female students say they want to get married so I tell them to speak fluent Dutch and then they can marry me.”
The entire programme covers a period of nine months. Teachers are aware that “it is a long way” and that “the course implies lot of learning and homework”. They find their students’ motivation very rewarding. “You can see them improving” says Jeroen. “They start at a low level and reach in a short time the point in which they can communicate,” agrees Lisette.
Cultural exchanges lead to bondage between teachers and students
The Comprehensive Dutch language course consists of four modules of seven weeks each, with a total number of 80 contact hours per module.
Teacher Katja explains that “although it is mainly a language course, many aspects of Dutch society and the students’ own cultures are also discussed e.g. the education system, politics, the health system, arts and culture.” “Everyone is listening when students share stories about their country,” says Lisette.
Katja likes the diversity in nationalities among her students, and the bond that is created after so many months together. “Somehow you become their coach,” says Katja, “and the contact becomes more personal”.
For Henny, the course seems to present yet another attraction, when she jokingly reveals that “I particularly like those male students, with dark hair and blue eyes…”
High success rate at the National Exam
During class students practice their talking, listening, reading and writing skills, which are the four proficiencies tested at the “Dutch as a Second Language” National Exam (Staatsexamen Nederlands als Tweede Taal). With this diploma in hand, students will be allowed to work or study at a Dutch University.
According to Lisette, “80 to 70 percent of the students pass the exam.” And the good news is that those who have passed the National Exam no longer need to write the Integration Exam.
Where to study?
Before the new integration law came into effect in January 2007, newcomers had to take Dutch lessons at specific institutes chosen by their municipalities. In Maastricht the city council would cover all the costs of the language course at Leeuwenborgh Opleidingen.
However, not everyone was pleased with the level and quality of the classes at the centres chosen by the authorities. “Lessons were very slow, groups very large and I didn´t feel motivated,” explains Jessica from Guatemala.
With time, municipalities opened up the market and many newcomers with academic qualifications started choosing other centres to study Dutch. More choice however also means need for caution: “There are many schools where courses are cheap but of very poor quality,” warns teacher Katja.
Newcomers who choose to study Dutch at an institute which hasn’t been granted an official status (keurmerk) are not entitled to the 70 per cent municipal refund (which can go up to EUR 3000). Instead, they will have to pay most of the course fees from their own pockets and will only get a EUR 650 refund if they pass the course. Students at the Maastricht University’s Language Centre are asked to pay EUR 3800 for the full Dutch language course.
In some cases the city of Maastricht grants financial support for language courses, but when it does, it is also the city who decides where the lessons will take place. The city may suggest the UM’s Language Centre or other institutions.
For Javier from Spain, Christina from Greece or Metka from Slovenia, who work at the university, it is their faculties who cover half of the price of their Dutch courses as long as they take place at the Language Centre.
Why study at the Language Centre?
Sejla from Bosnia says she didn’t like her experiences at Leeuwenborgh Opleidingen.“I spent one month at Leeuwenborgh. Not for me. People were older, and learned very slowly,” says Sejla.
Ilsa came from Mexico City to the Netherlands in December last year. Like Jessica, she is married to a Dutchman. In the beginning she found it difficult to obtain information concerning the language courses. “My husband was really pushing to get information,” she says, adding that he didn´t give up until she got an invitation in March to start a Dutch course at the Language Centre. Ilsa recently finished the fourth module of the Comprehensive Dutch language course.
Most students say they have heard about the Language Centre directly from previous participants. “They told me that it was a very good school. Furthermore you get a certificate. The lessons here are very serious. Every minute you learn something new,” says Nahboubeh.
Ana-Catherina from Portugal adds that “teachers are very nice. They make it easy to learn”.
Another reason for students to choose the Language Centre is because it is linked to the university which is prestigious,” says teacher Henny.
Challenges in learning Dutch
When the students are asked what they find most difficult about learning Dutch, the room feels like a brainstorming session: everyone starts talking at the same time! “The pronunciation and the grammar! Listening and writing!” they all exclaim.
“It is frustrating for students every time they pass from one level to the next, because they start dealing with new tests, new vocabulary and the course becomes more difficult than they had expected,” explains Lisette.
Furthermore, most students don’t get much practice outside of the lessons. “All my friends are foreigners, I have no Dutch friends,” says Metka from Slovenia.
Lisette often advises those of her participants who are students at the university to “try to join other Dutch students, an association (such as the International Women’s Club), or a sports association.”
“And I recommend those who have a partner to start practicing Dutch for half an hour during dinner time for instance, and then to gradually speak Dutch during breakfast and lunch as well.”
Ilsa is very eager to learn the language. She speaks Dutch with her husband. “If we would speak Spanish, then we would be living in Mexico!” she laughs.
Communicating in Limburg
Although the course mostly focuses on life in the Netherlands in general, students also learn that there are differences between Limburg and the rest of the country. Lisette tells them a bit about carnival and Jeroen teaches them a few words in dialect. “We also go out for a cup of coffee with Limburg “vlaai”,” adds Henny.
But integration in Limburg can sometimes be tough. “Most foreigners are very annoyed by the fact that people in Limburg keep addressing them in dialect in spite of the fact that they are clearly not from here. They’ve been through a lot of trouble to learn the national language and instead of being happy about that, local people accuse them of not speaking dialect,” explains Katja. Ilsa agrees: “Sometimes communication can be a bit frustrating, especially if at a party people start talking dialect”.
Some of the students don´t like the way people answer back in dialect, English or German when they are trying their best to communicate in Dutch. “They don’t mean it wrong,” says Anna, “it is more as a way of helping, but in my opinion, they would help me even more if they would answer in Dutch as well.”
A new home in the Netherlands
For most participants, it is love that brought them to the Netherlands. Like Jessica, Anna or Ilsa, they came to live with their Dutch partner. Others want to work or learn Dutch or study at a Dutch University. As for Mojgan and Nahboubeh, they flew from their country, Iran, and came to the Netherlands respectively eight and ten years ago.
Anna´s opinion about the Netherlands has not changed since her arrival last February. “I informed myself really well about life in the Netherlands before I came, so there were no big surprises”. To fellow Russian speakers she recommends the website www.gollandia.com, because it provides very useful information about integration courses as well as advice on how to deal with your Dutch partner.
In general students already seem to be well acquainted with the Netherlands, as well as with the neighbouring countries of Germany and Belgium. “Many of my students use their free time to visit other parts of the country and have seen far more of our country than many Dutch people,” Katja says.
What can be improved?
Tonja says she found it very hard to obtain information concerning the courses for newcomers. “I really wanted to learn but was sent from one desk to the other and no one would help. Sometimes it felt as if I was the one explaining the integration procedure at the municipality instead of the other way around,” she explains. “More clarity is needed,” agrees Anna, adding that “it is also important to receive financial support”.
“A kind of centre for newcomers where they could come together, or where they could attend a movie night or a workshop, would be very beneficial to help them practice their Dutch outside of the lessons,” Katja suggests. “Schools could also organise more activities involving foreign parents,” she adds. “This would help to keep them active in the language learning process.”
Learning Dutch is only the first step to integration
But at the end of the day, “when can you say you are integrated?” asks Henny. “Does it have to do with your knowledge or your behaviour? When you know the answer to “What is the name of the Queen?” does it mean you are integrated?”
The answer is clear for the students. “You have to speak Dutch if you want to integrate,” says Ilsa from Mexico. Anna from Moldavia agrees: “To me integrating is first knowing the language, second knowing about society and its rules and accepting that some aspects are different from the ones we’re used to in our home country”.
By Diana Berdun
Diana Berdun is a Spanish expat in Maastricht. After completing her translation and interpreting studies in Spain, she came to Maastricht where she graduated in European Studies. Diana teaches Spanish at the Language Centre in Maastricht and at the Instituto Cervantes in Utrecht. “This is my fifth year here, but time flies and I have the feeling this is my place, for now”, she says.
*The new integration law does not apply to citizens of the European Union, Island, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, or to other nationals who have lived in The Netherlands during 8 years of their compulsory education or possess appropriate Dutch certificates and diplomas.