Learning Dutch at an English-taught university

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Learning Dutch at an English-taught university

English has been the working language at TU/e since 2020. And even off-campus, internationals don't have to worry about Babylonian misunderstandings: The Dutch are well-known for their willingness to speak English to foreigners and for their English language proficiency. Nevertheless, the TU/e Language Center (TLC) annually provides 1200 language learners with Dutch lessons on eight different levels. Why are these students and employees learning Dutch? And how do they feel about the Dutch language?

photo Levi Baruch

“Zitten studenten echt altijd … het bier?” The students are discussing this sentence from a language exercise in pairs. They have to fill in the correct preposition on the dotted line. They consider the option “aan het bier zitten”, but that sounds strange, says one of them: “I’ve never seen that word combination before.” Her partner still thinks it is correct: “I think it's street slang.”

Cursor attends one of the classes for the course SFC530 Dutch Intermediate 2. The course takes place twice a week in one of the lecture halls on the first floor of MetaForum. The sixteen course participants are welcomed by their instructor Carlo van der Meer. Van der Meer is a Dutch language expert who developed an interest in NT2 (Dutch as a second language) education during his postdoctoral teacher training.

Intermediate 2 is but one of eight levels at which NT2 courses are offered by the TU/e Language Center (TLC), ranging from Beginner to Advanced Plus. Almost all courses are offered quarterly. The maximum group size is sixteen participants. The number of enrollments is stable around an average of 1,200 per year, according to Van der Meer: “In the previous academic year there were 1275. The year 2020-2021 was an exception; enrollment numbers dropped to 1,000 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The NT2 courses are free of charge for students. They can obtain extracurricular credits for these courses. Employees agree with their supervisor on who will cover the cost. The standard student/employee ratio is around 70 to 75 percent students and 25 to 30 percent employees. Over the years, the number of participants has increased along with the growing number of internationals who study and work at TU/e. The introduction of English as the working language in 2020 has had no inhibiting effect on enrollment numbers.

Language Center

In addition to NT2 courses for internationals, the TU/e Language Center, whose acronym TLC can also refer to the sympathetic phrase “tender loving care”, also offers English language courses and training in academic writing. The center has a staff of 10 permanent employees and 35 freelance teachers.

In love

Half of the number of enrollments in NT2 courses at TU/e is for the Beginners 1 course. “We don't just offer that course quarterly, but also as a 14-day summer course that takes place prior to the Intro. That course is popular among new international students.”

So a lot of internationals settle for a first introduction to the language of their new host country and leave it at that. What motivates the people who do decide to take the follow-up courses, like the participants of today's Intermediate 2 class?

The motivation is often of a social nature, says Van der Meer: “They want to be able to talk with their house mates - because among themselves, Dutch people tend to switch to their own language. Others have family members in the Netherlands or have fallen in love with a Dutch person.” Some of them also want to stay in the Netherlands and build a life here.

Some are here for reasons that have to do with their program or field of study, despite the fact that everything on campus is available in English. For certain programs, it is useful to have a command of the Dutch language, for internships, for example. “Think of Biomedical Engineering: nurses and doctors in hospitals don't always speak English well.”

TLC broadly classifies its courses according to the CEFR language levels, which are recognized throughout Europe, but does not award official certificates itself. “We administer our own exams. However, it’s possible for students to apply for a state exam on their own initiative.” Such a state exam officially certifies the achieved language level. This language level may be one of the admission requirements to a - Dutch-taught - study program and is also one of the integration requirements in our country. Those language requirements for integration have been tightened recently: newcomers are now required to master Dutch at B1 level, instead of A2 level.

Quiet car

The textbook of tonight’s course participants - from the learning method Nederlands in actie - uses sample texts on typically Dutch phenomena. This way, the internationals also get acquainted with local customs like “talking in the quiet car” and the mass indulgence of the Dutch haggling spirit at the flea markets on King’s Day.

But right now, everyone's focus is on the blackboard. With a piece of chalk in hand, Van der Meer explains how to make passive sentences. “Ik lees een boek” becomes: “Het boek wordt gelezen”, and “Ik heb een boek gelezen” becomes: “Het boek is gelezen”.

“Will this be on the exam?” The average teacher would rather not hear that question, but Van der Meer understands the relevance: this is the last week of class and the exam is just around the corner this weekend. And yes, knowledge of the passive voice will also be tested.

It’s so easy to keep switching back to English that it takes great perseverance to learn Dutch

Carlo van der Meer
NT2 teacher

The participants appreciate the classes, the teacher knows. “They often find it a nice change to learn words and grammar from a book for once, instead of doing calculations on a laptop.” But above all, they greatly appreciate the opportunity to meet regularly with a group of peers: fellow internationals who are also trying to find their way in a new country. “That's the reason why we returned to 'live' classes as soon as possible after the pandemic. With the exception of two online courses: one as a service offered to TU/e students still living abroad, and one as a fixed component of the range of courses offered in the EuroTeQ alliance.”


What is it like to learn Dutch as an international? The most important thing is practice, practice and more practice, Van der Meer stresses. Unfortunately, this is often made quite impossible for NT2 students, by helpful Dutch people who instantly switch to English at the slightest hint of an accent. “Pretend that you don’t speak English if necessary”, Van der Meer suggests, tongue-in-cheek. “It’s so easy to keep switching back to English that it takes great perseverance to learn Dutch.”

Many internationals struggle with pronunciation in the Dutch language. Like that of diphthongs: vowel combinations like “ui and “au that end in a different sound than the one they start with. The “g” and “r” are also a frequent source of confusion, “because we pronounce them in so many different ways, depending on the region but also the position within a word.”

NT2 students also have difficulty understanding Dutch sentence structure and grammar. There are many exceptions to Dutch language rules, which can be difficult to accept for TU/e students and employees, “who often have a technical and structured way of thinking”, Van der Meer notes. And what further complicates the learning process is that “practically every language rule has one category that follows the rule, one that partially follows the rule, and one that doesn’t follow the rule at all.” Think, for example, of regular, strong and irregular verbs.

The definite articles “de” and “het” also cause many students headaches: “The spelling of a word doesn’t tell you whether it has the masculine or feminine (de) or neuter (het) gender.” While there are word categories that tend to be mostly “de” words or “het” words, there are exceptions to those too.

What Van der Meer himself finds fun and challenging to explain is the use of adverbs like “nou” and “maar” (so not in its conjunction function, like “but”). “Just compare the differences in tone - inviting or impatient - between clauses like: “kom binnen”, “kom maar binnen”, “kom nou binnen” en “kom nou maar binnen”.”

Liefs uit Londen

It is time to discuss the final exercises together. Van der Meer lets students take turns and answers questions. Why is it “geen” instead of “niet een”? And what is the difference between “jou” and “jouw”? Why is it “veelgeld” but not “veel duur”?

The class flew by so quickly that we did not even get to the last part: listening to the song Liefs uit Londen by the Dutch band Bløf together. So the course participants are given a copy of the lyrics to take home. They are supposed to fill in a few of the words that were left out. After a final pep talk before the exam, Van der Meer dismisses the class.

“The word “samenleving” says a lot about the Netherlands”

Victor Chirilaş (22, left in the photo) is a master’s student in architecture. He is of Romanian-German descent, and his Dutch is remarkably accentless. “I’ve been studying here since my Bachelor’s so I’ve heard a lot of Dutch.” Why is he taking the NT2 course? “As an architect, you have to be able to communicate with all the stakeholders of a project, including construction workers. I want them to feel comfortable during the contact, so I want to be able to speak Dutch with them.”

One of Chirilaş’ favorite Dutch words is “samenleving”: “I think it’s an interesting metaphor for the concept of society: the way you choose to live together. The word says a lot about the Dutch mentality.”

“I want to stay here”

Mihai Zelina (25, on the right) is working towards and EngD in Software Technology. He came to the Netherlands from Romania five years ago, and wants to build his future here. “I like almost everything here: the country, the life, the - how do I explain this in Dutch - systems, how things are organized.”

Is Dutch a difficult language? “A little bit. The prepositions, for example.”

“We speak English at home”

Ukrainian Katrina Roks (left in the photo) is married to a Dutchman. She works as an assistant on the Data Management Team at the support service Library and Information Services (LIS). “When I applied for a job at TU/e in March, the war in my home country had just started. I was so shocked that I don’t remember the interview at all.” Fortunately, she was hired anyway.

Roks has already passed her civic integration examination, but she is learning the language because she wants to build a career. “I used to work as a lawyer in Ukraine.” She practices speaking Dutch with colleagues and other people in her circle, but not with her husband. “He in turn doesn't want to learn Ukrainian, so we speak English at home”, she says with a smile.

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