What kind of language course is right for me?
Learning the Dutch language will make life a lot easier for expats, but choosing the right course is crucial. We guide you through the maze of options.
It was very exciting moving to the Netherlands from India to join my husband, but when the novelty ended, the depression of dislocation hit. It was only the high of finally interacting with Dutch people in their language that pulled me out of despair.
In learning the language, I could grasp what was said on local radio and television and make sense of signs. But most importantly, I felt less alienated in a foreign land.
Initially though, it was difficult to judge the efficacy of the language programmes, given the abundance of courses and the absolute lack of course rankings.
In the Netherlands, all schools and courses are considered equal, yet schools offer more than one language course. There are also several variations, covering different time spans and different levels of intensity.
Only after spending two years in the Dutch education system after arriving here 2.5 years ago have things become clear.
The distinctions in courses are mostly created to suit the student. There are courses tailored for individual needs and courses that have been created with the aim of teaching Dutch to a group of people from different walks of life.
Some courses place the emphasis on grammar — such as the basic course at the James Boswell Instituut — and others on vocabulary, such as the Delftse Methode. Some courses are taught for five hours a day and others for two hours in the evenings.
Tailor-made courses, one-on-one tuitions and individually tailored intensive courses are usually recommended for business professionals who want their learning to be specific. These courses are customised for the individual and the approach of each course differs.
But these courses are also the most expensive. The Alkmaar-based PCI charges EUR 68 per hour for private, one-on-one tuition, while a course at the James Boswell Instituut in Utrecht can set you back by EUR 90 per hour.
There are also several residential courses designed to allow students — mostly business professionals or political figures — to learn Dutch within a very short period as well.
These intensive residential courses immerse students in Dutch and aim to give them conversational abilities. The "nuns of Vught" are well known for this sort of training. In reality though, the nuns are long gone, replaced by trainers from the language institute Regina Coeli.
Students spend up to ten hours a day learning the language with the institute and like most private language institutes in the Netherlands, this school also offers a choice of individual courses or group courses that last for 5 days.
This intensive personal language course costs EUR 1,973 per week, exclusive 19 percent BTW, lodging and food.
Other institutes offering such courses are Berlitz and Ceran. All of them use specially designed teaching material and offer intake exams to ascertain a potential student’s level.
But the effectiveness of this intensive method has often been questioned because it covers a lot of material in a very short period.
Despite this, Paula Tuts, who has been teaching Dutch for 24 years, claims that it works: "I questioned their method too. Then I met somebody who had followed a one-week course there. I was surprised at how much she had picked up”.
The most famous expat in the Netherlands, the Argentine-born Princess Maxima, studied Dutch at one such institution.
The success of this method might relate to what Lory Tierney of Regina Coeli says: “Our main business is the intensive course which involves individual tailor-made courses”. Lessons therefore depend on the specific needs and goals of the student.
But the language courses offered by the local ROC or Regional Education Centre have the most takers. Subsidised by the local municipality or "gemeente", fees at these centres range from EUR 80 per year for an evening course — not including books — for 6 teaching hours a week to EUR 730 per year for a full-time course, where teaching hours are as many as 15 per week.
Several ROC courses are free for people seeking asylum in the Netherlands and non-EU expats who intend to settle permanently in the Netherlands and are thus obligated to complete an "inburgering" exam.
Courses offered at ROCs are not always the same. The Help! series, created by the Netherlands Centre for Foreigners, is quite popular and used at the James Boswell Instituut, while the Language Centre in Leiden prefers to use Code Nederlands.
Another often-used method is the Nieuwe Buren by Malmberg, which is divided into three separate sections, the first aimed at people who have not graduated, the second who have had some schooling and the third aimed at students who have a high standard of education.
Ijsbreker, by Thieme Meulenhoff, is created for those who have not graduated and tests the development of your written, listening, speaking and reading skills.
Most courses offered by ROC’s are conducted in groups of 10-15 and the texts cover both grammar and vocabulary. Teachers generally prefer this method because they believe that learning Dutch in a group not only allows the student to learn from the mistakes of others, it also offers them the chance to interact in their new language.
But whatever the course, studying at home is another essential that many teachers recommend. “Homework should equal that of study at school,” Dorien Houben, of the James Boswell Instituut, says.
Studying Dutch at a ROC was a compulsory stipulation laid down by the Dutch government for Elena Nieuwehuizen, originally of St Petersburg, who moved to the Netherlands about two years ago to join her Dutch husband.
But she was disappointed by the course offered, claiming that she could have got more out of it and the teachers were not motivated enough. Nieuwehuizen says she feels she learned more outside of school, while also admitting that the grammar she picked up at the ROC is invaluable.
Paula Tuts — who has taught at the ID College, a ROC in Zoetermeer — advises that it is very important for expats to give themselves time for the information to sink in. In her experience, people race through a course and find they did not absorb much of the syllabus.
“One must make an effort to maintain one's recently acquired knowledge of a language," Tierney says.
She recommends reading a Dutch article to maintain reading skills and increase vocabulary. Speaking skills can be honed in by discussing the article with a Dutch colleague, while listening and comprehension skills can be applied when watching television or listening to the radio. To improve writing skills, Tierney advises expats to write informal emails to a colleague.
But learning Dutch is a continuing challenge and Nieuwehuizen’s next task is to improve her pronunciation, understand Dutch humour and slang.
As for me, I’m still trying to get the Dutch person on the street to speak to me in Dutch. Most Dutch speak English and when they notice a bit of faltering in Dutch on my part, they quickly switch to English. They want to practice their languages too!
But whatever you do, stick with it. The rewards are there!
First published in July 2004
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