Can You Afford to Learn Dutch?

Why language classes should be free

International students who want to learn Dutch face utterly baffling costs, says Kanta Dihal.

It is hard to learn Dutch. Most people in the Netherlands are keenly aware of that, whether Dutch-speaking or not. Yet if you now think that learning Dutch is hard because of the harsh, grating consonants, or the illogical grammar in which you sort of have to feel whether a noun takes the article ‘de’ or ‘het’, you are quite right, but not there yet.

An equally important reason why it is so hard to learn Dutch is because no one will let you. Surprisingly, that even includes the university.

Mare recently published an article in which it is argued that international students need to possess a fair command of Dutch before they are able to take on any kind of employment in the Netherlands – even a part-time cleaning job. What the article unfortunately did not have room for is the pressing matter that students who actively pursue learning Dutch via the university face utterly baffling costs.

I am Dutch myself, writing in English for obvious reasons – this article concerns those of you who might not read Dutch well. I have studied abroad several times, and have seen that other universities can be much better at lowering the bar for students looking to learn the language(s) of the country they arrived in. The high cost of language classes at the Leiden University Language Centre can easily put students off even trying.

Have a look at the courses the Language Centre offers. They offer Dutch courses at four levels: 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B. Each course spans 12 classes, or one term. The cost? For students and staff of Leiden University, these courses cost a whopping €210 per term.

After forking over €840 and completing the 2B course, you have reached – congratulations – level A2.2. No wonder the Mare article did not mention this option: this level is not enough to take on any kind of employment in a Dutch-speaking environment.

Here is the description that the Council of Europe uses to describe level A2 (as they don’t seem to acknowledge the existence of an A2.2): “Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.”

If you were a beginner and wanted to reach level B1 (“Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.”), be prepared to take the three Dutch 1-3 semi-intensive courses at €530 per course. Only the BAs International Studies and Liberal Arts and Sciences offer Dutch courses as part of the degree, and students from other degrees are not allowed to enrol in these courses.

The same issue, by the way, applies to people who wish to improve their English via the Language Centre. The English for Academic Purposes course (12 classes) costs €200.

Compare this to Newcastle University, where I spent a year as an Erasmus scholar. When I arrived in Newcastle, I had to prove my English was good enough before the start of term. If I didn’t sit an English language test, my student card would be blocked. If the test had shown that my English language skills were below a certain level, I would’ve been offered English language classes, for free.

At Oxford, where I am doing a PhD now, they’re kind of expecting you to already speak English fairly well. However, they wouldn’t turn down a mathematics genius because her English is wonky. So they too offer an English for Academic Purposes class, which costs £35 per term (€35, I guess? Thanks, Brexit). The same fee applies for all other non-intensive courses their language centre offers – including Dutch. Oh, and if you prove that you need it, rather than wanting to take a language course out of interest, they waive this fee. If Leiden does offer this possibility, the Language Centre does not advertise it on their website.

As many of you will know, someone who wishes to learn Dutch in the Netherlands can quickly become lazy about it, as people are usually very happy to speak English with you. In The Hague in particular, an extremely international city due to the presence of embassies and the International Court of Justice, some expats found it so hard to practice their Dutch that they made “Spreek Nederlands! Met mij!” (Speak Dutch! To me!’) badges that they could display on their lapels.

Yes, it will always be a struggle for incoming students to learn Dutch in an environment that is all too eager to switch to English for your benefit. But it would be amazing if that were the only hindrance, and that the university would at least allow students to be able to afford a course in which they were able to learn the meaning of the words “Spreek Nederlands met mij.”

Kanta Dihal is a doctoral researcher in science communication at the University of Oxford. She is an alumna of Leiden University (BA English Language and Culture; BA Film and Literary Studies; ResMA Literary Studies).

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