Friday, 16 October 2015

Dutch Primary Schools Lag Behind with Foreign Language Teaching

Platform Onderwijs2032 is looking at the future of the education system in the Netherlands. One of the conclusions drawn from their work to date is that English should be taught from group 1, from the start of a child's school journey.

According to an article on Expatica, just over half of Dutch children are taught a second language in primary school. This falls below the European average.

The government is busy with measures to rectify this situation. It is well acknowledged that children learn languages more easily from a younger age. The reality though is that many of them are not formally introduced to a second language until they are in secondary school.

It's a story that surprised me when I first read it. Lagging behind in foreign language teaching and the Dutch isn't something that struck me as going hand in hand. Let's be clear, the Dutch, on the whole, have excellent foreign language skills. Most of the population can hold a decent conversation in English.

"Amongst nations where English is considered the best-known foreign tongue, the study noted that the Netherlands also had a high proportion of working-age adults "proficient" in the language (36 per cent). This places the Dutch fourth in Europe, with only Malta, Sweden and Cyprus boasting more proficient English speakers. An additional 45 per cent of Dutch adults rated themselves as "good" speakers of English. This means that over 80 per cent of the Netherlands' working population has good English skills" 
(Taken from a 2013 I Am Expat article)

But the content of the Expatica article certainly doesn't contradict my own personal experience with three children in primary school.

My eldest son is in group 5, is eight years old, but as yet has had no formal second language lessons in school. My youngest son recently had a morning of singing English songs, and my middle son has had exposure to a few words of English vocabulary in the classroom. Their English skills are certainly not attributable to their hours in school.

However, they have classmates who are also adept at speaking some English despite not having the benefit of a British mother as my sons do. There are many five year old walking the school corridors with more than a sprinkling of English vocabulary - picked up from their parents, radio and TV. There is exposure to English outside the classroom, even if it is minimal. (I'm pretty sure you'd be hard pressed to find an eight year old who doesn't know the word shit for example...)

The debate at the moment is about the teaching of a second language at primary school level, not about the overall ability of the Dutch to speak foreign languages. Somewhere along the way it comes good. There's no mistake about that - something echoed by the Dutch respondents on my Facebook page to this issue.

My only concern is that if English was taught to the Dutch from group 1 by the time they reach adulthood their English would be more proficient than the English language skills of most English people.......

So over to you: at what age do children start earning a second language in school where you are? What language(s) do they learn? At what age do you think children should start learning languages in school?


  1. In their international school in Kazakhstan the children learned two foreign languages (Russian and Kazakh) from age 3 The formal lessons were useful but I think they learned more from their nanny and interactions with people day to day and because if they wanted to watch a DVD in the week I insisted they watched in Russian. By the time we left the kids were pretty good at Russian (our nanny could not speak Kazakh) but they have forgotten most of what they learned because they no longer practice. They currently study Malay and Mandarin but only have one lesson a week (compared with one a day in Kazakhstan) and have no exposure at home so progress is slow.

    My Dutch cousins learned all their English from the TV. By the time my youngest cousin was 8 he could hold a passable discussion with my toddler son.

  2. Dear all,
    I'm a Canadian, living and working in the Netherlands and a mother of a boy who has just made his way to the middle school.
    A quick reflection on English proficiency in the Netherlands:-)
    - Recently I was at the Regica Coeli school to complete an advanced dutch language program (within one week). I assume you are aware of this school, a national pride 9and with an extremely expensive price tag:-). the school offers courses not only in dutch, but also in other languages (English, German, French, Spanish and Italian). While in the expat's circles Regica Coeli is considered a Dutch Language school, I was shocked to discover that in fact the best seller of the school's offerings was *the English*. The week when i was there, there were 120 dutch participants in the English classes, and around 40 participants (all exparts) in the dutch classes. i asked if the numbers are representative for all weeks and received a positive answer from the school's administration. Personally, I was surprised (this is an understatement) to see highly-educated consultants, professors, high level managers, and even executives of well-known Dutch companies trying to make the transition from intermediate to advanced level. Specific challenges that some of these Dutch people had were visibly simple things like using past perfect, reporting direct speech, and using propositions around verbs. Others worked hard on learning to compose emails where they had to negotiate things. I heard a teacher (a native American woman) giving a detailed explanation about why it's not a good idea to finish an email with "We hope we have informed you well".
    - my son is 11 years old and is now in a VWO+ school; this is a school for children who one day will become university students (the children are selected among those who score at least 80+% on a centralized CITO test in Dutch and Math). So, we can say we assume the children to be above average in terms of academic performance. My son is competently fluent in both Dutch and English (we've been teaching him ourselves and ensured every summer he spends time in Canada - we are from Toronto). In a class of 30 children, my son is the only one who scores on every English test on average 9.5. The best grade achievable by a Dutch native child is 8.1. However, in a class of 29 children, only 4 have a grade higher than 6.5. The huge majority of children fall in the range of <=6.6, with 50% (!!!) of the children unable to pass (which means their grade is anywhere between 3 and 5.5). This is a key issue as English is a 'core subject' (kernvak) in the Dutch VWO system. The other two core subjects are Dutch and Math. Unability to make it above 5.5 has a severe impact to a child: it means that in the next academic year, it will be moved out of the VWO system (to HAVO - the type of education which excludes entry in the university system).
    How comes so many children that otherwise score well on Dutch and Math, fail miserably in English?
    I'm on my way to find this out... I have no theory that explains this observation, except maybe that the primary schools do very little to educate the children in English.

  3. I feel like this compares a lot to where we are headed in the US with Spanish language instruction. Although, here we will have the advantage of being surrounded by native Spanish speakers as the Spanish-speaking population is rising. Are there many native English speaking people that live in the Netherlands?