Some of my nostalgic (linguistic) memories of the Netherlands

I’m finally back home from a short visit to a lovely Dutch town called Valkenswaard. My heart still aches a bit since I’m missing all the friendly people I met there – the students and teachers from six European countries that had got together to work on a music/poetry project. But I know the memories will soon fade and life will return to normal. Well, not quite, I’m afraid…. Things will never be the same.
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As a Czech tourist, when you land in Eindhoven, you immediately notice a few things. The architecture is slightly different from what you can see in a typical Czech town. The lovely traffic lights that look like children’s toys make you feel you’ve just come to see Legoland. But the main difference can’t be perceived visually – it is when you open your mouth to speak and prick up your ears to listen that you finally realize you are in the Netherlands; everybody speaks English there. Every bus driver, every shop assistant, and every waitress will reply fluently once you start asking them questions in English.

This is something you will hardly experience in the Czech Republic. In an extreme situation, once they are approached by a foreigner, people will even run away or pretend they don’t speak English. The reason is simple – generally, Czechs are not very confident in English.

So while in the Netherlands, I asked myself (and other people too) the same question over and over again: How come Dutch people are so proficient in English? I always got the same reply: we don’t dub English programs and thus we’re exposed to heaps of English from a very early age.

But I think there is another reason behind their high English proficiency. Dutch is a Germanic language and it is closely related to English and German. Dutch shares with German a similar word order, grammatical gender, and largely Germanic vocabulary, which contains the same Germanic core as German and English. Nonetheless, the fact that Russian is a Slavic language closely related to Czech didn’t help me achieve a native-like proficiency in it when I was forced to learn it back during the communist regime. Apparently, one ingredient vital for a successful acquisition of an L2 was missing – motivation.

Now, considering the fact that the Netherlands has a tradition of learning languages and almost 90% of the population can easily converse in English, it’s obvious that the L2 proficiency of their English teachers reflects the situation. I met a Dutch (as well as a German and a Belgian) teacher of English, whose L2 proficiency was absolutely stunning. Had I not known what their nationalities were, I wouldn’t have guessed they were non-native speakers of English. The NNEST vs. NEST dichotomy suddenly seemed useless and redundant. If I had ever doubted that non-native speakers of English can achieve native-like proficiency, this was the final proof that they can.

But I also met a German teacher of geography and a Belgian music teacher whose fluency in spoken English (and several other languages) was equally astounding. I remember a few occasions in the past when my English had been described as flawless but honestly, now I think people were only trying to be nice to me; most of the time in the Netherlands I felt humbled. In spite of this, I’m immensely thankful for this experience.

If only I could spend more time at the school – observe lessons, talk to the teachers, students, and other members of the staff. I would like to get under the surface and find out if their approaches to learning and methods of teaching English are very different from what we do here. I’d like to interview more people in the streets and pubs; I’d love to ask about their motivation and general attitudes to foreign languages….

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in NNST vs. NEST, Personal challenges and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Some of my nostalgic (linguistic) memories of the Netherlands

  1. Baiba says:

    Hi Hana! It's a very similar situation here in Latvia as in CZ. Practically, the only teachers who can speak English and are not afraid of it are the teachers of English. Even the young ones are not very confident, with a few exceptions while in Northern / Scandinavian countries almost everyone in school can converse in good English. Perhaps the reason lies in their closer ties with the UK, more experience in travelling, more foreigners who live there? I don't know. I hope our young generation will be different.

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Baiba,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the reason behind this somewhat unfortunate situation is closely related to things like experience in travelling and closer ties with the UK. Another reason might be motivation; there are some students in my class who speak very fluently and they are never afraid to communicate in English. These are students who get exposed to English whenever they can – not just in the regular lessons. They play PC games in English, watch English movies; listen to English podcasts, etc. I believe that this is actually the only way of learning the language well. No matter how pessimistic it may sound, it's not in my power to teach them English; they can only learn it. I can motivate and scaffold them but that's all I can do, I'm afraid. But overall, I’m optimistic; like you, I too believe that the situation will change soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. venvve says:

    Hi Hana,

    I'm a bit late commenting on this post. I was just reading the comments and I see Baiba says “…in Northern / Scandinavian countries almost everyone in school can converse in good English.” Unfortunately, I haven't taught in a Scandinavian school, so can't speak from vast personal experience, but I thought it would be interesting for you to know that I watched a videoconference recently where 4th graders from Denmark and 9th graders from Sweden had some unscripted lines. The VC was in English, I should probably add. They sounded like (any other) language learners to me, by which I mean that they made mistakes, used simple structures, searched for words, finished each other's sentences…much like the 4th graders from Poland who were also at the VC. (The Croatian kids had scripted lines.) I don't mean to make them sound unsuccessful – they got their point across and that was the main aim, after all. But they didn't sound like far more competent language users than Eastern European kids to me.
    I also remember my very great surprise when, a couple of years ago, I observed teachers teaching kids – you know I normally teach adults. I'd assumed that the kids all chatter away happily in English because it's less embarrassing, they're sure to have picked up all this language from cartoons that make them sound like little native speakers (well, a lot of people say their kids speak English better than they do because of all the exposure to the language). And so you can imagine my surprise when I saw that the teachers had to spend practically half the lesson coaxing, “In English, now how do we say that in English? You know that.” Well, maybe I'm exaggerating. But I realized that maybe the parents were exaggerating a little bit too, insisting that their kids are completely fluent. I mean, some are, I'm sure.
    So…I guess my point was…maybe that a good/fluent speaker means something different to different people? And maybe I should also consider the possibility that the examples I saw were completely atypical?

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, as always!

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Vedrana.

    This is a very interesting comment. The first thing that came to mind when I was reading the first lines was that you may be more demanding because you teach at tertiary level. And you actually confirmed my assertion later on when you said: … 'maybe a good/fluent speaker means something different to different people.' But I'd say I'm pretty critical as far as English proficiency is concerned. Thus, in the past, I was always quite doubtful when somebody claimed that a NNEST could become as proficient as a NEST.

    You also touch on mistakes. Well, although the people I heard in Holland were excellent English users, I’m not saying that never made a mistake. I mean, occasional mistakes are not indicators of one’s overall proficiency – at least not to me. Here in the Czech Republic we are generally obsessed with grammar and mistakes, but that is not the best way to go, I’m afraid.

    It’s interesting that you mention Poland. If you look at the 2014 EF English Proficiency Index (a report which attempts to rank countries by the average level of English skills amongst adults), you come across this order: 1) Denmark 2) The Netherlands 3) Sweden 4) Finland 5) Norway 6) Poland. Poland did better than Germany and Belgium, for example. The question is: how did they achieve this result? Like Czech, Polish is a Slavic language, so the typical excuse that, say, Swedes learn English better because their languages are related is out of the question. And this is when I get excited and really curious. What do they do to become so good at English – not just as individuals but as a whole nation? I’d like to find out and apply their methods in my own teaching context.

    Regarding your mention of kids in kindergartens, this is another intriguing issue. First of all, I’m strongly against teaching English to kids the way you describe it. Unfortunately, this happens in many places here too. And here I become a little biased; if I wanted my own children to learn English in pre-school, I would definitely choose lessons with a NEST because I believe it requires a lot of discipline and extra knowledge (e.g. native-like pron) for a NNEST to teach an L2 to small kids. I believe kids perceive language from a totally different perspective, and so the usual methods we apply with older kids and adults don’t actually work. Honestly, I can’t imagine teaching English to small kids – probably because I skipped a very important stage when once learning it myself.

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  5. venvve says:

    Hi again 🙂

    Re your points above.

    1) Being overly focused on grammar and mistakes is, I completely agree, not the best way to go. As to occasional mistakes not being indicators of overall proficiency, this is also an important point. But I would then expect no more than occasional mistakes from speakers described (by themselves or others) as fluent. I suspect the definition of 'occasional' is troublesome here – that will no doubt differ from person to person, depending on a range of factors.

    2) Poland ranking 6th on the EF Proficiency Index is a fascinating bit of info for me as well. It is completely at odds with what my brother tells me, having lived in Poland for the past 6 years. I wonder what the sample is on which EF base the ranking – do they randomly test people all over the country? Or is it mostly restricted to large urban areas? And how large? My brother lives in a town of around 80,000 people; arguably not a rural area, but he says people generally find it quite a challenge to communicate in English, and my two visits to the place would support this claim.

    3) About kids in kindergartens – I'm sorry, I must have not made it clear that I didn't mean learners as young as that. The kids I said I'd observed were in grades 4-8. I have this tendency to refer to all young people as kids, probably because I have only ever taught adults, so I tend to lump everyone under the age of eighteen in that vague kid category. Anyway, I hope this explains why I was surprised at their reluctance to chatter away in English.
    I remember a post you wrote some time ago in which you said you'd want your children to be taught by a NEST at a very young age. I can see your point, but I'm not sure how I feel about this myself. It may be easy for me to preach, not having kids, but are we not perpetuating the belief that a native-like pronunciation/accent is the ideal to aspire to if we say that kids should be exposed to the 'right' pronunciation/accent at a young age? I realize, though, that theorizing is much easier when it's not your own children and their education that are at stake.

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  6. Hana Tichá says:

    I'm really enjoying our conversation, Vedrana 🙂

    I'd like to make myself clear about the following point: I don't wish to perpetuate the belief that a native-like pronunciation/accent is the ideal to aspire to. Also, I'm not saying that kids should be exposed to the 'right' pronunciation/accent at a young age. More precisely, I'm not saying that there is a 'right' pron or accent. However, based on my personal experience (and I have written about it on my blog), certain deviations from native-like pron may actually hinder understanding and communication. The trouble is that unlike older learners, very small kids can’t use the knowledge of script and spelling to fix such communication breakdowns; all they have is the audio form of the language. That’s why I’m so worried and sceptical. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out that my sons started attending English courses at the age of 8, when they were already familiar with the script, and they’ve always been taught by Czech teachers of English. Needless to say, they’ve become proficient users of English by now.

    As far as The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) is concerned, you can read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EF_English_Proficiency_Index. Although it has its critics, I find the idea behind it quite interesting, especially when you compare the results over time.

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  7. Mieke Kenis says:

    Hi Hana

    I have only just found this blogpost, via Sandy Millin, who posted it on FB.
    I have read many of your – always very interesting – blog posts but I admit that I hardly ever leave a comment. Writing is my worst of the four skills 🙂
    This post attracted my attention, as you can guess, because here in Flanders we speak the same language as in the Netherlands. Dutch is the official language in the northern part of Belgium.
    I think I can say that most Flemish people (especially the younger generations) speak English very well too. It is because of all the reasons you mention : Dutch is very similar to English and from a very early age everybody is exposed to English on TV. We never dub programmes and subtitle everything. I have to admit, though, that the Dutch, as a nation, have reached a level of proficiency in English that is extraordinary. Why do I think they do so well, better than the Flemish?
    The Dutch start learning English as their first foreign language, from a very early age. In Flanders we start with French, an official language in our multilingual country. Three years later, students start here with English, at the age of 13. We can never make up again for those important early years.
    In the Netherlands , English is often the only foreign language pupils will do whereas here almost all students have French and English on the curriculum, some of them German as well.
    There is another element, though, that I feel might explain the ease with which the Dutch learn and speak English and that has to do with culture. Flemish people are often rather shy, like to stay in the background, often lack self-confidence, we are more afraid to make ‘mistakes’ and lose face and are taught it is not ‘good manners’ to take yourself too seriously.
    The Dutch are generally more open, they say what they think, they are encouraged from an early age to be themselves, they speak out, they are direct and ooze self-confidence and they don’t care if it’s not perfect. I am wondering if this isn’t exactly the right attitude for learning a language?
    Add to that a very relaxed atmosphere in their schools, a very open and liberal society and there you are….
    I have never researched this or read anything about this. It’s just a gut feeling:-) 
    For what it’s worth … 🙂

    Mieke

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Mieke,

      I’m really happy you have stopped by and commented. Your observations are very interesting and spot-on. During my visit to the Netherlands, I met a few Belgians, as well as people from Luxembourg, whose linguistic abilities were stunning – apart from their mother tongue, they all spoke German, English and French fluently. Their constant code-switching drove me crazy and made me feel envious. None of them was overly bothered about mistakes, and this, combined with their natural confidence, made all the communication smooth and easy. And yes, I would agree that confidence combined with willingness to communicate regardless of small imperfections is the Holy Grail of language learning. Thanks for your insights!

      Liked by 1 person

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