From “Ik Spreek Geen Nederlands” to A2 Dutch
This week I passed all of my Dutch A2 exams: reading, writing and speaking. This isn't a post about the miracle of passing through Duolingo alone, because that's not the case. Instead, I want to focus on how the six-month intensive course offered for free by the Dutch government went.
Free Dutch courses?
The Dutch government subsidizes Dutch language courses to facilitate integration into society for both EU and non-EU migrants, to help with the integration, or Inburgering process. This changes once every few years depending on policy, so parts (or all) of this may be out of date beyond July 2020.
For the sake of this article, I use “the Dutch (government)” or “they” to refer to the source, but the intricacies of who exactly manages it on a local level are opaque to you, on the receiving end.
I originally wrote this for some Dutch friends who were curious what we're taught and how the whole process works, as well as a few other non-Dutchies who wanted to go through it for citizenship.
Registration and Intake
The lady who registered me as an Amsterdam resident told me about the course. I filled some form on their site, and two weeks later someone wrote back to say I was eligible, and directed me to the intake test.
During intake it became obvious that they work with local businesses to administer the courses. Later I'd learn there are political complications around which companies and teacher get these contracts, how good the teachers are, and so on. But this being a big city, nothing seemed out of place. The one I ended up with had three easily accessible locations around town, and you could express a preference once you were done.
The intake consisted of a language placement test, a mini-IQ test, and brief chat to some representative, to tell them about your motivation to study Dutch. Since I'd barely arrived at that time, I skipped the language level placement and started the total beginners track. And since I was retraining to be a programmer and not working, I went with the "intensive" version: two 3-hour sessions, twice a week for six months.
The IQ test was fascinating, though it didn't seem to make a difference to the intake. It had 20-something language-agnostic questions based on Raven's Matrices, with someone grading you. It spooked enough people in the intake who worried they'd failed it!
The courses were hard work and not everyone finished. I read somewhere that you need 300 hours of practice from beginner to A1 or A2, depending on your own abilities and extra-curricular practice. We were told most people reach A2 after six months, even those who don't think learning new languages is their strong suit.
The course and materials were free, but the catch was you had to maintain a 70-80% attendance level, and, in our case, complete a language portfolio for the city council – more on that later. We got the course book and some basic stationery in a welcome tote bag, so no one could say they didn't have a notebook and a pen.
Our teacher monitored attendance and recorded reasons for absence during each class. If you had a good reason to miss a class or stop altogether, that was acceptable – as long as they were brought up with the teacher. Good reasons were things like starting full time work, moving, grave illness, etc. Otherwise, my understanding was you had to pay some share of the course's real value as a fine. The preferable alternative was to move people to a more appropriate course time or intensity, but not everyone took it.
As mentioned earlier, you had to show proof of how you practiced outside the class through a portfolio. This included things we did, learned or saw on our own or during school trips. It also formed the basis of the speaking test, to ensure we really did all those things, wrote it ourselves, and could talk about it.
As part of this process, we had a genuinely cool visit to the biggest public library in the Netherlands. I was skeptical at first because I've only lived in places where libraries are barely funded or closing, despite the social value they provide. I thought it'd be a token visit, but they like their books here. My local library branch was always packed before the pandemic, and people create their own street libraries with free books to swap; they're a joy to see. Membership for the public library starts at around 30 euros per year, which made it affordable for most people in the course.
They even had free language practice services, but the coronavirus pandemic came before I could try.
Having reached the end, I'd say the A1/A2 levels are forgiving for newcomers, and teachers want to see you succeed. Not only that, there's a bigger societal incentive to finish; many people need B or C level Dutch levels to work and study.
My class started with around 20 people aged 18 to 75, but finished with around half that number.
Finally, the exams were pretty easy after all the learning. They included leading questions related to life and customs in the Netherlands in its various aspects. They seemed geared towards helping people from other cultures get used to how schools, doctor appointments and social interactions work.
I'm not paid by the Dutch government to say this, but I have to appreciate the experience of learning for free, along with reasonable expectations. They seem to have worked out that integration doesn't magically happen without the right structure and incentives, and I can't be the only one pleasantly surprised. It's not an easy language (and they know it), but passing A2 can create a huge dopamine kick and momentum to keep going.
On a language level, it feels magical to go from barely understanding anything to having small chats with people in their native language. My privilege likely speaks in some cases, but no one ever got upset that I said something imperfect in Dutch. They also never berated me for not knowing, or asking them to repeat something or speak slower.
What next? Likely B1 later this year. It's as enjoyable as learning a new computer language, and apparently brain scans reveal coding uses same regions as speech, which is quite neat.