The challenges of Dutch as second language

17 January 2024

Educational project

The challenges of Dutch as second language

In academic teaching 2023, students ought to be actively involved in the discussion on actual societal issues. CEL-projects can inform them on such issues, make them aware of their academic competences and skills, and enhance their sense of responsibility and public engagement.  The present CEL-project aims to bring students of Linguistics in contact with refugees, help them with Dutch-L2, and, more than anything else, have them meet the Other on a human level.  

Background and goals

This project was embedded into the BA-course Language Acquisition and Language Structure, belonging to the specialization track The Human Language Faculty of the Major-program Taalwetenschap/Linguistics. Students following this specialization track are trained in formal linguistics and have no opportunities to put their competences into practice. “The Challenges of Dutch as a Second Language” was intended to fill this gap. 

The present CEL-project had three main goals: 

to offer students the opportunity to apply their competences hands on by addressing concrete (societal) issues requiring such expertise. They also learn to develop new skills in order to communicate and collaborate with external partners (individuals and organizations).

to allow students to experience linguistic and practical challenges in learning Dutch as a second language from the perspective of the Other.

to make students reflect critically on their role and responsibility in society and to learn them how to apply their expertise to social demands.

Project description

As a preparation to the project, UU-students attended an online guest lecture by Dr Moos Pozzo, anthropologist and independent researcher on migration studies. Drawing on her own research, Dr Pozzo discussed the challenges refugees experience in learning Dutch as a second language. She also had students reflect on issues involving language, culture, identity and sense of belonging. After Dr Pozzo’s lecture, a small kick-off party at De Voorkamer was organized, where UU-students and Dutch-L2 learners could meet and make plans for the next weeks. 

The project: UU-students (in pair) were matched with one or two refugee/asylum seekers learning Dutch L2 and took up the role of language-buddy for a period of 4 weeks. These groups would meet each other outside classes and engage in social activities while focusing on the use of Dutch as a L2 and on possible problems their buddies may encounter with this language. Their competences in linguistics would enable UU-students to identify problematic differences between Dutch and their buddies’ L1 and so help them with adequate feedback. At the same time,  the Dutch-L2 learners would teach the UU-students a few words/sentences in their own language and thus share their own linguistic and cultural heritage. 

The teacher supervised all activities within the project and provided instructions, feedback and guidance, particularly during the reflections activities. She also had regular updates with the external partner (De Voorkamer) in order to guarantee a smooth progress of the project. The end of the project was celebrated with a final event, including a language quiz, music and food.   


The three main goals (awareness and practice, inclusion and reflection) were amply met, certainly with regard to the UU-students. Their initial curiosity and enthusiasm steadily grew into deeper commitment and understanding, not only on linguistic topics, but also on a human level. The following reflections witness this growth: 

“In one of our meetings, they taught us a bit of Persian. They’ve taught us some simple sentences and how to write our own names. Since Persian uses a different alphabet from Dutch and is written from right to left, this was quite challenging, but a lot of fun.”

“We did not take into account that F. might be going through a situation where this project would not be a particularly high priority to him.” [F. was suddenly moved to another refugee centre and could not meet the students on the agreed day] 

Individual UU-students also expressed their gratitude for being offered the opportunity to make such a practical experience within their otherwise quite theoretical curriculum. They observed it was of great value for them as experts in linguistics, but also very inspiring with regard to their future careers on the labour market. 

As for the external partner, De Voorkamer reported that the Dutch-L2 learners experienced this project as instructive and pleasant. They are all eager to continue this sort of collaboration with the UU.  

These testimonials come up to the teacher’s expectations. Obviously, adjustments may improve the original project (particularly in its concrete feasibility – more in the next paragraph). However, both the topic and the general design of the project proved to be appealing to the students and to the external partners.    

Reflection: lessons learned  

Working with partners that belong to a different (professional) culture may be a big challenge for the success of a CEL-project. In our case, the partners were also people coming from different countries and working as volunteers at De Voorkamer. The structure of such an organization clearly differs from that of UU. Visitors at De Voorkamer come and go, according to the events in their lives. A collaboration with such a partner also requires the capacity to communicate with people with very different backgrounds. Intercultural communication skills are not limited to mastering languages. They require flexibility, patience, and an open-minded attitude. In a next CEL-project, it may be necessary to expand on these issues and to offer students a better training in soft skills.  

Expectations management. In order to stimulate mutual exchange of competences and skills, we agreed that our students would serve as language-buddies for a four-week period. As some students reported, the tasks involved in this role were not very clear to the external partners. As it is often the case for non-professionals, they erroneously thought linguistic students are trained as language teachers and are able to give formal language classes. We had not expected these misunderstandings. This experience has shown us the importance of a clear expectations management plan between the two parties and beforehand.    

Other practical issues, like number of participants in the project, availability of meeting spaces, personal circumstances made the realization of the project very challenging, required more time and caused a lot of anxiety to our students. We believe that these practical issues may be managed in a better way if the CEL-project could be offered as a separate module (either as a course or as a internship). 

Take home message  

Take the time to prepare UU-students to engage in a project with external partners. Becoming proficient in intercultural competences is key here. In addition, train your students to critically reflect on the many aspects of such a project and on their own personal growth within it.

Further reading

  • De Voorkamer Taalcafé, Utrecht: meeting centre for refugees, asylum seekers and volunteers
  • Dr Moos Pozzo: Program coordinator AZC Heerlen at Stichting de Vrolijkheid  
  • Pozzo, M., & Nerghes, A. (2020). Dutch without the Dutch: discourse, policy, and program impacts on the social integration and language acquisition of young refugees (ages 12–23). Social Identities, 26(6), 842-860.

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