language barrier netherlands

Crossing the Language Barrier in the Netherlands

By Juliane Glahn

Internationals coming to the Netherlands are struggling to integrate into Dutch society until they learn the language. But improving language skills is hard if there is no one to practice with.

“I felt really isolated before I learned the language,” Samantha MacKenzie (24) says.

Originally from Canada, she moved to the Netherlands two years ago to be with her boyfriend. Living in a small village where most of the population is older and unable to speak English, she could barely communicate with others. Often MacKenzie relied on her partner to help her with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping. “It was a big loss of independence for me.”

Ashley Richardson (33), a migrant from the U.S., agrees that learning Dutch helped her integrate more into her country of choice. “You can get away with English in places like Amsterdam or other international places such as Groningen,” she says. But in order to form connections with citizens, speaking Dutch is important.

Even though the two are constantly surrounded by Dutch and learned it through language courses at the University of Groningen, native speakers’ desire to be helpful often got in their way of practicing. “A lot of Dutch people speak really good English,” Richardson says.

MacKenzie always tries to speak Dutch, but “if I hesitate at all, then everyone switches to English.”

Especially in grocery stores, cashiers are quick to address customers in English if they notice the person is not a native speaker.

This is a phenomenon that Maarten Sijpkes (52) vowed to counter. Many internationals come to his stand ‘Stropiewafel’ at the Vismarkt in Groningen, where he sells the popular traditional Dutch treat. When non-natives order in Dutch, he responds in Dutch as much as possible. “You learn through speaking,” Sijpkes says. He doesn’t want to stop people from learning the language but rather encourage them.

He even teaches his customers who don’t speak any Dutch some words: When two girls approach his stand and ask for a “waffle” in English, he tells them the proper pronunciation of the sweet. The rest of the exchange between the three is bilingual. “Geniet,” Sijpkes says while handing over the stroopwafels, “enjoy.”

“More and more internationals are trying to speak Dutch to me,” he says, adding, “here they can at least learn a few basic words.”


Divide Between Dutch and International Students?

By Sophie Pizzimenti


The academic year has started, and Groningen University is welcoming thousands of international students who have mixed feelings towards blending into Dutch society and integrating with their fellow students.

A debate was sparked last year from the publication of the UKrant article “When Dutch ‘directness’ hurts” by Megan Embry, in which she discussed discrimination received by internationals from local students. The article highlighted the divided views of students regarding the relationship between the two groups.

Interviewing Dutch and internationals at the RUG campus regarding the topic of discrimination and how they feel about their relationship with their classmates, different opinions came out.

Sitting outside the library, speaking Spanish among themselves, bachelor students Xenia Ramos and Carla Heterington said that, not only do they not feel welcomed, they feel highly excluded by the Dutch students.

“I think it is difficult if you are international student here in your first week because Dutch people are very close to each other and they don’t welcome other people. She is my friend and I am glad I know her because, if not, you really have to find another international student,” said Carla, who has just arrived and is in her first year of her bachelor.

Xenia and Carla also addressed the issue of discrimination, saying they did receive comments about their identity as Spanish which made them feel uncomfortable among their fellow Dutch students.

When confronted with the topic, a few Dutch students highlighted the tendency of Dutch and internationals to stay among their respective groups, resulting in a strong division.

Dutch student M.M.* studying international law, said: “There is a huge gap between a Dutch student here and internationals. We experience it ourselves, because in the first year and second year for our bachelor we were put in a class with international students and there was a huge gap, because all the international students knew each other, and we [Dutch students] were there thinking ‘what to do?’; and you kind of isolate yourself then.”

Similarly, Dutch student Lianne Pit, studying for a Masters in German Education, said she believes the interaction is limited as knowing the Dutch people in her class leads her to stick with them.

Most of the students indicated language as the main cause of the divide.

Tjitske Kommerie, a Dutch student studying with Lianne, said “it can be hard, especially when your English isn’t that good or when you are nervous about speaking in English because you think it’s not good enough to make yourself understandable.”

Wouter Baas, a Dutch student from the same course, is also bothered by the necessity of using English with internationals as they do not learn Dutch. “My opinion is that, when you come here to study you also have to show some interest in the country you are moving to. Not a lot of international students do this, learning the language and not stay in their international bubble and not expecting everybody to speak in English,” he said.

Lianne Pit, Wouter Baas, Tjitske Kommerie and Niklas Kingman

Arno Hegedus, a Hungarian student of International Law, hopes to be able to create long lasting friendships with Dutch students and to connect with their culture.

However, on this matter Wouter Baas replied, “These kind of relations can only exist if you can master the language very well. We talk now in a very formal way […] but if you talk about personal feelings and so on, it’s very difficult, for me at least, to do this in English.”

Arno Hegedus and Ife Bolaji, a fellow classmate from Nigeria, believe this division could be reduced if international students were given more chances to learn Dutch. “Language is the way to someone’s heart,” concluded Bolaji.

*Chooses to remain anonymous

No House or Bad House?

By Benjie Beer


While debate rages over the lack of student housing in Groningen this year, the question is: is all the housing on offer worth it?

In a large, dark, musky room, Max Müller, 19, a Bachelors student from Germany, points to a set of pipes that jut intrusively from the wall. With no overhead lighting present, he then scans the torch from his phone over the ceiling, finding several holes where polystyrene boards once covered the filth-encrusted wires and rusty piping. On the sill of a window with no latch lie several mouse droppings, and in the corner is an enormous hole that falls through to the floor below. Overlooking the pained scene are the words written large on the wall: ‘VIP Area’.

‘This is what they gave us,’ says Müller with a dejected sigh. ‘And we all hate it’.

Müller and his nine housemates were among many new students who thought they had struck it lucky by signing for a house in Groningen only to find the reality that awaited was anything but fortunate. Their ‘flat’ is a disused nightclub, stripped of its bars and most of its furniture; the air is dusty, damp and cold, and the surfaces are decorated with an endless assortment of chemical stains. Whatever aspirations these students may have had for healthy living are now as trampled as the dirt that lines the floorboards – where, indeed, there are floorboards at all.

‘There is mould everywhere,’ says Isi Dimitriadis, 24, a Masters student from Greece. ‘We don’t have heaters or proper internet. We even found a dead bat when we moved in… They just don’t care about us.’

When it comes to student housing, the debate in Groningen this year has centred almost entirely around the lack of it. What has gone largely undiscussed is the terrible state of some of the housing students do have.

The Groningen Municipality Council will meet tonight to discuss new measures to tackle rogue landlords, in particular a proposed law that would issue landlords licenses that can be revoked if they misbehave. The immediate problem, however, is that, were a license to be revoked, the tenants would have to leave the property.

‘While I think this is a good idea,’ says Müller, ‘there should be some sort of support for the students if they are ejected.’

‘It is really appalling, no matter what,’ argues Dimitriadis. ‘If I had known it would be like this, I would never have come.’