Group training at Zernike ©UG, photo by Michel de Groot

Language barrier in student associations

Internationals want to join in, too

Group training at Zernike ©UG, photo by Michel de Groot
Internationals often shy away from joining predominantly Dutch student associations. But while it can be daunting, it’s also rewarding, some of them say. ‘The more you’re around Dutch people, the more you will learn their language.’
7 December om 13:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 December 2020
om 13:52 uur.
December 7 at 13:51 PM.
Last modified on December 7, 2020
at 13:52 PM.

Door Franziska Birth

7 December om 13:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 December 2020
om 13:52 uur.

By Franziska Birth

December 7 at 13:51 PM.
Last modified on December 7, 2020
at 13:52 PM.

Franziska Birth

Carol Santos, a psychology student from Spain, wanted to join an association in Groningen. She really liked gymnastics association STUGG’s performance during the Erasmus Student Network’s introduction week and thought she could learn some acrobatic stunts with them. But her enthusiasm was dampened when she approached some of the STUGG members. 

First, they struggled to understand her English. Then it turned out that she would be the only non-Dutch speaking person in the association. That made Carol nervous. ‘I didn’t want to go there and potentially be alone most of the time because of that language barrier’, she says. 

Carol decided she will join the association later, once she’s taken language classes and her Dutch has improved. 

Left out

Groningen is home to dozens of student, sports and study associations. Many of them are predominantly Dutch, which can scare away internationals like Carol.

Maja Rycicka, a German student of international law, also found it difficult at first to find her way in volleyball association Kroton. As a new member, she walked onto the field to get to know her all-Dutch team. They greeted her in English, but their conversation quickly fizzled out and soon the team switched back to speaking Dutch. 

It’s easier for the students to joke around in Dutch 

She didn’t know what they were talking about and felt left out. ‘I speak German, so if I really tried, I could probably have understood some parts’, she says. ‘But it seemed like they didn’t want me to be part of it.’

Maja didn’t leave the association, but when she got assigned to another team with both Dutch and German players, she realised that the welcoming atmosphere can vary from team to team. 

‘Now, when people realise that I’m not Dutch, they switch to English for me. Everybody is happy to speak English, even in the WhatsApp group chat’, she says. This helped Maja connect with her team and she’s already been to a few socials. ‘It’s a cool atmosphere there and I don’t feel left out anymore.’

Stilted conversation

But is switching to English enough for internationals to enjoy being a part of a Dutch association? Carol decided not to join STUGG even though its members turned out to be welcoming and said they wouldn’t mind switching the lessons to English. ‘I didn’t want to be the sole reason why all of them would have to change their language’, she explains. 

And she’s not the only international who feels that way. PhD student Xiu Jia from China joined horse-riding association Parafrid last year. After the riding lessons, she occasionally joins the other members – who are all Dutch – for dinner at the stables. They always switch to English for her, and Xiu has mixed feelings about that. 

On the one hand, she really appreciates their effort and she does feel included. On the other hand, she realises that because of her, the conversation is more stilted. ‘It’s easier for the Dutch students to joke around in Dutch. In English, the joke sometimes gets lost.’

Confusing expressions

Even when your grasp of Dutch is halfway decent, it can be difficult, agrees Shrey Shrestha, an international law student from Nepal. He joined the Dutch-speaking rowing association Gyas this year. Despite having followed some Dutch courses, he had never had a longer conversation in Dutch. ‘That made it a bit daunting.’ 

They kept sending honeybees in the group chat

Dealing with the everyday business at Gyas in Dutch is one thing, he says. But the typically Dutch expressions and banter confused him. ‘They kept sending honeybees in the group chat.’ 

It took Shrey some time to find out that Dutch students use the emoji to confirm their attendance at a night out. It’s a play on the Dutch word for ‘bee’, which is bij; while ik ben er bij means ‘I’m in’. ‘Those are just a few weird things that you get used to. But I think they are all pretty open as long as you try to speak Dutch.’

At Gyas parties, Shrey also soon discovered that the Dutchies love their Dutch music. At some point, they would usually play the Dutch song Dakterras. ‘Everybody knows these songs and expects you to join. If you don’t, it feels like there is a barrier.’ As a solution, Shrey made a playlist of Dutch songs to memorise some of the lyrics.

Mingle with the Dutch

Will Cole from the United Kingdom was fully aware that Dutch law faculty association JFV is Dutch-oriented even before joining. But he didn’t want to stay in an ‘international bubble’, he says, and viewed the committee work as an opportunity to mingle with Dutch people. ‘We are in the Netherlands, after all.’ 

We are in the Netherlands, after all

He is currently the only non-Dutch speaking member in his committee. When working in small groups, the others switch to English. Bigger events are held entirely in Dutch. On these occasions, Will’s friends in the association sit next to him and whisper translations of everything that is relevant to him. 

The other Dutch students appreciate it when he makes even a slight effort to speak their language, he says. ‘The more you’re around Dutch people, the more Dutch you learn.’ 

Will has noticed that a lot of internationals are discouraged to join associations that are predominantly Dutch. But that’s not necessary, he feels. ‘Dutch people are very welcoming. I don’t think they have a problem with the fact that you are international.’

What’s the associations’ language policy?

‘It would be sad if someone could not join because of a language barrier’, says gymnastics association STUGG. Out of their 113 members, only fifteen are internationals. This means that socials or lessons are usually held in Dutch, but they switch their activities to English if one of the internationals joins in.

‘There is probably always a little bit of a language barrier, but we are trying to solve this’, says volleyball association Kroton. With sixty internationals out of a total of 180 members, they have a mixed board for the first time this year. To be able to include internationals, they switched the language of their general members’ meetings to English and they translate all documents and social media content.

Horse-riding association Parafrid’s secretary Sanne van Soest is happy to have internationals join, she says. ‘They are often really enthusiastic about our association, which we really appreciate.’ When Sanne struggles with her English, the international students are understanding and help her to get her point across.

‘Gyas is an association for everyone, regardless of their nationality or language’, says a spokesperson for the rowing association. However, they admit it can be a bit more difficult for non-Dutch speakers to integrate, because basically everything is in Dutch. ‘We use Dutch rowing terms, but it can be a fun way to learn or improve one’s Dutch.’