Students
Photo by Traci White

Student clubs are still very Dutch

When language becomes a hurdle

Photo by Traci White
Student associations are an important part of student life in Groningen, but internationals are scared away by the language barrier. ‘They were aware they always switched to Dutch, but it kept happening anyway.’
5 July om 11:46 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 5 July 2022
om 13:51 uur.
July 5 at 11:46 AM.
Last modified on July 5, 2022
at 13:51 PM.

Door Alessandro Tessari

5 July om 11:46 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 5 July 2022
om 13:51 uur.

By Alessandro Tessari

July 5 at 11:46 AM.
Last modified on July 5, 2022
at 13:51 PM.

Alessandro Tessari

Student-redacteur Volledig bio Student editor Full bio

The problem was not the study association itself, says Iva. Esperia, the study association of European languages and cultures, organised a lot of educational events, and those were all in English and very interesting. However, when it came to social events, the Bulgarian student suddenly felt like an outsider.The language barrier, which previously didn’t seem too insurmountable, would turn into a wall.

She remembers a scavenger hunt around the city a few months ago. ‘We were divided into groups, and in my group I was the only international. Everyone kept talking in Dutch. I tried to start a conversation many times, but they would switch to English for only a minute before going back to Dutch.’

Both sides

After a while, she just gave up. ‘I felt excluded. I went on with the hunt, but I basically did it by myself.’ Iva didn’t go to any of Esperia’s events again. ‘My friends usually couldn’t join me and I wouldn’t have had a good time alone.’

It’s my responsibility to make contact, but it’s nice if others do that, too

She’s not the most extroverted person, she admits, but the interest should come from both sides, she feels. ‘It’s my responsibility to walk up to people and chat with them, but it’s nice if others do that, too.’

Iva talked to her Dutch friends about the issue. They all understood her position and apologised, but that didn’t change much. ‘It was surprising to see that they were aware of it, but kept doing it anyway.’

Associations

Associations are a big part of Groningen student life. There’s the large traditional associations like Vindicat or Albertus and smaller ones like Cleopatra – for the more free-spirited student – and Christian-oriented Navigators, which focus on connecting students and organising social events, often creating bonds that last a lifetime. These are the gezelligheidsverenigingen – social clubs.

Then there’s sports and cultural associations, like Aegir and Gyas for rowing, TAM for tennis, Blue Toes for ballroom dancing, and GST for theatre. Finally, there are study associations like Esperia that focus on bringing students of one particular study programme together. 

Exclusion

However, even after almost two decades of internationalisation at the UG and Hanze, many internationals have a hard time finding their place within these associations. ‘They come here eager to dive into Dutch culture and Dutch student life, but then they often face exclusion and get discouraged’, says Andra Buciu, international student and university council member for student party Lijst Calimero.

Some Dutch students believe that you need to speak Dutch to participate

Buciu is very active in promoting student inclusion. ‘The largest associations in particular are a bit foggy on the integration part’, she says. ‘They acknowledge the growing presence of internationals in the city, but seem undecided about doing something about it.’

The language barrier is the main problem, she says. ‘Some Dutch students believe that you need to speak Dutch to participate, but for internationals that can be a big hurdle. Since they put in effort to be ‘more Dutch’, Dutch members of associations should make the effort to include them by speaking in English.’

All-Dutch

Claudia, who studies at the behavioural sciences faculty, says her GCHC field hockey team didn’t get that message, though. ‘I had just arrived in Groningen and I thought it would be nice to join a team, both for the sport and for making friends. After the first training, we went for a drink. Besides one German girl, they were all Dutch students. Nobody spoke English or even attempted to.’

Although she tried to fit in, the others weren’t interested in including her, she says. ‘It didn’t feel good. I didn’t want to be just by myself drinking a beer, so I only stayed for a little bit longer before leaving.’

She didn’t go to the next training session. ‘I get that it’s important that I’m open to the local culture and language. I should start studying Dutch to help my integration. Yet you cannot help but feel excluded in situations like these.’

Practical issue

One student association where language isn’t a barrier is the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). One of its goals is to bring international and Dutch students closer together. But, says president Hannah Jelkmann, the issue with Dutch student associations is multifaceted. 

‘There is a practical, organisational aspect and a more social one’, she says. Practically, making documentation and other materials available in English would be a lot of work. And beyond the communication problems between individual students, explains Jelkmann, ‘Dutch associations are limited by a long history and traditions’. They have very specific customs and those are easily lost in translation.

Dutch associations are limited by a long history and traditions

At Albertus, one of the traditional gezelligheidsverenigingen, international members are welcome. ‘But the main language is Dutch’, says vice-president Coen Heere. ‘So we don’t actively try to attract international students. It’s not our top priority.’

And since more than enough Dutch students are eager to join the associations, there’s really no need for them to woo internationals. ‘Right now, we already have a problem with our capacity’, says Heere. 

Integration Night

It’s not all bad news for internationals, though. ‘On a social level, there have been positive developments’, Jelkmann says. ESN events managed to reach an increasingly diverse audience. One of those was Integration Night, organised in collaboration with the major associations –  including Albertus – where international students get the chance to experience what being a member of a Dutch student association is like.

Around a hundred students signed up for a lecture at Albertus, a dinner at Vindicat, and finally a beer cantus at Dizkartes. ‘Internationals were eager and intrigued to understand what actually happens in the associations and to see the buildings. The interest is there’, says Jelkmann.

In January, ESN also hosted a discussion event around the topic of integration of international and Dutch students. ‘We discussed the issue from the social and practical perspectives and we had an international student speak about her positive integration into Dutch student life.’

Right track

Buciu also agrees the situation is getting better. ‘It’s going to take time to get to the optimal level, but we are on the right track.’ She would like to sit down more with internationals and tell them Dutch students don’t bite. ‘Some think that Dutch students do not want to integrate, but that is not the case.’

She’d also like more information sessions about what it is like to be in an association, or about doing extracurricular activities like going to sports centre ACLO, taking courses at cultural centre USVA, or doing a board year. 

Iva would welcome talks about the different perspectives in a multicultural environment. ‘It’s easier for Dutch students, they are at home. We often come here alone, speaking another language in a foreign country. Discussing the two positions could create a more empathic connection and support integration.’

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