Students following the intermediate level Dutch class taught by Marrit Faber at the Language Centre. Photos by Zuzana Ľudviková

More interest in language courses

Going Dutch

Students following the intermediate level Dutch class taught by Marrit Faber at the Language Centre. Photos by Zuzana Ľudviková
For years, the UG has invested a significant amount in offering Dutch courses to internationals. Now that the use of English in higher education may be restricted, the interest in the language – and the courses – is growing. ‘It will be totally relevant.’
By Eóin Gallagher and Maja Klein
11 October om 11:01 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 17 October 2023
om 14:17 uur.
October 11 at 11:01 AM.
Last modified on October 17, 2023
at 14:17 PM.

Few internationals who come to the Netherlands feel the need to learn Dutch. With the steady influx of people from abroad and the common English skills of many Dutch residents, it is easy to lead a happy academic and social life in an international, English-speaking bubble. 

That may change, however. 

A letter from Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf, which was sent to universities in April, highlights plans to curb the anglicisation of higher education. For Dutch-language programmes, he wants to limit the number of courses in a foreign language to a third by the 2025-2026 academic year. Universities that want to offer an entire bachelor in a foreign language will have to get approval.

‘It seems that the minister wants to use language as an instrument to control the influx of international students’, UG board president Jouke de Vries said in a statement in June.

Although the plans still need to be worked out, it doesn’t sit well with some internationals, both students and teachers. Will they no longer be able to take certain courses in English? Will they have to teach in Dutch?

Extra courses

Henriëtte van de Bult, head of the Dutch section of the UG’s Language Centre, is already seeing the consequences: this year, additional courses had to be scheduled because the demand was greater than the number of available spots.

Knowledge of other languages creates intercultural awareness

English has increasingly become the main language at the UG as the university started focusing on attracting students from abroad to make up for an expected decrease in Dutch students after 2020. Now, internationals make up 27 percent of the student population. 

At the same time, the UG has been funding free Dutch courses for years, long before the issue of anglicisation of education became a concern. In 2022, nearly 900,000 euros were allocated to provide language learning opportunities for around three thousand students and staff members.


‘It’s very important for the board to have international students feel welcome in Groningen, and learning the basics of Dutch is one of the instruments’, explains Van de Bult.

The university’s Language and Culture Policy, established in 2014, puts it a little differently: subsidising Dutch language courses is ‘an important tool for marketing, integration and binding’. Knowledge of Dutch – as well as English and other languages – is important to ‘create more intercultural awareness and develop intercultural competences’, it says, and will thus help make the UG ‘a truly international, inclusive organisation’. 

Currently, the UG funds around two hundred Dutch courses from A1 to C1 level throughout the year on a regular or ‘intensive’ schedule, as well as courses specifically tailored to native German speakers. For every student or staff member, up to five courses – each worth around 300 euros – are covered.


Some students enrol because they have to learn Dutch as a mandatory part of their degree. Medical studies, for example, switches from English to Dutch at the master level to prepare students to practise in the Netherlands. Others hope to find a job in the Netherlands after they graduate. With companies often looking for a fluency level of B2 from prospective employees, it’s important to learn the language if you want to live in the Netherlands long-term, says Van de Bult.

But she stresses that they also teach courses for students who just want to learn to speak some of the language and be able to do simple things like order a coffee in Dutch. ‘It is really Dutch in everyday life. That is what we teach here.’

You don’t want to be the only one in the group for whom it all has to be in English

It’s not just about the language either, she says. What adds to the experience is the social and cultural aspect of the language learning process, which is ‘always integrated with culture’.

Lara Sasmaz, who chose to learn Dutch as part of her degree in international relations, has a B2 level, which is where people begin to converse comfortably in a new language. ‘Two years ago, I didn’t speak a word of Dutch; didn’t even know how to say dankjewel, and now it feels natural to speak the language. I think that’s great.’

For Dutch people, she says, ‘seeing an international putting in the effort to learn Dutch is a bigger thing than in other countries, as everyone here just assumes they will need to speak English.’ 

Making friends

But being able to speak the language is not just a matter of courtesy, Van de Bult stresses. ‘It’s not that easy to make friends with Dutch students if you don’t speak the language at least a bit,’ she says. ‘We hear from international students that the more they speak Dutch, the more they integrate with Dutch students.’

That is what Helen Kurvits, an Estonian student who took the A1 Dutch course, has found as well. ‘Dutch people are pretty comfortable speaking English; they don’t have a problem with that, but also you don’t want to be the only one in the group for whom it all has to be in English.’ 

‘I do feel more integrated,’ says Lara. ‘For example, I can understand why that road is under construction or what is happening with the trains when there is a disruption. It feels nice to understand; you feel more connected’, she explains. ‘When I’m abroad and I hear Dutch, it’s like I’m home.’


If the number of English-language programmes is indeed limited, that could have a significant impact on internationals. Van de Bult believes that if the Minister’s plans move forward, a lot of lecturers will be in a rush to learn the language. ‘Dutch will be totally relevant to university life in the future’, she says. 

If I have to speak Dutch in my job, the losers will be the students

Professors of neurogenetics Jean-Christophe Billeter will be well-prepared. The Swiss native began learning Dutch for professional reasons, but says it has also been very rewarding in his personal life. He would strongly recommend to anyone who moves to the Netherlands to learn the language. However, he would consider it a bad idea if English were restricted in education, especially in STEM subjects.

‘If I have to speak Dutch in my job, I will, but I will tell you that the losers will be the students’, he says. ‘It would really be a really big loss if people started having to teach in a language that they are not entirely comfortable in.’ 

For now, however, everything is still up in the air. The government’s collapse in early July means that it depends on the new coalition formed following November’s elections whether Dijkgraaf’s plans will be made law, and how exactly.  

Because of this, the UG does not yet have a clear view of how they would affect the university’s language policy. However, Van de Bult stresses that people should not worry if there is a move towards more Dutch, though. ‘Don’t panic; make use of this centre that is inside the university. We have student courses, staff courses, civic integration courses, and online courses ready. Come on over, we are here; we know what we are doing.’