Refugees: Language coach—with a twist
Also available in Dutch
Would the predominantly Syrian refugees who recently arrived in Utrecht’s Jaarbeurs convention centre be interested in Dutch lessons? The Municipality of Utrecht, Utrecht Public Library, non-profit organisation Taal doet meer and the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) launched a small-scale pilot in October 2015: walk-in language lessons for a maximum of 50 refugees a week. There was considerable interest. The structure is slightly unconventional. Following his first week on the job, language volunteer Dick Noordhuizen summarised his experience: “It was totally different from what I was trained for and from what I expected, I made a number of classic mistakes, but it was also really great! Nice people, too.” Noordhuizen completed the language volunteer training offered by Taal doet meer in Utrecht last summer. The organisation relies on 500 volunteers each year to accomplish its mission to get more Utrecht residents involved in society. Volunteer language coaches offer language coaching and encouragement to men and women who are not native Dutch speakers. In this capacity Noordhuizen set to work with a small group of adults interested in learning Dutch. He knows a little Arabic, too. When approached about participating in the Taal doet meer pilot, he was interested.
-What was it actually like?
“Let me start by saying that it was really fun, and useful, too. Still, there were several surprises that Monday morning. For starters, the language class was in the library. There we were upstairs, ready and waiting for the participants, but after 10 minutes we were thinking, ‘Uh-oh, they’re not coming. Either they’re not interested, or they got lost...’ Nothing was further from the truth. When we went downstairs just to be sure, it turned out that a whole bunch of people had been held up by an administrative process. Participants were given vouchers that in turn had to be handed over immediately to someone else. This caused all sorts of confusion and amusement, of course, and it was rather chaotic. Still, there was no way around it; the vouchers were necessary in order to try to keep track of things.”
-Did you get to do any teaching?
“Oh, yes. We had anticipated 12 participants, but there were some 20 people in the group, I believe. And everyone was very keen. There were Eritreans, too, which was a surprise. I had been expecting Syrians; the news had something to do with it. Eritreans are a different story; they don’t speak Arabic, for one thing. I don’t mind; still, it’s a challenge. So yes, a bit of adaptation and improvisation were in order.”
-What about those “classic mistakes” you mentioned?
“Well, you’re trained to do everything according to a certain plan and structure. There is a system to language coaching; for example, it consists of a number of lessons. But that’s impossible with this group. Most of these people are passing through. Perhaps they attend three lessons, but they might subsequently be transferred to a different location – or even a different country. So much for your structure. ”
“It means that you have to take a different approach. Teach very practical things. Who are you? Where are you? Not say that something is a door, but go over to it, open it, and explain how you say it as you do it. Oh, that was a classic mistake that we inadvertently made. The group was extremely curious and motivated. They wanted to know absolutely everything, they wrote everything down, and asked loads of questions. You end up getting swept up in your own passion and enthusiasm; it just sort of happens, really. They didn’t want to know only the word ‘man’, they wanted to know ‘woman’, too. And that’s where it went awry. If someone tells you: ‘My name is Ali, and I’m a man, I’m a woman’, then you’ll know he was in our group [laughs]. I learned something, too.”
-Any other surprises?
“Well, normally you would use a computer. Of course, to do that you have to have a login code, a password and an email address. Not exactly practical when there is such a limited amount of time to teach these people. It simply takes too long to do all the explaining, logging on and so forth when you only have an hour. So you do without.”
-Is there any discussion about what this group has recently gone through?
“No, it didn’t come up during the hour-long session.
-What now? Will you do it again?
“Yes, if it’s up to me. Surely there’s a way to resolve the various practical issues we’re facing. In the meantime it’s back to my regular work; that’s important, too!”
Adition Taal doet meer
In recent weeks, Taal doet meer has given lessons to approximately 200 participants twice a week in the main branch of the Utrecht Public Library. The lessons are mainly geared towards providing an introduction to the Dutch language and options for self-guided study: participants are unable to take a formal course and in some cases can only attend one lesson. After each lesson, volunteers are available to assist participants, for example with setting up an account for the online language programme offered by www.oefenen.nl.