My name is Sylvia de Groot Heupner. I have a background in social and cultural anthropology and international communication. As a student, I mainly focused on migration and its social impact in countries such as Panama. As these issues also affect the Netherlands, I was very interested in joining a national network of local language coaching initiatives in the form of Stichting Het Begint met Taal (It Starts with Language Foundation). We are a national language coaching platform and offer expertise on the effective and smart organisation of language coaching programmes. We provide materials and training for volunteers and coordinators at language coaching organisations. This allows them to effectively organise language coaching pathways and optimally collaborate with formal education providers.
Alongside my normal work, I also regularly work as a language coach, which is a great way to connect with people. I have also been working as an NT2 teacher since 2019. As a result, I understand what works in both formal and non-formal education. The combination of formal and informal learning is particularly valuable for newcomers in the process of learning a new language. It is particularly effective to offer the two as part of a coordinated programme. I am also an EPALE ambassador.
You can only really learn and understand a new language by practising it. Language coaches see what kind of support newcomers need in their daily life, for example, help with job applications, doctor's visits or their volunteer work at a sports club. We like working in small groups or individually in settings such as library Language Cafés or community centres. Libraries and community centres were forced to close when the Dutch government introduced lockdown measures in response to COVID-19. We felt it was very important that volunteers stayed in touch with their participants through Whatsapp, phone calls or online versions of the Language Cafés. We supported those efforts in any way we could. We were already offering e-learning and immediately organised webinars on online language coaching for volunteers during the first week of the lockdown. These proved extremely popular, and we got a lot of positive feedback. We were very impressed by the ability of volunteer organisations to adapt. By their nature, they are used to quickly adjusting to current events.
We also launched a new ‘Coronavirus’ initiative: Chat buddies. During the lockdown, there are far fewer opportunities to speak Dutch (e.g. chatting on the street or with colleagues), so people are more likely to forget their language skills. We have created a way to practise these skills online. We connect newcomers to volunteers. Volunteer coordinators conduct intake interviews with the newcomers and volunteers and match them up online. We have already received over 2000 applications, from which we have formed 800 pairings.
The initiative was intended to be a temporary solution. Everyone who signs up now will eventually join their local organisation and be transferred to the network of volunteer organisations. We are currently assessing whether online language coaching could become a new part of our range of language training.
People who are digitally literate have an advantage over those who are not.
This also applies to newcomers, who are signing up for online initiatives such as Language Cafes and Chat Buddies. Unfortunately, some people do not know how to access those resources. Many volunteer organisations have reported that people with young children or people with an anxiety disorder are now harder to reach, especially those with a lower level of education and digital literacy.
We work with and for voluntary organisations. We are curious to learn whether new forms of online language coaching will also bring in new and different kinds of volunteers. For example, people in their twenties and thirties, people who now have more time for volunteer work or volunteers who enjoy being active online.
There is a good chance that we will now be able to reach a whole new group of volunteers. We are currently assessing whether this is actually the case: volunteers with a sense of civic engagement who want to try and discover something new and who have the time to do so.