Contribution from Sylvia de Groot Heupner
Utrecht, 20 mei 2020
Language coaching in the coronavirus era
Language and contact are key requirements for participation in society, even in the coronavirus era. Over 600,000 new arrivals with an insufficient command of the Dutch language are in danger of falling behind on their language skills and their integration even further. In this light, it is vital that the thousands of language volunteers continue to meet up with new arrivals on a weekly basis and practise the language, which they would ordinarily do face to face. To what extent are the approximately 400 Dutch volunteer organisations that provide this type of language practice called language coaching successful in responding to the new reality? What obstacles do they encounter? Which aspects stand out? This article will inform you about the current approach to language coaching, based on interviews with a range of Dutch organisations providing language coaching.
Language coaching during the 'intelligent lockdown'
For a regular programme of language coaching, a language volunteer would meet one or more new arrivals at a physical location to practise the Dutch language on a weekly basis. Such meetings could be individual, in small groups or via participation in informal language cafés, which do not require a prior appointment to join. After the coronavirus measures were announced in March, the main aim of the organisations providing language coaching was to encourage existing couples and groups to stay in touch. Coordinators sent emails to their volunteers, suggesting ways of keeping up their activities. The Het Begint met Taal foundation, the national platform for language coaching, has also organised various webinars on remote language coaching with the aim of instructing volunteers about options to continue their meetings online. As a basic principle, volunteers should keep in touch with new arrivals as much as possible to ensure their continued connection with the language and society, even if it involves shorter sessions with a less substantive focus on language than normal.
New arrivals falling behind
The current situation poses challenges that can be seen across society, including at volunteer organisations that provide language coaching. New arrivals who do not speak the language well are at risk of falling behind further and losing touch with their environment. The life-threatening potential of this problem was proven by recent figures from the Coronavirus Help Desk for holders of a residence permit. This help desk counted over a hundred thousand new arrivals who hardly understand the news about the coronavirus measures because they do not speak Dutch. Their survey also showed the strong dependence of many new arrivals on Dutch-speaking volunteers and buddies. The absence of this service is leaving a huge gap.
The various types of language coaching
Fortunately, a lot of organisations providing language coaching currently manage to keep up their existing one-on-one couples. Volunteers and new arrivals discuss daily affairs via app, telephone or video conference. They exchange their experiences of what does and does not work in terms of using materials or other matters within the national Het Begint met Taal network. For example, while many volunteers enjoy using materials such as the SpreekTaal method to support their language coaching, others fill their sessions with chatting. A number of couples meet outdoors to go for a walk at a distance of 1.5 metres, for instance.
It initially appeared more difficult to continue language coaching in group form and in language cafés. One reason is that many language coaching groups met at locations that are now partially or fully closed, such as community centres and libraries. Another reason is the wide variety of participants and volunteers. Although some volunteers attempt to organise the activities online, many others have trouble doing so, especially older volunteers. Moreover, language cafés face a further challenge, as not all organisations have the contact details of participants in the language cafés, which was a conscious move to keep the meetings accessible for everyone.
An increasing number of organisations have meanwhile managed to organise digital language cafés and group activities. Not only existing participants, but also new volunteers and arrivals frequently participate in these events. Coordinators conduct intakes by telephone and provide e-learning, materials as well as training courses – for example, through Het Begint met Taal.
Limited contact with less educated new arrivals
Almost all organisations providing language coaching express difficulties in keeping in touch with their less educated, most vulnerable new arrivals. Many of them speak Dutch poorly and have little or no contact with Dutch speakers other than their language coach. It is a matter of conjecture what their current situation looks like and what reason they have to abstain from language coaching. Logical explanations for this include an inability to make the mental investment as a result of stress from the current situation, having to take care of children or other family members and/or the inability to use digital tools due to insecurity, for example.
Fortunately, many volunteer organisations are looking for new and inventive ways of involving groups that are hard to reach. For example, new arrivals might be asked to get in touch with others in their own language and answer questions or explain digital systems, among other things.
Successful digital programmes
There is also a group of new arrivals who are actively looking for language coaching activities themselves. An example of an online language coaching activity is the coronavirus initiative called Kletsmaatjes. Kletsmaatjes (Chat Buddies) is an online form of language coaching for which a multitude of new arrivals had already signed up within a few days of launching; this number has since increased to more than 900. Many new arrivals are eager to keep speaking Dutch and maintain contact. 'I really want to practise my Dutch, but I spend all day indoors at the moment. Who can help me?' was a typical call for help from new arrivals currently staying at an asylum seekers' centre. It is striking that many of the volunteers applying to be Chat Buddies are younger than the regular language coaches. Some of them even seem to prefer the increased flexibility of online language coaching. Presently, Het Begint met Taal is investigating the exact target audiences of Chat Buddies.
The importance of digital skills
The importance of digital skills in our society has become painfully apparent in the current situation. This fact is especially true of new arrivals, who are more liable to miss out in the current 'remote' society. Possible reasons include insecurity about digital tools, lack of a properly functioning telephone or tablet or a poor Wi-Fi signal. There are also many volunteers who are unable or unwilling to provide online language coaching, either because they cannot handle digital tools or because they dislike online language coaching. This problem is particularly prevalent among organisations with a lot of older volunteers.
Added value of non-formal language coaching
All of us are presently experiencing the effects of having little or no visible or physical contact with others. Many are struggling with this change. Our society is becoming more and more digital, but actual contact is proving to be invaluable in our lives. The current situation also shows the key importance of accessible meetings between new arrivals and volunteers. Language coaching expands your world.
 Anderstaligen met een behoefte aan taalondersteuning [Non-native speakers in need of language support], ECBO (2020) https://www.hetbegintmettaal.nl/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Notitie-nieuwkomers-laaggeletterdheid-20200329c-compressed.pdf