University teachers of Dutch from China, Indonesia, and Poland, came to the Netherlands to attend classes at the UU last week. Photo: Simon de Wilde

Dutch teachers from abroad: Chinese students have trouble with prepositions


It’s a well-kept secret that there are, in fact, departments of Dutch outside of the Netherlands and Belgium. In Poland, for instance, and in Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa. Last week, eighteen Dutch teachers from abroad visited Utrecht. “They like ‘goedemorgen’ and ‘dupe’, because they sound like the Polish words for penis and butt.”

Read in Dutch

It’s Wednesday morning, and in room 003 of Drift 25, the teachers are students in a class on the international position of Dutch literature, taught by Geert Buelens, professor of Modern Dutch Literature. “What was the last Dutch text you read unrelated to your studies?” he asks his audience. Tirza by Arnon Grunberg is popular in Poland and Croatia – the latter will likely see a second edition be printed. Books with themes of World War II and colonialism are also popular. Buelens speaks in length on those two themes, based on his students’ questions.

Eighteen university teachers from – among others – Brazil, Indonesia, Poland, Bulgaria, China, and South Africa took a five-day summer course last week, called The International Position of Dutch Language and Culture. They all teach Dutch in their home countries. It sounds surreal, but even in China and Brazil, there are students struggling to learn the correct usages of our articles and prepositions. The teachers are in Utrecht to expand their professional knowledge and meet others in their discipline.

Academic aspect
Buelens’ class is only one part of the program, which also includes classes on translation sciences, linguistics, literature, language acquisition and intercultural communication. Aside from classes, there are also field trips in the program. The participants take a poetry-themed walk through Utrecht, for example. The program was developed by the department of Dutch at Utrecht University, and was commissioned by the Dutch Language Union for Teachers of Dutch as a Second Language, who, aside from teaching, also focus on research.

“Dutch teachers who work in a non-Dutch environment often have to run their departments with few people and few means, and don’t have a lot of time for research. That’s why, in our course, we focus heavily on the academic aspect instead of the educational aspect,” says course coordinator Femke Essink.

“Experts from the UU teach classes on relevant content. We’ve matched every participant with a colleague so they can have one-on-one sessions to talk about current research. That way, we hope to strengthen international networks. This year, there’s a big emphasis on digitalisation in research, Digital Humanities. The infrastructure of digital sources and tools, for instance, is largely Dutch-Flamish at the moment. We’re hoping to gain insights into the digital needs within the international Dutch departments as well,” she says.

No articles
Sterre Leufkens, assistant professor Dutch, taught a class on Tuesday about the research project she’s working on. Leufkens is developing an app that’s meant to make it easier for teachers of Dutch as a second language to understand the native languages of their students, so they’ll be able to offer their students more tailor-made classes. The participants are interested in Leufkens’ app, and offer their own thoughts and feedback.

Leufkens says it was a special class to teach. “The students are simultaneously esteemed colleagues, and that made it very special to talk about my research.” She taught her class in Dutch. “I usually teach in English if it’s a class for foreigners. I thought it was very cool to talk about the research they’re doing themselves. One lady from South Africa told me she feels like she’s at the edge of the world. Here, she’s among peers. Her department is very small, while here in Utrecht, we have around forty people working here.”

More grammar
At lunch, Christina Suprihatin (54) from Indonesia says she started studying Dutch because she likes foreign languages. She did her master’s in Leiden. Now, she’s head of the department of Dutch at the faculty of Humanities at the Universitas Indonesia. It’s not just the only department of Dutch in Indonesia – it’s the only one in Southeast Asia.

Suprihatin teachers her students colonial and postcolonial literature, among other things, but also teaches translation and language proficiency.

All in all, at her university, there are almost five hundred students of Dutch, and when they graduate, they find jobs easily – as diplomats, researchers in their native countries, or they find work in business in the Netherlands, she says. “Students have trouble learning the language because it’s such a completely different language. Dutch has a lot more grammar than Indonesian. The Indonesian language has no tenses, no differences in verbs in past or present tense. In terms of vocabulary, it’s a lot less hard, because many Dutch words are also used in Indonesia.”

Dupe sounds like Polish butt
In Poland, it’s equally easy for students of Dutch to find jobs after graduating, says Zuzanna Czerwonka-Wajda (33). Zuzanna is assistent-professor in Wroclaw at the Erasmus professorship for Dutch. With over 250 students and twenty teachers, the study program is the largest in Europe outside of the Netherlands and Belgium, she says. She herself had known she wanted to study a foreign language since she was little. She started studying Dutch in 2004, and spent some time in the Netherlands as part of her studies. “Polish people find it hard to pronounce Dutch vowels. Especially the long ones, like the u. But generally, Dutch is fairly easy to learn. Within a year, you can reach B1 level of proficiency.” Which Dutch words are popular among her Polish students? “They like goedemorgen and dupe, because they sound like the Polish words for the male genitalia and butt.”

Learning Dutch because they have to
Pieter den Hollander (40) has been lector of Dutch at the Beijing Foreign Studies University for two years. It’s one of three places in China that teach Dutch. “The course I teach has fourteen students, and they’re not always there voluntarily. That’s due to China’s educational system, that grants you a spot at a university based on a score. This university is very prestigious, so the students don’t really care what they study – although they do like the fact that the Netherlands is a free country.”

His students struggle with learning Dutch. They’re not used to prepositions. But it helps that his students speak English fairly well. Last year, prime minister Rutte went on a a trade mission to China and visited the campus Den Hollander works at. “He biked around with the students, and answered questions in a College Tour-like setting. The Chinese students love Rutte, because he’s very approachable. Now, we’re called the Centre for Dutch Studies.” What Dutch literature do Chinese students read? “The Diary of Anne Frank,” says Den Hollander.

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