Foreign languages are used in Dutch education to prepare for a globalizing world.

When you come (back) to the Netherlands with children, you may have lost track of education a bit. Our tips page for expats has addressed this largely.

Foreign language education in the Netherlands is another underexposed but important aspect for families. Often, children have already mastered several languages, and it is important that they continue to develop in their multilingual field.

We created this structured overview to get a clear picture of this.

The world opens up: Early foreign language education in elementary school

More and more elementary schools offer Early Foreign Language Teaching ( Vroeg Vreemdetalenonderwijs of vvto). But what is vvto and what are the benefits for children?

Language in mainstream primary education is compulsory for Dutch from the first grade (4 years old). English is compulsory from grade 7. Schools now teach it earlier from group 5, but this varies from one elementary school to another.

According to Dutch law, elementary schools may use a maximum of 15% of their teaching time to offer a foreign language to their students. The foreign languages are English, German, or French.

Early foreign language education (vvto) in the Netherlands distinguishes itself

Offering early foreign language education (vvto) has many advantages that have not yet been taken to heart by every school. There are the benefits of early multilingual learning that you may already know:

  • Young children pick up a language more easily through play
  • Pronunciation, new sounds are easier to adopt at a young age
  • Learning more languages stimulates many cognitive skills in children
  • Multilingualism produces greater cultural tolerance and acceptance


Foreign language didactics in Dutch education

Most schools offering vvto opt for English language and foreign language teaching by their own teacher. This has the great advantage that there can be occasional offerings throughout the day, so to speak. A disadvantage is that the teacher is usually not a native speaker, so pronunciation can be taught incorrectly.

Schools that teach early foreign language must use a continuous learning approach and apply appropriate didactics. For this purpose, schools can use the European Framework of Reference for Languages (ECFR).

Several schools in the Netherlands offer vvto. The highest concentration can be found in the Randstad. Google on “vvto and then the place name” where you might want to live.

Uk vlag

Foreign languages in Dutch secondary education: choosing between languages

In secondary education, students must choose one or more foreign languages. But which language suits your child, and which languages has he already learned? And what about bilingual education (TTO)? In secondary education, students are required to learn one or two foreign languages in addition to English.

Foreign languages in lower secondary education

In the lower grades of havo and vwo, students are required to take two modern foreign languages in addition to English. The school is obliged to offer French as well as German.

If the school offers it, one of these languages may be replaced by:

  • Spanish
  • Russian
  • Italian
  • Arabic
  • Turkish
  • Chinese (vwo only)

At grammar school, the student must also learn Latin and Greek.

In junior vmbo, the student must learn a foreign language in addition to English. This is French or German. The school is obliged to offer students at least one of these languages.

If the school offers it, a student may take another modern foreign language instead of French or German:

  • Spanish
  • Arabic
  • Turkish


Foreign language Frisian in junior high school

In the province of Friesland (Fryslân ), Frisian is a compulsory subject in junior secondary education. Some schools have this because the school is in a non-Frisian speaking area or because hardly anyone in the area speaks Frisian.

Frankrijk in de kleuren van de Franse vlag

Foreign languages in upper secondary education

Havo, vwo and gymnasium
In the upper grades of havo and vwo you have compulsory English. You also take your final exams in English. At the atheneum, you have to take your final exam in a 2nd modern foreign language. Latin or Greek is compulsory as a final exam subject at the gymnasium. Besides English, you can choose other modern foreign languages. This depends on what the school offers.

Profile subject havo
In the culture and society (havo) profile, you are required to take a 2nd foreign language in addition to English.
You can choose an additional modern language as a profile elective in the profile culture, society, and economy and society.

Free section havo and vwo
In the free section of Havo and VWO, you can choose foreign languages. This is only possible if the school offers this language, and the language is not part of the profile.

Languages at entry-level havo and vwo
You can take the following languages at the elementary level (starter level and advanced level):

  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • Russian
  • Arabic
  • Turkish
  • Chinese (only vwo)

Exemption 2nd foreign language atheneum
Are you a student at the Atheneum? In certain cases, you can get an exemption for a second modern language besides English, for example, if you have dyslexia or if your mother tongue is not Dutch or Frisian. The exemption is not a right; the school board decides on this. For the gymnasium, this regulation does not apply. There, the second foreign language is Latin or Greek.

No upper secondary: No compulsory languages after lower secondary.

Steen met Latijnse tekst.

Bilingual education (to)

Bilingual education is an option in Dutch secondary education to be partially taught in another language. Sometimes people have the wrong idea about tto, namely that students are taught entirely in two languages. This is not entirely correct and is important to know.

In bilingual education, students follow part of their secondary education in another language. This is usually English. In the lower grades of havo and vwo, at least 50% of the classes are in the other language. In the junior grades of vmbo this is at least 30%.

Moreover, in the upper grades, the school switches to 100% Dutch, and all students take their final exams in Dutch in their final year.

The characteristics of bilingual education are:

  • The teachers have had special tto training
  • Teaching in a foreign language must not be at the expense of Dutch language development
  • International activities such as language trips, workshops, or exchanges must be offered
  • Students in tto schools take their final exams in Dutch. They receive an ordinary vwo, havo or vmbo diploma. They also receive a certificate attesting to their extra language skills. The type of certificate depends on the part of the course that students have taken in a foreign language.


What is the best fit for my child?

If you are wondering about this and would like to be helped on your way by experienced people in education, email us at, and we will quickly set up an online appointment. In the first non-binding meeting, we will get to know each other and make sure we get a broad picture of your child’s background and wishes. Then, together, we will see what we can do for you regarding advice or other language help.

We are here to help you!

Wendy van Dalen
Founder and teacher of Dutch for Children