Multilingualism in Dutch education is approached differently by teachers in the Netherlands. The attitude a teacher has towards multilingualism influences his way of teaching. It also affects the language development and school success of multilingual students.

My son brought an apple for the letter party. On the letter table, all items brought that started with the letter of the day “m” were allowed. When the teacher told my son that his apple didn’t start with ‘m,’ he said, ”Yes teacher, this is a manzana (Spanish for apple).” The apple was not allowed on the table. So much for the school’s tolerance of other languages.

Teachers’ beliefs and attitudes about multilingualism and the value of languages form the basis for their daily teaching practices (Skilton-Sylvester research, 2003).

Positive attitudes lead to teaching strategies that support using the minority language. Negative attitudes toward minority languages may lead to teaching strategies that do not support them. Thus, this directly affects the multilingual learner.

For example, teachers with positive attitudes think it is important that multilingual learners have good language skills in their mother tongue. You also see more often that these teachers have their own experience with learning a second language and have more experience teaching multilingual students.

This article is also available in Dutch.
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Content blog ‘Multilingualism in Dutch education’
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  • Knowledge is power in multilingualism in education
  • Attitude of school and teacher
  • Nicolet from Hong Kong
  • Joan from Spain
  • Miriam from Indonesia
  • Josine from California
  • Rosanna from Italy
  • Miranda from Hong Kong
  • Esther from Chile
  • Multilingualism in education: a conclusion
  • Your story?

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Knowledge makes power in multilingualism in education

There is now evidence that many teachers lack knowledge about second language acquisition. For example, research in van Gelder, Fiona van; Visser, Saskia found that Not all aspects of language development of multilingual children are well known to teachers. Knowledge of the different aspects appears to vary quite a bit.

  • interference (mixing the languages) is known by 88% of the teachers
  • the ‘silent period’ by 58% (when the child does not speak both languages)
  • the approach during the ‘silent period’ is known by 83%
  • the importance of the mother tongue is known to only 21% of teachers.
  • Almost 60% of the teachers in this study consider it appropriate or very appropriate to give advice to non-native parents to speak Dutch at home with multilingual children (which is, therefore, bad advice).

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Attitude of school and teacher

The following are some experiences of Dutch parents after several years abroad.
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Nicolet tells after 24 years in Hong Kong

We have been back in the Netherlands since May 2022 from Hong Kong where I lived for 24 years. This is where my daughters were born and raised. My oldest daughter (now almost 17) returned alone in August 2021 and lived with my brother and sister-in-law. My youngest is 14 years old.

Both daughters have always followed local Chinese education ( they are half-Chinese). They speak English, Cantonese, Dutch, and basic Mandarin. The youngest is now also learning German and French. The oldest is in 5 vwo, and the youngest is in 2nd-year have/vwo—both at an all-Dutch school.

Preparation for return

This did not happen overnight. I started preparing two years in advance to return to the Netherlands because of schooling and housing. We approached several schools in the Nijmegen, Arnhem/Doetinchem/Doesburg, and Zutphen areas.

Want to read more about how to prepare for choosing a secondary school? Then, be sure to read these tips.

Attitude towards multilingualism

She noticed that some schools considered our daughters more like foreigners than Dutch. They wanted them either to take a test, to go to an ISK school, or to offer an intermediate solution (like in Arnhem, which is a kind of intermediate layer) for children who might be a bit behind with language or lack the self-confidence for high school.

They suggested that my youngest daughter should first go to special education for non-Dutch speakers. So say together with refugees. Well, I thought that was extreme and downright ridiculous.

Through the help of her sister-in-law and the high level of English and math, both children eventually ended up in a Dutch-speaking school in a comprehensive school. This is pleasing.

Some nice things that stand out regarding the attitude of this school community:

  • appreciation for and interest in their experience abroad
  • extra time with tests and a Dutch-English dictionary was and is still allowed
  • exemption for the second foreign language
  • extra help from an NT2 teacher
  • appreciation for their commitment and approach to learning (Asian strict approach)

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Joan from Spain tells her story

Our boy twins, now 20 years old, moved independently to the Netherlands in September 2022 to study in the Netherlands. The children moved to Sweden at the age of 3. Here, they attended a Swedish school. At that time, they also attended two hours of Dutch education every week.

When they were thirteen years old, we moved to Spain. They started at the European School in Alicante. They were placed in the English section as SWAL (students with another language). This with Dutch as the first language, the other subjects in English and French, Swedish, and Spanish as additional languages.

One son passed the European baccalaureate exam with Dutch as his first language—the other finished year 5 well, after which they moved to the Netherlands.

Education and attitude

One started an MBO 2 education in Dutch as a logistics employee. He soon got exemptions and could do the two-year course in one year. The school greatly encouraged his multilingualism. After a year, he started an MBO 3 course as a logistics team leader. Here, too, he gets exemptions. They applaud his multilingualism and, with internships, try to place him with international companies. Fortunately, he uses his other languages with his friends around the world.

Our other son is doing a wo study at Leiden University in The Hague. He is in the second year of an English-language study. He speaks several languages with his fellow students: Spanish, Swedish, and English. His fellow students are pleased that he is fluent in Dutch (also in writing). The study does not pay attention to his multilingualism. Therefore, he is addressed by certain teachers in Swedish, Spanish, French, or Dutch. Furthermore, he maintains his other languages himself.
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Miriam is now in the Netherlands from Indonesia

We returned from Indonesia 4.5 years ago. My youngest children attended a kindergarten, which I founded myself in Indonesia. My oldest son went to world school, attended my kindergarten, and worked in my office there. We really lived in the middle of nowhere.

When we returned, I told the teacher, “He speaks Dutch, but sometimes with English grammar, so then you have to translate it into English in your head.” The teacher said, “Well, let’s not do that; just Dutch here!”

Meanwhile, my son is in 4 vwo with his Cambridge certificate and fluent in Indonesian, despite the uncooperative teacher. My middle one was allowed to skip a class immediately after a year in the Netherlands.
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Josine is back from California, USA

Our son started kindergarten last week, so maybe a little early, but we specifically looked for a school that is positive towards multilingualism and offers bilingual (Dutch/English) education.

We specifically searched for a bilingual school – but didn’t ask very much else. We are happy that we are now hearing many positive stories from other parents. These are international families where one or both parents speak a different language. Moreover, the principal has lived abroad with her family for some time.
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Rosanna from Italy is happy with the super teachers

We have been in the Netherlands from Italy since 2018. My son did not speak Dutch and was put back in class. They tried and indicated that he would go to a separate language class if it didn’t work out. With speech therapy and super teachers, it went very well. Now, he still attends Italian school in addition to high school. This is also to continue speaking Italian correctly and learning grammar. This is because we often speak some dialect at home, and he can also use the diplomas he gets here in the Netherlands.
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Miranda returned from Hong Kong in 2016

To get right to the point:

We are very satisfied with the attitude of school upon arrival in the Netherlands. The school was proud to accept 2 children into bilingual education, both of whom already spoke English well. Our children would have had more difficulty with the transition if they had entered full Dutch education and everything would have been in Dutch.

Miranda always tutored her children in German and French in Hong Kong; the children also went to Dutch school for a few hours and spoke Limburgish at home. Talk about multilingualism.

Alessio started in the Netherlands in January 2016 in the HAVO/VWO bridge class, and Gianna started in class 3 Atheneum at the Bilingual VWO in Landgraaf.

The junior classes were taught in English, and the language of instruction was also English. Children also had to try to speak English to each other in class and were reprimanded if they spoke Dutch. In the upper school, the language changed to Dutch.

We were very pleased with the school’s approach to getting the children to integrate their classes. We had chosen this school because it was bilingual and within biking distance of our home in the Netherlands. The children were used to speaking English and felt most comfortable with that.

Ahead with English and a little behind with Dutch

Alessio got very bored in English classes in the first grade, but we could do nothing about that. In Dutch, he was slightly behind and got lower grades. Both children would also have liked to continue with Chinese, but that was no longer offered by the school. They used to have a Chinese class, but in recent years, there was not enough interest.

Students in their classes were informed about their arrival and background. An article published in the Limburgs Dagblad about the family was shared and put up. The video of Baanbrekers was shown, which had been made a year earlier and aired on TV in early 2015: Job Breakers in Hong Kong.

The transition from undergrad to upper secondary within bilingual education

My children struggled with the transition from undergrad to upper-class at the bilingual was less easy. The subjects were taught in Dutch from grade 4, and it was assumed that you had fully mastered all Dutch terms. For example, they would know the answer in English but not in Dutch. In tests, the English word was then miscounted. For example, my son did not know the names of countries in Dutch geography. He also had problems learning the Dutch specialist terms in biology. Our daughter had less trouble with the transition, probably because she spent most of her elementary school years in the Netherlands.
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Finally, the story of Esther returned from Chile

Esther returned to the Netherlands with her Dutch-Chilean family in August 2020. She always spoke Dutch one-on-one with her son; the first language in the family is Spanish. A month after arriving, he started attending Dutch daycare. He mastered Dutch and Spanish.

The first standout was the story of the speech therapist because there were concerns about language (retardation) around age 3. He saw the speech therapist once every 2 weeks around his 3rd year. At age 4 he scored normal. The speech therapist emphasized from the start that the tests she takes are not appropriate for him. These tests were developed for monolingual children whose mother tongue is Dutch.

Then, last May, he went to a regular public elementary school. They were fine with multilingualism but were not actively working on it; there was no policy in place or attention to multilingualism.

The quote about the letter party and apple that started this article is from this school. Even worse, the teachers openly gossiped about the family because they spoke Spanish. Esther removed her child from there.

In the next school, 15% are multilingual. It is a mixture of all kinds of languages. There he feels safer. Moreover, the teachers there are actively working on multilingualism. For example, they encourage him to teach other children to count in Spanish, have him sing foreign-language Christmas songs, etc.

The principal was also very interested not only because of our multilingualism but also because I myself am a teacher at Teacher Training International Primary Education and pay a lot of attention to this topic (multilingualism).
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Multilingualism in Online Education

In conclusion, the attitude and commitment of schools or teachers make a difference. Nor should we underestimate the intelligence and perseverance of our multilingual children. It may be clear that an open or positive attitude makes our multilingual children feel safe and happy—the basis of good continued learning.

The power of good teaching of children learning Dutch as a second language (NT2) lies in several important aspects. One of the most important is the attitude towards other languages and cultures.

You can read other important aspects in our extensive article via this link.
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Your experience with multilingualism in education counts: please tell!

If your (child’s) story has not yet been told here, you can still do so. We like to add as many different experiences as possible to outline this story completely.

Email me here or via our contact form, and I’ll contact you soon.
Warm regards,

Wendy van Dalen
Founder of Dutch for Children