25 years of bilingual education in the Netherlands

The Netherlands isn’t the only place in the world where you can encounter bilingual education. There are many countries where, for varying reasons, this approach of teaching is used. It offers an array of subject areas taught in a non-native language for the learner. The aim is the speeding up and adding an extra depth to language acquisition. It is a broad approach that has its strength in immersion in the target language for the large of every school day.

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What is certainly true of the Dutch language experiment with secondary education is that it very definitely no longer an experiment. It is now established and embedded widely across the whole country with around 130 secondary schools offering the bilingual approach and pilot programs in primary education underway.

Yesterday the European Platform, the organisation that oversees and coordinates the bilingual schools, marked the occasion with an afternoon of presentations and reflections on the project so far, and a look towards the future. It seems a healthy future, as one of the contributors pointed out, many educational initiatives come and go, but the bilingual star in the Netherlands seems to continue to rise.

One of the reasons for this success might well be the fact that it is largely a bottom up initiative, starting with schools who decide that they want to join the process, rather than an organisation (or government) telling schools that they have to join. It remains a branch of education that is peopled by teachers and school leaders who want to be involved.

My own bilingual experience goes back fifteen years. In a sense I was in the right place at the right time. I arrived in the Netherlands in the early 1990s and five years later got my teacher training qualification just at the moment that the bilingual train was really starting to pick up momentum. I left the course and walked straight into my first bilingual teaching job. I was a rare commodity, a native speaker of English, qualified to teach a subject other than English (art in my case).

In the meantime, now twenty five years on, there probably aren’t that many teachers in the country who have taught as many bilingual classes as I have. My ‘native speaker’ credentials mean that I don’t ever have to teach a Dutch language art class, a benefit of working in a large bilingual department. If there is a weak link in the whole set up within the schools it is that the quest for native speakers to join and strengthen the departments is a constant hunt and not an easy one to be successful in.

I wrote two posts ago about the enthusiastic meeting I chaired for the European Platform of bilingual art teachers. They were a group of people who by offering to teach the bilingual classes have in effect said, yes, “I am prepared to do more than just teach my subject content, I am prepared to take on more and teach a language at the same time”. It says sometime about the mind-set of my Dutch colleagues who take this step, it is a fairly thick extra layer on top of regular classes. I have this too of course, but with the extra luxury that it is my first language, but like it or not, I am to a significant degree a language teacher.  Having struggled hugely at school with French and German, and yet now being able to speak Dutch fluently, I am also an example as to why immersion is the best method of language acquisition.

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