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29 October 2014
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Page 3 of 4
Girls vs boys
Why are the Dutch better at learning languages?
What the Dutch do differently
Multilingual classroom

Classroom talk
by Philippa Law

What the Dutch do differently
If the Dutch really are better at languages than us, then it's not because they start much earlier than us - only recently have some schools in the Netherlands started teaching languages from 4. Most Dutch people started learning a language at 10.

"...if we get our kids hooked on foreign soap operas (with subtitles), we might shake off our monoglot image once and for all."

Nor can it be because of better teaching techniques - the Dutch method of the teacher standing at the front talking to their pupils is just the opposite of what is known to work best.

Nor can the Dutch be better at languages because they have lots of classes in the medium of the foreign language, or because they offer lots of languages to choose from in school - because they don't do either of these things.One Dutch applied linguist likes to speculate that there might be a correlation between language aptitude and intelligence. The reason why Dutch people have a reputation for being good at languages might be, therefore, that Dutch people are simply cleverer than other people. "Unfortunately," says Kees de Bot, "the experience of having lived in that country for more than 50 years has made it absolutely clear to me that that cannot be the explanation."Instead, his research shows that the stereotype of the multilingual Dutch person isn't entirely accurate. The Dutch aren't amazing at languages generally; they just speak particularly good English.In fact, things really aren't all that rosy for other languages in the Netherlands. The numbers of students taking French and German are in decline. University departments teaching other European languages are struggling to survive. Teaching minority languages such as Turkish and Arabic is no longer allowed during school hours. And other languages are hardly taught at all - just like in the UK.The main reason why the Dutch are so good at English, according to Kees de Bot's analysis, is that English is highly visible and valued in mainstream culture. Most of the music Dutch kids listen to is in English and the films they watch are mostly in English.Most interesting, in my view, is the link between TV and being good at English. In the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where proficiency in English is very high, English-language TV programmes are subtitled. In Germany, Spain and France, where fewer people speak English well, the TV programmes are dubbed.Dutch teachers and pupils agree that most of their English has been learnt outside school. English is a part of Dutch life. Language adviser Alan Dobson believes that the pervasiveness of English puts the Dutch - and others - at an advantage over us: "...the powerful extrinsic motivation across Europe to learn English cannot be replicated for any (foreign language) in the UK."Our lack of confidence doesn't help us compete with the Dutch either. A study of 12,000 pupils in eight European countries suggests that, unlike kids in other countries, Dutch pupils overestimate how good they are at English. This gives them the confidence to go out and use their English and not feel silly, which in turn means they get better and better at English.Will things get better? Some of the signs are good. 'Languages Strategies' are now in place in England, Scotland and Wales, and it's hoped that Northern Ireland will follow suit. The UK government wants all children aged 7 to 11 to be able to learn a language by 2010. Providing enough hours are set aside for languages, and providing secondary education is adapted at the same time so the extra years are not wasted, this could make a real difference.Alternatively, if we could get our kids hooked on a handful of foreign soap operas (with subtitles), we might soon shake off our monoglot image once and for all.

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