11 September 2019

Internationals go Dutch

Knowledge of the Dutch language and culture makes international students more culturally conscious. Learning the language also helps them broaden their view on Dutch society, says University College Utrecht’s Dutch language coordinator Saskia Spee.

Saskia Spee

Right from its start in 1998, University College Utrecht has been offering courses in Dutch language. Saskia Spee has been part of the college since 2003, first as Dutch teacher, in more present years also as tutor. Her earlier teaching job was at the Boswell Institute (now Babel), where her students were of all ages and with extremely varying backgrounds. At the University College, she was met by diversity within one age group. She discovered that she liked it, and stayed.

Everyday situations

In the course of the years, and in sound with the University College Utrecht educational philosophy, the focus in the Dutch courses has shifted from exclusive language learning to a more inclusive approach with also cultural and intercultural components. This also has its practical advantages to students. Many have a job next to their study and realise the need to be able to understand their Dutch colleagues, or they may be involved in volunteering projects in the city. 

“The day-to-day interaction with Dutch people teaches the students another kind of vocabulary than they learn in the course. It is important that they learn to cope with everyday situations as well,” says Saskia. “They are here for at least three years, and most are interested in learning to know more about the city and its people.”


The college offers Dutch courses at four levels, with around 55 starters per year. Saskia is pleased that most starters continue to the next levels too. 

Next to the regular courses, University College Utrecht runs a special course for bilinguals. The bilinguals are Dutch students who have an international school background and may even not have lived in the Netherlands before. Most of them speak Dutch very well, as it is the language they would speak with their parents at home, but have never written it. Others understand Dutch, but lack experience and feel shy in speaking it. The intensive bilingual course helps them over the threshold, while also focusing on academic Dutch. 


“Many students find it difficult that Dutch people shift to English so easily, while they would like to practice their Dutch,” says Saskia. “We have taken special measures to help students really converse in Dutch. In the previous semester, we involved students of Utrecht University’s Minor for language teaching as buddies for our level 2 Dutch students. This turned out as an attractive win-win situation for both. The students in teacher training fulfilled their internship requirement, while our students could practice their language skills with a peer of their own age. This is how they also learned a lot about Dutch culture and habits.”

Culture and society 

University College Utrecht students will also continue profiting from the cooperation next semester. One of their course assignments is a presentation about an aspect of Dutch culture. They often look for a natural combination with their Major subjects, like political sciences, or history. 

Saskia: “A popular topic in the past few years has been the Black Pete debate. Another picked up issue is the Dutch tradition of home delivery, which raised a lot of discussion in class, as hospital delivery is the preferred norm in many countries worldwide. The presentations help students nuance their understanding of the Netherlands. Just think of the drug policy, which students find out to be less free-floating than they assumed in the first place."