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“Was that easy?” “A bit”

“Was that easy?” “A bit”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Language Centre provides Dutch lessons for refugees

“It’s irregular.” It’s Tuesday afternoon at the Maastricht University Language Centre, and the students sound resigned. They may have only just started this Dutch course, but they already know all too well that Dutch grammar is teeming with exceptions. A few weeks ago seven Syrian refugees joined the course; five in one group, two in the other.

People with refugee status in the Netherlands are given three years in which to pass the civic integration exam, which includes learning the language. “We’re focusing on people at university level, who want to pass the Dutch as a Second Language exam”, says Anneke van Esterik, coordinator of the Dutch department at the Language Centre. Dutch as a Second Language is aimed at those who wish to follow a higher vocational education or university study programme. Others do the civic integration exam, for which they study at an adult education centre. To fund their studies, refugees are given a €10,000 loan from DUO which is converted into a gift if they graduate.

At the Language Centre, the participants attend two two-hour lessons per week. The class is mixed; in addition to Syrians there are students from Indonesia, Russia and Poland. “That was a conscious choice, to help them get to know more people”, says Van Esterik. Developing a good command of the language is expected to take around a year and half. “That’s if you take into account holiday periods and if people are starting from zero. Often they’ve already had some lessons at the refugee centre.”

In the classroom, tutor Salomé Valente-Bonte writes a sentence from the homework assignment on the board: Hoe ziet jouw moeder eruit? (What does your mother look like?) “The full word is eruitzien,” she explains, “but you put zien here in the sentence and eruit goes at the end.” “You can separate eruit too”, Tareq calls out enthusiastically. The former bank clerk arrived in the Netherlands eighteen months ago. His wife Hadeel was allowed to join him five months ago. Now they sit side by side, pens at the ready. Every now and then he helps her, whispering in Arabic. “You can also say: ze ziet er lekker uit.” Valente-Bonte chuckles and writes the sentence on the board, editing it slightly in the process: from “she looks good” to “the bread looks good”.

The lesson goes on, focusing on the theme of appearances. The students recite the words they already know: short, tall, fat, thin, blonde, dark, ugly, pretty. “Kind?”, someone suggests, and the others correct him: “That’s to do with character.” Next they have to describe a classmate to the person sitting next to them. As they do so, Valente-Bonte explains that they are having more trouble than usual understanding her today. “I lost my voice, which affects my articulation and makes things harder.” The idea is to use only Dutch during lessons, but here and there English and Arabic can also be heard, including from Valente-Bonte: “When they’ve only just started, some things are too hard to explain in Dutch.”

When they are done with appearances, they move on to the plural form (why is it tantes and not tanten?) and negation (when do you use geen and when do you use niet?). Then it’s time for numbers. “We’re going to count from one to one million”, says Valente-Bonte, and the students sigh. She calls out a series of numbers and they repeat them after her. Ten is no problem, nor is 130. But as the numbers get larger the students begin to struggle; 888 turns out to be a real tongue-twister. “Was that easy?”, asks Valente-Bonte. “A bit”, say the students.

Their future plans vary. Tareq dreams of doing a master’s degree in Finance. Hadeel, who studied history in Syria, wants to start European Studies as soon as possible. Mohammed recently finished high school and is keen to do Psychology at UM. Obidah is hoping to get back to work as a pharmacist, and Wael, who was a quality inspector in the Syrian food safety department, wants to follow a master’s degree so he can work at the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority.

For now, they have to work their way through this listening exercise. It’s about a dinner voucher. “Do you know what that is?”, asks Valente-Bonte. The bill, the students think. “No, it’s a gift you can use to pay in the restaurant.” After she assigns the homework for the next session, a Russian student has a question. “The book says that Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands. But I heard that Maastricht is the oldest.” Valente-Bonte smiles. “You live in Maastricht, so let’s say it’s Maastricht. And what’s the most beautiful city?” At this the students laugh. “Maastricht.”

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