Learning Dutch in Turkey

(photography by Sinan Coskun)

Get eight cups of tea and make a dance

Education institute ROC in Eindhoven as a first education centre gives Dutch lessons in Turkey. For business people, for students and for immigrants. The first course just started. It mainly attracts people in love, engaged and married.

“My name is Okan. My last name is Can. I am married to Desiree but I live alone.” It’s the second week of the Dutch course and one after another the students introduce themselves, standing in front of the group. It’s a daily ritual, and every day they are supposed to add some information. “I have three brothers and I have no sister”, Okan adds the next day.
The volume the students talk at is remarkable. It’s as if they have to make themselves heard in a ballroom in stead of in ‘Washington’, the small classroom in the school for adult education that teacher Gerda Lavrijsen uses. “Learning a language”, says Gerda, “is also daring to speak. So I taught them to speak loud. In the beginning, they were shy, but now they scream out loud.”

The first Dutch course organised by ROC Eindhoven has started. Location: a ‘dershanesi’ (school for adult education) on a busy square in the heart of Adana, a modern city of one million in the south of Turkey. Target pupils: Turks that want to live or study in the Netherlands or who have business relations with the Netherlands. For now it’s mainly love that motivates Turks to enrol in the crash course of 144 hours over three months. In the classroom on the fourth and highest level of this block of concrete with gate and porter, seven men and one woman attend class. The youngest is 17, the oldest 33. All but one are in love – Sedat is 17 years old and about to live with his dad in The Hague – and can hardly wait to join their loved ones in the Netherlands. “I am Hayrulla, I am 33 years old an I am engaged to my Dutch girlfriend.” Gerda writes on the whiteboard: ‘verliefd, verloofd, getrouwd’, meaning ‘in love, engaged, married’. And she prepares the group for some official Dutch paperwork: “Repeat after me: What is your marital status?” “What is your marital status?”, shouts the class.


Sedat Satilmis, who is going to live with his father in Holland, is one of the most serious students. During the interview in the teachers’ room of the school, it turns out he is indeed very motivated to learn Dutch, but hardly to leave for Holland. Sedats dream, he tells me, is to finish secondary school and then become a teacher or a doctor. You could say Holland has spoiled his dream. “Since last year, my father has had a resident’s permit in Holland and he wants me to come live with him. He thinks it will give me more opportunities.” If Sedat could decide for himself, he would stay put, in Tarsus, south of Turkey. With his mother, his brothers, his little sister and his grandmother. With his friends. Sedat: “I quit secondary school to prepare for my emigration to Holland. I had a year to go till the final exams and my diploma.”
His father had a white goods store in Turkey which earned the family a good living, but suddenly things changed and nine years ago the business went bankrupt. “Then he left for Holland. I’m not sure how everything happened, but only last year he got his resident’s permit. In the meantime he couldn’t come and visit us in Turkey, because he wouldn’t be able to get into Holland again. Now my father has a job. What sort of job? I don’t know.”
What he does know, is that his father worked very hard for his family. And thus Sedat works hard in class. “My father says he is giving me a good opportunity, so I have to take this chance. I would like to study in the Netherlands, but I don’t think that’s possible. Studying would have been possible here, in Turkey. In Holland I will work. What sort of work, I have no idea. I trust my father. He says I needn’t worry. That everything will be all right once I’m with him.”
Yes, sometimes he gets nervous when he is alone in bed at night and thinks of the future. “Sometimes I’m afraid I will feel alone there. My father lives in The Hague, I don’t know anybody there. Maybe I can get to know other Turks. But I’m not even sure if many Turkish people live in The Hague.”

Great marketing

The idea to organise Dutch language courses in Turkeyfirst surfaced last year, when ROCteachers were on a study trip to Turkey. ROC has a department dealing with problem youths, some of them of Turkish origin, and the teachers wanted to see a bit more of the background of these boys. Lots of Turkish young people go to a ‘dershanesi’ as well as or after their secondary school, mainly to get ready for the annual nationally organised entrance exams for the many universities in the country. After visiting such a dershanesi, one of the ROC-teachers said: maybe there is a need for Dutch lessons here, and maybe we can organise it.
Jos Roothans, director of (among others) the adult education section of ROC Eindhoven, also came on that trip. After making some calculations the decision was made rather quickly: with around 120 students a year, they would cover the costs. That had to be possible, even more so now that immigrants from outside the EU have to do a language and culture test over the phone before they can get a visa. Price per course: € 864,-. Pricy, certainly by Turkish standards. “But”, Jos Roothans says, “people go to Holland much better prepared. And most of the students want to go to Holland to start or reunite a family, that also helps.” Which means: with a Dutch income, such a fee is affordable.
Jos Roothans is straightforward. The project was approved because it’s great marketing. “We have to compete with other education centres”, he says. “This project generates publicity and we get closer ties to the Turkish community. It is good for our name and attracts students, in Turkey and in the Netherlands.”


Semiray Savma (20) is the only woman of the group. During the breaks she talks and makes jokes along with the guys, in class she is serious and quiet. Semiray is married to Ismet, a Turkish Dutch man from the town of Breda. Semiray and Ismet didn’t know that a Turkish bride can only come to Holland when she is 21 years old. So when they got engaged in 2004, they thought they would soon be together in Breda. In the meantime, the law changed and now she has to pass a test as well. And Ismet has to reach a minimum income, which he doesn’t earn yet. He works as a garbage truck driver and hopes to get a permanent contract soon. Semiray sighs: they will be married for four years by the time they will be together!
During her engagement celebration, Semiray realised more than before that her choice to marry Ismet would mean she would have to miss her family. Since she is married, she tries not to think of that too much. She only wants one thing: to be with her husband. The rest is less important. The rest, like: what is she going to do in Holland, how will she feel, so far away from home? Semiray: “At first, Ismet and I will live with his parents. I get along fine with my mother in law, so I’m not alone when Ismet is at work.” She would like to work too. In sales, preferably. She has experience as a cashier, she hopes that will help to find a job. But if she’s honest: “Sometimes I get confused when I think of the future. There’s no plan really, I’m not sure what my life will be like. So I focus on my first goal: being with Ismet.”
Learning Dutch isn’t easy. Semiray only attended primary school for five years and therefore doesn’t have much experience in studying. “Ismet says that for now only the language and culture test is important and that I can work more on my Dutch once I live in Holland. Maybe I can get a diploma, he said. But to me, working is more important. I want to make our future, hand in hand with him. We are young, we have to save some money.” And in about five years, what will her life be like then? Her eyes start to shine: “Bebek!” A baby.
She herself is the youngest of seven children. She has four sisters and two brothers. Semiray is the ‘little sister’, always protected. Recently Ismet visited her for three weeks. When they said goodbye at the airport, he said: now you say goodbye to me, next year you will say goodbye to your family. That made her very silent for a moment.

Eleven boxes

There are eleven paying students. Even though in class there are only seven – one student can come only once a week, the other three just never showed up for vague reasons. What’s also not there for vague reasons: study materials. It’s driving teacher Gerda nearly crazy: at Adana airport there are eleven boxes of books and computer materials, but the Turkish company that ROC works with, can’t get permission to take the boxes through customs. The forms are not in order. Or they are, but Turkish bureaucracy wants more without explaining exactly what. What the problem is, nobody knows. The fact is, Gerda has been working without materials for three weeks already.
What is available: eight laptops. Gerda would like to get maximum use out of them. Every student is supposed to have a personal memory stick, with exercises on it that match the chapters in the book, and which contains a test after every chapter. That way, every student can make progress at his or her own speed, and the progress is saved on the stick. The problem isthat thereare not enough memory sticks. Gerda packed five of them in her own luggage, but the rest are in one of the boxes at the airport. Now two students work with one stick, and now it doesn’t work as well anymore. Also at the airport: the chargers for the computers. Gerda has two, and with those she recharges the laptops after class. She tells her students, in Dutch, again and again to keep an eye on the little orange light on the computer. “When the orange light is blinking, the computer is about to stop. Then please warn me!”

Learning Dutch in twelve weeks, is that realistic? The ROC brochure is glowingly informative about the level that can be reached, but anyone who attends a few lessonscan hardly have much faith. Two students are certainly doing well: Hayri has already spent nine months in Holland, Okan practices a fair bit of Dutch with his loved one. But Hayrullah and Semiray are in trouble. They work together on the computer, on chapter one again: “Waar kom je vandaan?” (meaning: “Where are you from?”) “It’s of course a misunderstanding”, says Jos Roothans, “to think that everybody can reach his goals in twelve weeks. It all depends on the effort you make, your feeling for language, the hours you spend learning outside of class. But with the method we offer, you can reach a basic level of Dutch in twelve weeks, that’s for sure. That’s what we communicate, but we don’t guarantee it.”


Okan Can (25) is making good progress in Dutch. He is married to Dutch woman Desiree (24) and hopes to move to the small town of Sassenheim before Christmas. There, he wants to get a job as soon as possible and after a few years, he and Desiree want a family. How they will do all this, is not sure yet. “It’s not easy to make plans for a country I don’t know”, Okan says.
Love started four years ago. She was enjoying her holiday in Marmaris on the Turkish coast, he worked in a nightclub, as he did every season. They fell in love. She was studying at the time, so soon afterwards she could make some time to go back to Okan for three months. About a year later, they were married. Ever since, they have not been together more then a few weeks in a row. Desiree works as a nurse now and can’t get a lot of time off so easily. To be honest, Okan is a bit pissed off that he has to learn some Dutch before he can get permission to stay in Holland. “Desiree says it’s also good because when I come to Holland I know some Dutch already. Okay, that’s positive and practical, but we miss each other very much and I just want to be with her. That’s our dream: not to say bye-bye anymore.”
He knows a few other Turks that went to Europe, to Sweden or Germany. “They say your life radically changes when you move to another country. My parents are worried about me too because they don’t know what’s waiting for me in Holland.” But Okan doesn’texpect trouble. He has Desiree. “She will help me. Will our relationship change when we live together in Holland? No. We’ve been married for three years now, we know each other well. We love each other and will be okay.”
Also, integrating in Holland won’t be too difficult, he thinks. To find a job quickly and to make friends, that’s what he wants. “What sort of work is not too important. Maybe in a restaurant. There I will hopefully get to know new people too. And I expect to make some friends outside on the street. Turkish people are curious about foreigners and start to chat easily, I hope Dutch people do the same.”
Desiree and he dream a lot about the future, he says. On the phone, or when she comes to Turkey for a few weeks. First they want to work and travel for some years, then they want a child. “We already know the names. Ali for a boy, Esmeralda for a girl.”

Thank you

The learning method provides different levels, says teacher Gerda Lavrijsen: “With the memory stick, you can learn as much as you want. For example, you can choose to click on verbs in sentences, and then the participles for those verbs for the first, second and third person singular appear. If you want more, you click again and you get the participles for us, you plural and formal, and they. You can also stick to basic level, and then at that point you only pick up the grammatical form that is used in the sentence. For example: ‘Ik kom uit Turkije.’ (meaning: ‘I am from Turkey’)”
In the group sessions the difference in levels sometimes gives some trouble. The lessons are almost totally given in Dutch; Gerda speaks no Turkish and only for the most important things does she ask two students who speak English to translate the information she is giving. For the rest, the class is supposed to understand what Gerda says. Gerda is making gestures all the time and articulates carefully. Pointing at the wall and the lamp, she says in Dutch: “Semiray, turn the light on! Thank you!” Semiray jumps out of her chair, happy to understand what she is asked. Gerda points at the door and says in Dutch: “Hayri, get up and close the door! Thank you!” Hayri’s body language makes very clear that he has long passed this level. To keep him awake and motivated, Gerda sometimes confronts him with what he doesn’t know yet. In very fast Dutch she says for example: “Hayri, go to the kitchen and get eight glasses of tea, put three sugar lumps in every glass, stir the tea, put them on a serving plate, put some napkins on it too, come back quickly and then please perform a small dance.”

National anthem

At the end of the third week of the course, the new classroom is ready. ‘Washington’ was really too small. Now the former kitchen is painted light blue, there is an area for group lessons and an area with computer tables. The class room, Gerda insists, has to be opened officially. She and three Dutch-speaking guests (Gerda got to know a few in and around Adana and every Friday she invites two or three of them over so she can work in small groups) sing the Dutch national anthem Wilhelmus with very serious faces – as far as they know the words. The door to the classroom is open, but the entrance is covered with a big Dutch flag. Semiray is chosen to take the flag away, and she does it with a big smile. The sign that Gerda improvised is now visible: welcome to ‘Amsterdam’.

published in Volkskrant Magazine, April 2007

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