Foto: David Meulenbeld

‘Newcomers need contact with Dutch people’

Marjolein de Jong5 April 2023

VU alumnus, Sylvia de Groot-Heupner, is director of ‘Het Begint bij Taal’ (‘It starts with language’). The aim of Kletsmaatjes (Chat Buddies), the foundation’s latest initiative, is to try to match newcomers with volunteers so that they can learn Dutch. „Some of the participants had only ever had contact with institutions, not with Dutch people in general."

Tell us, what is Chat Buddies exactly? 

„The intention of Chat Buddies is to help newcomers to the Netherlands to practise their Dutch, while giving them the opportunity to meet people. If you ask newcomers what they’d like, then they’ll always tell you: more contact with Dutch people. Chat Buddies wasn’t set up to give people language lessons. Instead it offers them an opportunity to chat with a volunteer, often online, so it’s not too challenging."

Chatting: is that the best way to learn a language?

„While we know that proper lessons are necessary to learn a language, you also need to actually speak it. You don’t learn just a new language from books or during lessons; you only really get to learn it if you speak it regularly. Because language is an important part of a community, you need other people in order to really understand it. A good example is the way people address each other, and manners in the workplace. Dutch universities are generally quite informal in this respect. We also believe it’s important to ask questions if you don’t understand something. To understand these kinds of nuances, you need other people."

How did you come up with the idea for Chat Buddies? 

„Libraries and language centres closed their doors during the coronavirus pandemic, so speaking Dutch on the street or catching up with colleagues was out of the question for newcomers. That’s when your language skills fade pretty quickly. We also noticed that there were plenty of people who were keen to get involved as volunteers, because they had lost their job or had nothing to do socially. So what we did was hook people up with each other online, all over the Netherlands."

„Coronavirus lockdowns might be behind us, but Chat Buddies is more popular than ever. Volunteers who have busy jobs or children don’t actually have time to meet physically, so this is ideal for them. We now have 1,200 active volunteers, but we’re urgently looking for more because there are many newcomers on a waiting list."

Can anyone join? 

„Our only condition is that newcomers mustn’t already have a lot of Dutch contacts with whom they can practise the language. Some participants have only just arrived in the Netherlands and may still be in asylum centres. These people often only ever have contact with institutions or people who work for an institution, and not with Dutch people who they’d actually like to talk to in order to feel more at home."


„Other participants have been here longer, they’ve got a job and an apartment, and they already have a few contacts. Even then, language is very important if you want to truly integrate. In practice, we see that most newcomers come from Ukraine, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey."

How have people responded? 

„What I think is special is that people end up staying in touch for the long term. So it’s about more than just the language alone. I’ve heard that people visit each other on birthdays, babysit each other’s children or stay at each other’s homes."

„And it’s not only positive for newcomers. The programme is also intended to give people who are lonely, especially those with physical disabilities, the opportunity to do something meaningful and socialise more."

You studied cultural anthropology at VU Amsterdam, and then teaching Dutch as a second language. That sounds like the perfect background for your current job. 

„Yes, very much so. When I was studying social and cultural anthropology, I focused on migration and its effects on a society. Of course, that’s easy to observe in the Netherlands and among those who are busy learning a second language. I researched this in Panama, which meant I had to learn Spanish while integrating into a different culture."

„The great thing about cultural anthropology and learning a new language is that you can compare your own beliefs and habits with those of another culture. You start to explore things like what we can learn from one another. Hopefully, the Chat Buddies can enrich each other’s lives."

Finally, research shows that people are less willing to take on voluntary work. What would you like to say to reverse this trend?

„People assume all kinds of things. That voluntary work is dull, or for when you’re old and have time on your hands, or that it takes up a lot of your time. But it actually comes in many forms: online or in person, as a one-off exercise or for a longer period of time with one person. And it might sound like a cliché, but voluntary work is good for your soul and you learn a lot from it."

Interested? You can sign up as a Chat Buddy via this page