“I am not deaf anymore” – outcomes of migrant language courses

This study follows 170 migrant learners on Dutch language courses in Amsterdam. Results show a perceived increase in social inclusion.



Still circa 21% of the Dutch population are foreigners living since several years in the Netherlands (CBS, 2013). In order to achieve sustainable integration into the Dutch culture internalisation of the Dutch language is necessary. Therefore most of the communities in the Netherlands are responsible for providing suitable language courses for these foreigners or, better said, migrants.

Since five years Dutch communities can decide which provider of adult education offers the most suitable language courses for adult migrants in learning their “second language” (namely Dutch). After five years, the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, now wants to evaluate the outcome of these courses as well as the experienced (dis)satisfaction among the migrant learners.

In co-operation with the author of this article, Professor Dr. Maurice de Greef, the responsible civil servants and “case managers” of Amsterdam conducted a qualitative study concerning the achieved results of the provided language courses among 170 migrants living in Amsterdam.

The concept of social inclusion

Increase of “social inclusion” as a goal of language courses refers to a multidimensional concept. According to the World Bank definition (2007) social inclusion includes four kinds of capital, namely human, financial, physical and social capital.

On the contrary social exclusion refers to a lack of (these kind of) resources and quality of life (Levitas et al., 2007). Besides this Scharf, Phillipson and Smith (2005) also describe social exclusion as a lack, but more precisely as a lack of social relations, civic activities, material resources, basic services and neighborhood exclusion.

According to Ogg (2005), the indicators of social exclusion based on the European Social Survey refer to the self-rated physical health and mental health, taking part in social activities, regularity of meeting with friends and relatives, self-rated income and the quality of the local area. Thus social inclusion can be seen as a multidimensional process of citizens trying to take part in society and its activities, to cope and to control with resources and services, to feel included in the (local) area and to connect to social relations. 

Research questions

The city council of Amsterdam would like to provide insights in the (dis)satisfaction of the courses in order to improve the quality of the language courses. Of course, the responsible department of Amsterdam would like to have satisfied learners, but on the other hand, they would like to take every chance to optimise the quality of the language courses for new migrant learners aiming at better integration in daily society.

Therefore, this study focuses on two specific goals of the language courses, namely increase of language skills and social inclusion. Besides improvement of language skills, the language courses focus on increase of social inclusion. To reiterate once more, I define social inclusion as a multidimensional process, in which citizens try to cope with resources and facilities, use and realise (new) relationships, feel themselves included in (local) society and take part in activities in this society (Van Houten, 2008; Ogg, 2005; Levitas et al., 2007; The World Bank, 2007).

According to De Greef, Verté and Segers (2012) social inclusion covers four processes, namely activation (learning to know), internalisation (learning to be), participation (learning to do) and connection (learning to live together). In order to obtain clear insights into the specific outcome of language courses and the experienced (dis)satisfaction among migrants, three research questions are defined:

1. Which specific outcome referring to the concept of social inclusion and language skills has been experienced among migrant learners after joining language courses?
2. Which influentials have been experienced as important factors in increasing social inclusion and language skills among migrant learners?
3. Which element of the language courses seems to be satisfying or dissatisfying among migrant learners?

Migrants as a “lead actor”

While the overall goal of these courses is to increase social inclusion and language skills, the learning environment of these courses differ. On one hand migrant learners would like to achieve just a first step of integration in Dutch society, but on the other hand some migrant learners would like to get an official diploma after passing an official “state exam”.

Besides this, the learning contents can differ slightly given the fact that these courses will be provided by different learning centres. In this study the sample of migrant learners joining these diverse language courses shows a majority of female learners (61%) and adult learners from 26 until 65 years old (90%). Furthermore, circa 50% has a paid job, 35% of the learners is low skilled and circa 50% joined a course on a voluntary base.

Obtaining results by using a phenomenographic approach

In order to obtain specific experienced outcome referring to the concept of social inclusion and language skills, a phenomenographic research method is used. By using semi-structured interviews 170 migrant learners were invited to talk about their experiences concerning the achieved outcome after joining a language course by using comparable “open questions” in order to analyse the perceptions of the learners themselves (Marton et al., 1997). These interviews have been conducted and transcribed by 20 researchers.

After transcription of each interview each researcher analysed his or her own interviews in order to define categories of the different perceived answers in terms of perceived increase of social inclusion, increase of different kinds of language skills, different influentials and (dis)satisfying factors of the learning environment.

In order to overcome bias of the interpretations of the interviewee’s experiences, preconceptions of the researchers were bracketed by investigator triangulation and peer review (Eisner, 1998). Finally the results should be interpreted with caution due to the fact that not all researchers asked the specific same questions, because of the used phenomenographic approach, which offers possible interpretation and changes of some questions during the interviews.

Experienced outcome referring to social inclusion and language skills

First, it became clear that more than 80% of the migrant learners experienced an increase on activation or better said was able to manage “practical things” in their house like handling own post, managing their finances or writing a small note.

For example a learner explained:

“First when my son was born, I could not phone the doctor. I had to do it together, for example, with my husband when he was at home. (…) Now I can visit the doctor, my children’s school (because of the tests) by my own. I can talk with the neighbours. Now it is better. First it was difficult for me.” (Learner 1302 DL). 

Second, circa 50% experienced an increase in internalisation for example by experiencing more assertiveness in daily life by making one’s own choices. Learners got the feeling of belonging to a group, for example:

“A few years ago I was totally deaf, but now while talking I understood more and more. I’m integrated … now I am not deaf anymore.” (Learner 1305 DM).

Third, almost 50% of the learners experienced an increase in participation (like doing sports and being active in nature) or an active participation in the labour market like this learner, who said:

“I am applying for a job in Dutch now. Thus that is the result of the course, yes.”(Learner 2103 AN).

Finally 40% of the learners experienced an increase in connection (for example in feeling less lonely) for example:

“Because we talked about food, we talked about culture, about everything and about God and how do you say that, religion. And it is also great fun to get to know other people. I really liked that too.”(Learner 1116 CN).

Thus, most of the migrant learners felt to be more socially included in their daily environment. Besides this almost 17% of the learners experienced that they got more chances on the labour market. This rate of increase seems to be perceived by fewer learners due to the fact that entrance into the labour market can be defined as a “side effect” instead of a specific core goal of the organised language courses. Finally, referring to language skills almost 70% experienced to be a better speaker in Dutch. An example is a learner who experienced  that she “was the first who could speak Dutch pretty well” and seemed to be “an example for everyone.” (Learner 1305 DM) next to circa 35% who experienced to have better reading skills and circa 22% experiencing better writing skills.

Satisfaction and influence of elements of the learning environment

According to the majority of the migrant learners (59.9%) their direct surroundings (in combination with the transfer possibilities) is the most important element of the learning environment on the perceived outcome.

A learner confirmed this by saying:

“I always got compliments from my teachers, my neighbours and people in my direct surroundings, who told me that I am doing it well in such a short time and I do not need to worry, because it would be all right.  ”(Learner 1700 AM). 

More precisely these migrant learners perceived for example support of family and relatives in using the learned knowledge, skills and attitude in daily life as valuable.

Secondly the teacher seems to be perceived as supportive for circa 40% of the migrant learners by for example in giving compliments after using the learned language in a proper way.

One learner told that

“a good thing of the teachers was that they were very friendly, they understood the situation of the student, eh, learners. And they could easily find what should be good very you. For you as a person. (…)” (Learner 1212 BM).

Besides this circa 30% of the migrant learners perceived the learning contents and –activities and an intrinsic motivation to learn as one of the most important influentials on their achieved results during and after the course.

Likewise this learner, who says:

“You are motivated or you have ambition, which works out to be the best of course.”(Learner 1700 AM).

The aforementioned elements of the learning environment seem to be important in achieving the possible increase in social inclusion and in getting better language skills. Most of the migrant learners are also satisfied with the course (and its contents) itself (71.5%) and the support of the teacher (73.8%).

Besides this more than 50% have been satisfied with their transfer possibilities, in other words the possibilities to apply the learned knowledge, skills and new attitude, next to less than 50% who have been satisfied with the offered facilities (like needed time and time schedule of the course) and the contribution of the responsible department of the community (for example offered services of the “case manager”).

Likewise a learner experienced that her or his “contact person was a friendly woman. Very clearly, yes” (Learner 1501 AK).

Accordingly, some migrant learners especially experienced barriers in learning by difficult combinations of family life or work or offered facilities (circa 20% until 24%).

For example a learner explained:

“It is very difficult, yes. I have a fulltime job of five days a week and two times a week a three hours course and homework. That is a lot.” (Learner 1119 CM). 

Need for improvement in transfer possibilities

As a result of this study we can conclude that most of the migrant learners experience an increase of social inclusion especially in terms of activation (or better said in being able to manage “practical things” in and around house, like for example doing one’s own finances or using a PC at home). Besides this 50% experienced an increase in internalisation (in for example terms of feeling more secure and safe) and almost 50% experienced an increase in participation or got more or better relationships (connection). Besides this the majority of the migrant learners speak better Dutch and still one third can read better Dutch and almost 25% can write more properly in Dutch.

Due to the presence of transfer possibilities and a supportive environment most of the learners experienced this increase. So besides the supportive attitude of the teacher, transfer possibilities can be seen as one of the most important influentials of the learning environment on the achieved results after joining a language course. On the contrary the lack of good transfer possibilities and good facilities seems to be a barrier in achieving results for almost 25% of the learners.

Therefore if the city council and the civil servants of Amsterdam would like to improve the quality of adult education for migrants and to increase the positive results on social inclusion and language skills after learning, better transfer possibilities should be realised next to better facilitation of “organisational matters”. More precisely migrant learners should have to have the possibility to combine learning with a family life and work and things like time schedules of courses, location of lessons and the level of other group members should be tuned to the needs and the daily life circumstances of the migrant learners.

Still adult learning for migrants can be seen as a surplus value in order to increase integration in contemporary society. According to the results most of the migrants can manage things in daily life better, for example using reading skills by watching TV. Besides this circa half of the learners feel more secure, take part in other activities in society and enjoy more or better relationships with others.

Transfer possibilities (possibility to use skills learned) seem to be crucial for most of the migrant learners for reaching their learning success. Secondly, due to teacher support and the quality of the learning contents and activities still a significant share of the migrant learners achieve these results. Based on these results one can argue that after joining language courses most of the migrant learners in Amsterdam experience a better place in daily society caused by the course itself.

This article was produced in cooperation with InfoNet adult education network.


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Eisner, E. W. (1998). The enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill / Prentice-Hall.

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Levitas, R., Pantazis, C., Fahmy, E., Gordon, D., Lloyd, E. & Patsios, D. (2007). The Multidimensional analysis of social exclusion. London: Department for Communities and Local Government.

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