Learn Dutch or Leave the Country?

3 minutes to read
Han Dou

Across Europe, there is an ongoing trend to use the national language as the threshold to define what it means to be “one of us”. Relevant language policies in integration tests are far from embracing multiculturalism, but feed intolerance and prejudice.

A report by Time magazine showed that the Dutch government has made the language test in civic integration exams harder to pass for immigrants. Those who fail the exam may be subject to deportation. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party voiced satisfaction at the strict language test, saying it will help keep foreigners out of the country.

The fact that Wilders applauds these measures reveals that what began as an immigrant integration policy has turned into its opposite, a no-immigration policy. 

Acquisition of competence in the language of the host country has become a gatekeeper. It is a prerequisite not only for the integration of migrants, but also for the acceptance of their presence. This can be reflected in Dutch immigration legislation, which is perhaps one of the strictest in Europe. It requires immigrants to pass a difficult test demonstrating Dutch language fluency and cultural knowledge if they wish to secure an entry visa, permanent residence or citizenship. The Dutch integration exam states that from now on immigrants will have to get 26 instead of 16 out of 80 points for their spoken Dutch test. Fewer applicants are expected to pass the test as a result.

As is demonstrated by surveys carried out by the Council of Europe, an increasing number of its member states are using the national language as the prerequisite for access to the country (COE, 2014). Majorities in all of the 10 European nations surveyed say it is very important to be able to converse in the local tongue, ranging from 84% of the Dutch population to 59% of Italians. In the meantime, there are still many questions left to be answered: what does it mean to truly know a language and what is true integration? If one scores well on a language test, does it mean that this person is psychologically integrated into the society?

All this does not mean that we need to question the necessity of language competence for an immigrant to integrate into the host society, but it is necessary to ponder upon the mindset behind such policy making and its consequences. On the one hand, the Dutch government put the burden on immigrants to be responsible for their own integration. On the other hand, this policy has massively increased coercive state involvement in issuing penalties and deportation measures. If immigrants do not pass the civic integration exam within three years upon the entry date of their legal residence, they receive a penalty (Joppke, 2007).

This intriguing contradiction has revealed that the policy mentioned is more for the benefit of the state than for the benefit of its target group: immigrants. A number of prominent linguistic historians and political scientists have argued that the primary foundation upon which nationalist ideology is constructed is pushing the existence of a national language. Relevant measures can be seen as a way to control one’s identity and conduct in society (Joseph, 2004).

Such policy feeds into prejudice and anti-immigration sentiments, and further turns “what began as an immigrant integration policy into its opposite, a no-immigration policy” (Joppke, 2007). 

It can also be seen as a shift from a tolerant attitude of the public on immigration and cultural diversity to a more radical and nationalistic view, which characterizes the so-called ‘post-multiculturalism’ era (Gozdecka, 2014). Policy makers need to come up with a better policy that is a better fit for a tolerant and democratic society.


Van Avermaet, P., Extramiana, C. & Pulinx, R., (2013). Report on a survey. Language requirements for adult migrants in Council of Europe member states

Gozdecka, D. A., Ercan, S. A., & Kmak, M. (2014). From multiculturalism to post-multiculturalism. Journal of Sociology, 50(1), 51-64. doi: 10.1177/1440783314522191

Joseph, J. (2003). Language and identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Limited.

Joppke, C. (2007). Transformation of Immigrant Integration: Civic Integration and Antidiscrimination in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. World Politics, 59(2), 243–273. doi:10.1353/wp.2007.0022

Spotti, M., & Kurvers, J. J. H. (2015). ICT-based applications for civic integration in The Netherlands: Policy drivers and limits in practice. In J. Simpson, & A. Whiteside (Eds.), Adult Language Education and Migration : Challenging Agendas in Policy and Practice (pp. 187-199). [14] Abingdon: Routledge.