Learn Dutch or leave the country: the role of language in Dutch integration policies

11 minutes to read
Han Dou

Across Europe, there is an ongoing trend for individual nation states to use their national language to determine what it means to be integrated into the society. A close look at relevant policies can shed light on what a 'language threshold' really means.

To be "One of Us"

According to an attitudes survey done by Pew Research Center in 2016, 33% of Europeans believe that it is very important for a person to be born in their country in order to be considered a true member of that nationality. The Netherlands topped the list among the ten European countries surveyed, with 84% of people saying it is very important to speak Dutch to be truly considered truly “Nederlander” (Dutch citizen).

Public opinions may be partly policy-shaping and partly shaped by policy (Saglie, 1996), and therefore, it is interesting to look at the Dutch Civic Integration policies, in order to make sense of the mentality of Dutch politicians on this subject. News reports have shown that over the recent years, the Dutch government has made the language test in civic integration exams harder to pass for immigrants. In 2016, half of the people who were required to pass the test had not done so. Out of this group, 40 percent took the exam but failed, and may be subject to deportation. In the mean time, right wing politicians, such as Geert Wilders, applaud  strict language tests, saying that such integration tests will help keep foreigners out of the country. 

It is with this background in mind that I will discuss the Dutch situation regarding language policies in the integration testing system for migrants. I seek to approach this question from three angles. First, I will look at the background of the civic integration testing regime from a European perspective. Then I will give a detailed analysis of such a policy, using Cooper’s (1989) language policy analytic framework, which approaches the policy from the following perspectives: what actors attempt to influence, e.g. what behaviors of which people; for what ends, by which means and with what kind of effects? In the section that follows, I will examine the ideology behind such policies by applying critical language policy theories. Furthermore, I aim at providing a critical review regarding this particular language policy case and will formulate a language policy advice.


Public policies on integration in Europe

Public policies on immigration can be grouped in the following two categories: state immigration policies, which deal with decisions about the number, type and national origin of immigrants who are accepted into the country; and state integration policies which consist of approaches and measures adopted by state agencies to help immigrants integrate within the host society (Bourhis, 1997). This study focuses more on the civic integration (inburgering) of newly arrived immigrants in the Netherlands than on the admission (toelating) part.

Many have questioned the nation state ideology behind such strict language test policies. 

Due to new migratory patterns in the 1990s, nation states in western Europe have raised concerns regarding ways in which they could possibly enforce measures to restrict access to their territory, and preserve the national order (Milani, 2007). In this process, the national language of the host country has proven to be a critical element in European integration policies, according to various surveys, along with knowledge of cultural norms of the host society (Bauman and Briggs, 2003). 

Beginning in the mid-1990s, there has been a transformation of immigrant integration policies in Western Europe, away from distinct “national models” and toward convergent policies of “civic integration” for newcomers, and “anti-discrimination” for settled immigrants and their descendants (Joppke, 2007).

The Netherlands as the pioneer in integration policies

In the late 1990s, the Netherlands put forward a new policy of integration, which stated that: “basic knowledge of the host society’s language, history, and institutions is indispensable to integration”. This notion has since then been adopted by other European states (Joppke, 2007).

However, these integration policies have sincebeen regarded a failure. In 1998, the Newcomer Integration Law (Wet Inburgering Nieuwkomers, henceforth referred to as WIN) came into effect, which obliges most non-EU newcomers to participate in a 12-month integration course, which consists of 600 hours of Dutch language instruction, civic education, and preparation for the labor market.

Since 2007, newcomers have to enroll in civic and language courses immediately after entry in the Netherlands (and lately even before entry), and non-compliance tends to be sanctioned in terms of financial penalties or denial of permanent legal residence permits (Joppke, 2007).  

A revised civic integration law, which was approved by the Dutch Parliament in July 2006, was much stricter than the previous ones. The Netherlands used to provide migrants with language courses, which were also supplemented by “knowledge of society” courses, and migrants are often expected to pass a test in order to confirm the effectiveness of their learning. The immigrants pay for the integration course themselves. 

Since January 2007, the Civic Integration Act requires most non-Dutch and non-EU nationals living in the Netherlands to speak Dutch and have some general knowledge of the country. This is referred to as Civic Integration. You will need to have a sufficient command of the Dutch language (level CEF A2) and basic knowledge of Dutch society in order to meet the integration requirements.

As of 2010, all applicants for a Dutch permanent residence permit are required to take the civic integration exam, including those who are exempt from the civic integration obligation on the basis of the Immigration Act. Coercive state involvement has massively increased. 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).

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. Until now, an average of five percent failed the exam. The requirements have also been stepped up by adding a literacy and reading comprehension test.

Actors, target group and more

In this section, I will analyse  the policy text “Civic Integration in the Netherlands”, taken from the official Dutch government website. It is the latest version of the Civic Integration Examination in the Netherlands, which stems from the 2007 Civic Integration Law (WI), which obliges new immigrants to pass the Dutch civic integration exam. In my analysis, I will apply the analytic framework for language policy analysis, proposed by Cooper (1989), to the policy text. This will include analysing “what actors attempt to influence what behaviors of which people, for what ends, by what means with what effects”. In addition, I will also apply the Language Policy Cube model to facilitate the analysis (Kroon, 2017).

The main policy actor, i.e. the policy maker of “Civic Integration in the Netherlands”, is the Ministry for Social Affairs and Employment. The policy implementer is the integration service center (servicecentrum inburgering) of the Dutch Ministry of Education (DUO, which is short for Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs)). DUO implements the law on behalf of the Ministry for Social Affairs and Employment. 

Strict language policies often feed prejudice and anti-immigration sentiments

The policy regulates that the language part of the civic integration exam consists of four parts: reading, listening, writing and speaking. The desired level of adoption is proficiency in Dutch, which is measured in terms of CEFR levels. In addition to these language exams, applicants also have to pass the exams: "Knowledge of Dutch Society" and "Orientation to the Dutch Labour Market".  Passing these exams is obligatory for those immigrants from outside the European Economic Area applying for permanent residence, and thereby for the Dutch nationality. Moreover, failure to pass the exam may lead to fines and the loss of the migrant’s residence permit.

The  target group are individual immigrants who seek to integrate into the Dutch society. However, it is important to point out that the large majority of newcomers to the Netherlands are asylum seekers and family migrants, many of whom are low- or unskilled, have very little if any schooling and no host-society language competence.

The direct aim of the language policy is to “help immigrants integrate better into the society so that they can deliver a positive contribution to social cohesion in mainstream society”. Studies have shown that certain language policies are designed to self-regulate individuals, so they would follow the norms in Dutch society and thus contribute to society's functioning. In this case, policy makers use language tests to test immigrants’ reading, listening, writing and speaking abilities (Inburgeringsexamen). In order to do so, immigrants have to take lessons themselves in order to learn, which can be seen as a form of self-regulating.

The effects of this policy will be discussed in the conclusion.

Language ideologies

According to Bourhis’ four models of state language policy and acculturation, the civic integration model is the result of an acculturation orientation or ideology of the country (Bourhis, 1997). In critical language policy theories, the term “ideology” refers to unconscious beliefs and assumptions that are naturalized and thus contribute to hegemony (Tollefson, 2006). In Bourdieu’s (1990) terms, the cultural and linguistic capital of dominant and non-dominant groups is made unequal by the structure of social institutions. Over the years, the ideology behind such policy has shifted towards the assimilation model.

When WIN was introduced in the Netherlands in 1998, it was a state-paid service with incontrovertible positive intentions, to help migrants get a job work, help them learn Dutch, and thus make them functioning members of Dutch Society. However, the rhetoric of ‘respect for diversity’, which still dominated in the original version of civic integration, was evidently replaced by wanting to instill ‘dominant Dutch ‘values and norms’ (Entzinger, 2004:9). 

Even though the Dutch language has not been shown to be a core value of  Dutch culture (Smolicz & Secombe, 1985:11-85), the society values Dutch language competence as an essential element of good integration. According to Lambert and Shohamy’s language policy models, based on people’s attitudes towards national languages, the Netherlands belong to a monolingual model (Lambert & Shohamy, 2000). Language test results not only determine who is included and who is excluded from being given the chance to become a new citizen, but also help to shape the terms in which their contribution to “mainstream Dutch society” is understood (Spotti, 2011).

Many have questioned the nation state ideology behind such strict language test policies. Pushing the existence of a national language is the primary foundation upon which nationalist ideology is constructed. Designing such language policy can be seen as a way to exert control over one’s identity and conduct in society (Joseph, 2004).

Moreover, there is some degree of economic instrumentalism behind such policies, in the sense that migrants are constructed as economic actors, whose chances for social upscaling are based on the amount and level of certifications one can afford to purchase. Language becomes something that can be not only measured, but also marketed, sold and bought (Spotti, 2011).

In addition to Cooper’s framework, we can also analyse the policy text by applying the Language Policy cube model (Kroon, 2017). The policy deals with the Dutch Language in the space of the Netherlands. As for the fields of language policy, it falls into the category of acquisition planning which aims at including individuals in the society by language lessons. However, the policy uses compulsory measures, such as deportation to reach its goals. Scholars have argued that it is illiberal means put to the service of liberal goals (Cooper, 1989), which will be elaborated on in the discussion.

Conclusion and discussion

This policy is no doubt a necessary one. It serves a primary purpose, to fight the disadvantaged situation of newcomers, which helps with making immigrants more “vocal and assertive”. Competence in Dutch plays a role in facilitating that immigrants acquire essential social skills. This also has psychological effects on immigrants. Those who are competent in the Dutch language can enjoy the benefits of participating in the host societies, to the extent they desire. Moreover, becoming competent in Dutch can reduce the stress associated with acculturation and thus achieve participation of immigrants in the larger society (Berry, 1988).

However, some scholars question the fact that immigrants alone carry all the financial burdens of integration (Cluskey, 2015). The opening of the ICT commercial market, for example, has led to the development of a vigorous private online sector in Dutch language courses. Most of them are expensive for students, and are more favorable to those newly arrived migrants with financial resources and who can pay for extra tuition (Spotti, 2011). As a result, the policy has made language a commodity. The withdrawal of state support has put the financial burdens on migrants, as one may find it hard to afford the integration course and the exam.

On the other hand, the Dutch government has massively increased coercive state involvement in issuing penalties and deportation measures. Strict language policies often feed prejudice and anti-immigration sentiments, and further turn “what began as an immigrant integration policy into its opposite, a no-immigration policy” (Joppke, 2007). Furthermore, it could feed into anti-immigration sentiments and intolerance towards foreigners. This can 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). 

The problem with these types of policy lies in inequality, according to critical language policy theories. Language policy in general refers to deliberate efforts to influence the behaviour of others, with respect to the acquisition, structure, or functional allocation of their language codes (Cooper, 1989, p 45). Social inclusion does not seek the same outcomes for citizens. It concentrates its attention on the absolute disadvantage of particular groups in society’ (ibid.: 22).

A balance should be achieved between the purpose of the policy and coercive measures, to reduce the tension that comes with such civic integration policies. We should not forget that integration is a lifelong process; so are language and culture learning. Policy makers should take into account that every migrant comes from a different social background, when deciding which should be the appropriate approach for integration in terms of individual language competence.


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