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Integration of language and workplace enhances language skills

Investing in newcomers to the labor market ensures the sustainable employability of this target group.

Source: TvOO: Magazine for Development in Organizations - September no. 3 2020

Nina Meilof & Nicole Mol

Investing in newcomers to the labor market ensures the sustainable employability of this target group. At the same time, the company makes an important contribution in the social field and ensures a stable workforce. Although this investment requires effort and cooperation with various parties, it ultimately yields profit for both the company and the newcomer in the form of a sustainable employment relationship.

For newcomers, learning the Dutch language is important for everyday life and work. Yet newcomers often have to take many steps after their language course before they feel at home in the work, because they lack the right language. That is why there is a need for language lessons that connect seamlessly with the daily work situation, especially for the lower educated. When the new Civic Integration Act takes effect next year, newcomers will be strongly encouraged to start working or do an internship as soon as possible.

How do we help newcomers with language training to find and keep a job? We describe a renewed approach to learning the Dutch language in the cleaning industry, an industry in which many newcomers find work. The core of this renewed approach is maximum integration of language lessons with day-to-day activities and work-oriented language competences. An approach that provides even more returns with the support of employers and colleagues in the workplace.

Long lessons, too little link with practice

Under the current regulation, newcomers must take a language exam within three years. These language lessons are usually linked to everyday matters, such as shopping or making an appointment with the doctor. However, experience has shown that not all newcomers will actually speak the Dutch language. After class, they study at home and do their shopping in the supermarket, completely contactless, so they don't have to say anything. As a result, many experience a barrier to speaking Dutch. When the exams are passed and a job is searched for, a disappointment often follows: employers find them difficult to understand and advise to first learn the language better. Only ten percent of newcomers found work after two years, rising to 49 percent after four years (SER, 2020).

Another problem is that most language lessons do not adequately prepare newcomers for specific parts of the job. For example, a cleaner requires professional knowledge, such as the meaning of pictograms on cleaning products. Usually his vocabulary is not large enough to ask questions about the alarm or the use of a machine, for example. One consequence may be that he prefers to leave these tasks to a colleague, so that he does not function optimally. And for a good working relationship it is of course also necessary to be able to make contact with colleagues, office employees and manager. People often do not dare to do this due to too little speaking experience. It is therefore important to help newcomers in the workplace better on their way, but how?

Language in the workplace

In the cleaning sector, 22 percent of employees have a migration background (Kalkhoven, 2019). Cleaning is at the top of the top ten professions where low literacy is common: no less than 40 percent of cleaners are low literate (Stichting Lees & Writing, 2019). Cleaning is a sector with a long tradition of language lessons. Recently the workbook Language in the Cleaning revised and adapted to the changes in the cleaning industry. On the one hand, we wanted to make the material more in line with the daily activities and the desired behavior of the cleaner, so that the usefulness is clearer for everyone. The cleaning industry has changed in recent years (Visscher and Tops, 2015). For example, cleaning is increasingly being moved from evening to daytime.

This makes the cleaner visible and part of the office routine. As a result, the employee's conversation skills have become more important. That therefore puts more pressure on the use of the Dutch language. On the other hand, the workbook has become even more concrete. The learning objectives are contained in concrete work competences in which work-oriented language skills are central. Think of things like: 'I can say what the materials and equipment are called' and 'I can offer someone help'. Finally, more attention is paid to putting the work competencies into practice and the reflection on them. To this end, competencies are translated into practical assignments that are as concrete as possible. The basic principle is that people follow a practice-oriented language course. This enables them to work and communicate competently, so that they can function autonomously and maintain better contact with others. These things are essential for people to stay motivated to learn (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Transfer of what has been learned

For the design of this new workbook we went back to the core of a learning process, namely transfer. Every learning process - and therefore also learning the Dutch language - is only effective if the knowledge and skills learned are applied in the work situation (Bergenhenegouwen & De Mooij, 2011). Three categories play a role in the transfer process:

  1. personal characteristics, such as intelligence, competence and motivation;
  2. design of the learning trajectory, such as agreement of learning and work situation, connection with target group, didactic principles, assignments, exercises and feedback;
  3. characteristics of the work situation, such as application, support and guidance in the workplace by manager and / or colleagues.

Motivation of participants is of great importance because people with a low level of education are more often than others demotivated while following a course (SER, 2019). Especially people who would like to get started quickly, have few school skills or have hardly learned to read and write, experience too little success. There are many theories about motivation, but the self-determination theory of Deci & Ryan (2000) is relevant for education and the workplace. They argue that there are three things that increase motivation:

  • Competence: newcomers feel competent if they understand and can understand the Dutch language.
  • Autonomy: they will experience autonomy if they see the relationship between the learning path and work and if they can independently perform their tasks.
  • Connectedness: by performing speaking assignments in class and at work, contact with colleagues is created.

These factors are the compass for the developer.

In order to better align the learning process with the work situation, there was intensive cooperation between employers and language specialists.

They carefully examined which actions and circumstances a cleaner had to deal with in 2020 and which work-oriented language skills belong to them. The language course for cleaning ultimately includes:

  • basic vocabulary for cleaning;
  • communicate with colleagues and understand instructions;
  • safe and healthy cleaning;
  • 'hospitable'.

During the lessons, the vocabulary is first expanded in all kinds of ways, for example linked to pictures, different situations and speech acts (request, explanation, opinion: these are speech acts). In the lessons dialogues are then listened to, reenacted and varied in a safe environment. There is little emphasis on grammatical rules. Particularly in the case of low-educated newcomers, it is wise to only offer a grammatical structure if it is relevant and typical for a language act (Bossers, Kuiken & Vermeer, 2015). After the lesson, the participants get to work with their new skill in practice.

Figure 1. Example of learning practical matters (From: Taal in de Schoonmaak)

Direct application in practice is essential for the transfer of learning. It is precisely this transfer that is stimulated in the new approach: participants experience whether a work competence, translated into a short practical assignment, actually succeeds. Where possible, dialogues with colleagues or office employees are practiced in practice. Participants report this by making a video or audio recording or by writing messages to colleagues. Participants store these 'proofs' in a digital portfolio, thus compiling a tangible overview of their own development. In the next lesson, recordings of exercises are provided with feedback, personally and sometimes for the whole group. After reflection, the participant and teacher decide together whether more practice is desired or whether sufficient success has been achieved. In this way, the participant explicitly formulates his / her progress, which strengthens the autonomy.

First results

From the evaluation of the first lesson groups that with the renewed textbook Language in the cleaning have worked, it appears that newcomers initially find the practical assignments exciting, but that they persist. So the first success is that they get over their fear of public speaking. Teachers are enthusiastic. They notice during the lessons and see in the digital portfolios that participants really make an effort to put what they have learned into practice. As a result, lessons are learned much better. Gradually the participants are becoming increasingly successful. The big advantage of this method is the direct transfer: the newcomers acquire work-oriented language skills. Moreover, they receive appreciation for this: from the teacher, but also from colleagues. In addition, more contact with employer and colleagues is created. This promotes connection. Damen (2013) states that success makes participants want to continue learning even more often. This gives the participant opportunities for growth and it provides the company with a flexible employee who can learn developments in the work area more easily. Employers are also enthusiastic. They have been seeing for some time that language lessons help employees work more safely and make fewer mistakes (Visscher & Tops, 2015). They also see that newcomers fulfill their role as hostess / host better and function more independently. This approach is also positive for the corporate culture. We notice that colleagues who see a newcomer practice greatly appreciate this commitment. Colleagues are inspired to help. Another advantage is that teams will function more closely because more respect and connection is created. This makes people feel more comfortable at work and also reduces absenteeism.

Figure 2. Reflections on competencies (From: Taal in de Schoonmaak)

Attention from managers and employers

In addition to successes, there are also issues that require extra attention. For example, there are many colleagues in the cleaning industry who do not speak the Dutch language themselves well. In addition, cleaners often work alone. It remains a challenge to identify sufficient situations in which to practice brief excerpts. This requires close collaboration with managers and employers in the search for the most useful and practicable options.

In other branches too, more attention is being paid to language lessons on the work floor. Everywhere is consciously looked at situations in which newcomers can actively practice their language knowledge. More and more companies explicitly encourage employees to become a language buddy, language coach or language assistant. In addition to time, this sometimes requires some investment. We weigh costs and benefits together with the employer. We see that the role of language help is more than helping with words. A colleague who helps can be more effective if he gets advice about his role. After advice, he can help better with pronunciation and sentence structure, for example. He then knows that social manners are also part of language skills. A short instruction for the language help can improve the learning efficiency for the newcomer and the company.

1 + 1 = 3!

From our experience with language courses we have learned that maximum integration of work with language is effective for the language development of the newcomer. The aforementioned workbook is a good example of this. Language training is more profitable if there is intensive and good cooperation between the language trainers and the company at three points in the learning process:

  1. The first step is to map the activities and processes in the workplace for the language training. New developments of the work are also included in this.
  2. The second step is to provide a motivating approach to the lessons themselves, by setting practical goals and formulating tailor-made work-oriented language assignments. Knowledge of employees in the workplace and their cooperation is of great value here.
  3. The third and final step is to ensure success experiences during the lessons and, where possible, also in the workplace, so that self-confidence grows. This requires encouragement from the employer and works best with the use of collegial language helpers, supported by tips and tricks.

Work and language are both important to the newcomer. Optimal integration of language in the work, however, produces the 1 + 1 = 3 effect. That's what you want: newcomers learn exactly the language that gives them the opportunity to find and keep a job.


Nina Meilof is a language trainer at TopTaal and specializes in integration programs for newcomers and Dutch in the workplace. TopTaal is a service-providing educational institution for adult education in Dutch and develops tailor-made language courses for different sectors and at different language and educational levels

Nicole Mol is a training expert and works as a training advisor and trainer at UL-Team courses, specialist in vocational training and education
for the cleaning industry.




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