Blog – Engels leren in Engeland, de beste oplossing?

Ralf Barker-Kimp is sinds 2014 taaltrainer bij Language Partners, waar hij onder meer Van Dale Taaltrainingen en diverse maatwerktrajecten verzorgt. Daarnaast is hij betrokken bij de ontwikkeling van Online Learning voor de Language Partners Academy. Ralf heeft een ruime ervaring als Business English trainer op alle niveaus en in verschillende branches. Als trainer/coach wil hij zijn studenten helpen het beste uit zichzelf te halen.

I recently visited Cambridge and couldn’t help noticing all of the colleges offering English courses. Two years ago when I did the CELTA Young Learners extension training in Brighton, all of the students we were teaching in our practice sessions had been sent to England for the summer by their parents. Many of my Business English students also say that they think some time in the UK will help them improve their English. The idea is that spending time learning the language and immersing in the culture that you will pick up the language more easily and more quickly than following a course in your home country. But I sometimes ask myself if, for English, this really is the case.

Having lived in the Netherlands for over twenty years, I have become fluent in Dutch but through sheer stubbornness. Dutch speakers who, on the whole, speak reasonably good English, are always willing to “help out” when they hear a foreign accent and quickly offer to switch to English. My philosophy is that if you want to settle in a country and fully assimilate then you must also become fluent in the language or languages spoken there. I couldn’t imagine going to a health care professional or having to deal with the municipality etc. in anything but Dutch. But many expats in the Netherlands have managed to live here for quite a few years without learning the Dutch language; spouses, partners and friends are there to help our with translating letters, filling in forms etc.. What this has to do with learning English in England, you may ask yourself.

When I lived in Birmingham, I lived in some very multicultural neighbourhoods. I loved it: they were so vibrant and all of the supermarkets, shops and businesses were much more interesting than an average British high street. What was really interesting though was that many of the residents didn’t have English as a first language and many didn’t speak English at all. And whenever there was an official local government announcement, flyers posted on lamp posts and billboards were in every language but English (the same messages were also sent to residents in English, so the idea was if you couldn’t read those letters that you could get the information elsewhere – forgetting the fact that many people were also illiterate). Whilst it was a fantastic experience to live in places like this, it really wouldn’t have been the ideal place to learn English. It’s like that in a lot of British cities: there are enclaves where English is far from the main language of communication.

The world is also fast becoming much smaller and many people have been moving to the UK and, in particular, England during the last few years. The demographics have changed dramatically in the twenty years since I left. It’s really noticeable when I go back that in particular industry sectors a large proportion of workers aren’t native English speakers (an area which used to be dominated by English-speaking students and youngsters). There are also a wealth of regional accents and dialects in England and the UK as a whole which, even for native speakers, can be quite difficult to follow. So I would argue that whilst good for the experience, you don’t really need to spend time in the UK to learn English and it could actually be quite difficult to learn to speak “The Queen’s English” even if you went to a very good language school: many of the teachers whilst being very good aren’t the native speakers that everyone is seeking out these days. There are also many excellent teachers working in Europe and other continents (many of whom work at Language Partners!). The internet, television and media offer a wealth of possibilities to improve language skills. And as a lot of businesses are moving towards using English as a Lingua Franca (the reason why we get so much work), this also offers a lot of opportunities for improving English language skills.

Of course, there are areas of the world where the opportunities for learning and improving English are more limited than Western Europe or North America. So whilst it could be worthwhile to spend some time in the UK for some people, I would argue that it isn’t the cure-all solution that a lot of people think it would be.

Let us know what you think as a langauge trainer, we would love to hear from you! You can do so in the comments below.


  1. Hi Ralf,
    Interesting blog and I agree with you on many points. I had an interesting chat with my (English) hairdresser the other day. She learned Dutch quickly because before moving to Amsterdam, she originally lived in a Dutch village where the residents didn’t speak English so readily. I came to Amsterdam in the eighties and it was such a different city then. People were generally less willing to speak English compared to now; so I really had to learn Dutch and after following some lessons in the UK, total immersion in the culture worked best for me.
    In my opinion if students want to learn International English then they don’t need to move to the UK, but if they want to learn British English then some time spent in a small town mixing with native speakers is essential.

  2. Jo Arrowsmith zegt

    Ralph raises some interesting points here. Many of my students also believe that living for a while in an English speaking country is the best way to learn a language. They would certainly need to use English if they stayed in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where I am from. My feeling is that immersion works if you WANT to learn the language. If you do, then yes, being surrounded by it on a daily basis is going to be most beneficial. When I started learning Dutch, being in a Dutch family setting made it much easier for me to learn real, appropriate and colloquial Dutch. I WANTED to learn the language and so was keen to take the opportunities I had. I wanted to decipher the words and copy what I heard.

    After WANTING to use the language, NEEDING to use the language is also a requirement for absorbing what you are immersed in. If you don’t need it, as Ralph mentions above, you can avoid learning it. Many of my students have made a real leap forward after having to participate in international meetings/conferences/workshops where they have been required to interact entirely in English, both during the work-related sessions and socially. It hasn’t seemed to matter much whether they were dealing with all native speakers or a mix of native and non-native speakers; the need to use their English in real settings for extended periods of time seems to have been the magic ingredient.

    So, if you want to learn a language and need to use the language, immersion courses can be a wonderful way to learn. However, as with intensive courses of any kind, if you have no need to use the language after the course, any progress made during the course will gradually fade away through lack of use.

    Having said all that, The Netherlands is an excellent place to learn English because it is so easy to access massive amounts of native English media and materials here. Exposure to native English media is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why, compared to other nationalities, the Dutch have a relatively high level of English. They are exposed to English sounds, words and expressions on TV and the radio from a very young age and even children’s films are available in both dubbed and original versions. After wanting and needing, exposure to a language is a third essential element in learning a language. Immersion could be seen as total exposure.

  3. Dat is wat je noemt ‘ein weites Feld’, maar laat ik zeggen dat (taal-) leren tijd kost en gebaat is bij een wisselwerking tussen praktijk (spreken/schrijven in bijv. je werk) en les-/trainingslocatie. Ik heb enige ervaring met (ontwikkeling en uitvoering van) intensieve trainingen van bijv. 1 week en vraag me dan steeds af, wat er gebeurt als de cursist de volgende maandag weer ‘op straat’ staat.

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