Language learning: fostering human bonds

By Josie Makkink

As the sun sets, the evening rays shine through the rustic open windows of the Dutch Language Café in the Hague. Roben Scholten (33) is the founder of this language group, which has grown to 100 members since its launch three years ago.

“I started the Dutch Language Café when I came back from a trip to Spain. I worked in a bar for three months and learned Spanish just by talking to customers. I experienced how fun it can be to learn a language if you learn it through practice,” Roben explains. When he came back to the Netherlands, he wanted to help others learn Dutch in the same way that he learned Spanish. So, the Dutch Language Café was born. “We are currently situated in an “anti-kraakpand” (anti-dwelling squad) which is just outside the city centre. Every Wednesday we organise a Dungeons and Dragon night and a board game night, so there is something for everybody,” Roben chuckles. The café also organises a cooking night every Thursday and a green club where we grow plants.

“Tonight is board-game night!”, Roben exclaims. As he waits for the members to arrive, he takes a deep breath and casts a glance over the room to see if the tables are organised for the upcoming festivities. Two big game tables are the grand centrepieces of the room, beckoning with their substantial size and purpose-built design for friendly competition. Against the wall behind these grand tables stands a mini pool table where members can enjoy a slower-paced game. In the corner opposite to the kitchen, a TV sits facing a set of comfortably worn brown couches. Nestled nearby, a basket overflows with an assortment of wool and knitting needles. Across the room stands a little podium with a drum-set and a guitar. 

At 19:30, the first person, Daniel (26), enters the room. He hangs up his jacket and walks across the room to grab a drink. He sits on one of the high chairs at the kitchen counter and talks to Roben about his day. “Are we going to play games on the kitchen top or are we going to do that on the tables?” Daniel asks excitedly. “This all depends on how many people arrive,” Roben nervously responds. Daniel is Dutch and attends the weekly board game nights as a volunteer. His speech is clear and calm, which makes him a perfect person to learn from. 

Over the next 20 minutes, six members of the Language Café arrive. One of them is a young Ukrainian woman, named Nataliya. Her tall posture and elegant appearance radiate a sense of calmness across the room. She strides up to Roben and attempts to ask him how his day was. After a slight pause, Roben politely asks her to repeat herself. She stops, considering how she can rephrase the question in Dutch, and poses the question again. Roben smiles with approval before responding, “My day went very well and I am happy the days are longer and the sun is shining. You are getting better with your Dutch!” The person sitting next to Nataliya is Bernard (28). With short, blonde hair and a sporty physique, Bernard walks confidently towards the kitchen and greets everybody with a friendly smile. One might think he is also Dutch, as he almost fluently speaks the language. Surprisingly, he is from South Africa and moved to the Netherlands six months ago for work. 

In order to break the ice, Roben places a game on the kitchen counter. “Who wants to play a game?,” he asks in Dutch. The object of the game is simple: teams of two attempt to knock a small ball into the opposing team’s territory by rolling a second ball down a slide and into the first. Daniel and Nataliya form a team and quickly become extremely competitive. Using simple Dutch terms, they cheer each other on. “Daniel, Ga Winnen! (Daniel, go and Win!),” shouts Nataliya. On the opposite team, Bernard excitedly encourages his teammate to be faster – in Dutch, of course. After a few rounds, Daniel and his teammate take the lead and eventually win the game. Sighs can be heard from the losing team, and for a short while they appear defeated.

In order to bring the members together again, Roben decides to play a few board games on the big tables in the centre of the room. As the night went on and the moon replaced the sun, the energy in the room began to deplete. Communicating for an entire evening in a language that you are still only learning is understandably tiresome. One by one, guests eventually grabbed their jackets and said their goodbyes. Roben reminded them about the cook-off event that is taking place the next day. They all confirmed their attendance before waving goodbye. Another evening of unconventional learning had come to a successful end. 

For further information on the Dutch Language Café, be sure to visit the following website: