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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton September 19, 2020

Studying in a foreign language: Study performance and experiences of German students at a Dutch university

Lidy Zijlmans

Lidy Zijlmans has been active in the field of Dutch as a Second Language since 1978. Currently she is conducting research on the role of second language in higher education at Radboud University Nijmegen.

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, Marc van Oostendorp

Marc van Oostendorp is Professor of Dutch and Academic Communication at Radboud University.

and Roeland van Hout

Roeland van Hout is professor em. of applied linguistics and variationist linguistics at Radboud University Nijmegen.


This article reports on the academic performance and experiences of non-native university students, specifically German students in a Dutch academic environment. These students have a substantial dropout rate. In an earlier study, we found correlations between results on language tests and study results. In this study, we used semi-structured interviews with student advisors, students and teachers to investigate in more detail the role of foreign language proficiency in academic success. We identified three major language-related issues: (1) listening and speaking in discussion groups, (2) writing in examinations and assignments, and (3) the negative impact of language proficiency on grades. The quality and readability of the written assignments was repeatedly highlighted as the core problem. Additionally, we investigated the influence of the use of English as an additional foreign language.

1 Introduction

The aim of this study is to uncover and understand the differences between the academic performance of domestic and international students in the Netherlands and its possible relation to foreign language proficiency. The number of international students in Dutch universities is increasing. In 2017, one in five university students were non-native (KNAW 2017), with the majority coming from Germany. The German student cohort in Dutch universities lends itself well to such a study because of their numbers, and their homogeneous composition in mother tongue and educational background. There are few apparent barriers to their successful academic performance; the prediction is that learning Dutch would not be a major stumbling block (Schepens et al. 2016). Despite this, we previously identified that this group had a substantially higher university dropout rate than that of domestic students (Zijlmans et al. 2016).

Previous studies also report that international university students perform less well academically than domestic students do (Deygers 2017; Morrison et al. 2005). Of course, there are multiple possible explanations for this lower success rate. Academic success or the lack thereof is a multi-faceted phenomenon involving the complex interaction of many factors, such as student background, previous education, talents, motivation, and the student’s personal and emotional adjustment (Cho and Bridgeman 2012; De Jong and Benigno 2017; Klatter-Folmer and Weltens 2017; Rienties et al. 2012). A number of previous studies point to problems with academic and social integration (Cho and Bridgeman 2012; Leki 2007; Morrison et al. 2005; Rienties et al. 2012). However, in most of the studies, the precise mechanisms and crucial disadvantages for international students remain unclear. One could argue that integration problems and language problems are highly related. Baumgarten (2014) investigated the influence of social networks and first language (L1) use on and off campus on the development of spoken foreign language (FL) skills. Most interactions at and around the university appeared to be carried out in the students’ L1. Academic use of English was restricted to the classrooms and showed little improvement between the first and the third year of study.

International students are required to take FL admission tests, either in English or the local language, but the level and predictive value for study success are often questioned (Cho and Bridgeman 2012; Deygers and Hamnes Carlsen 2014; Deygers 2017). We decided to do more research on FL proficiency, in particular in the first year of study.

1.1 Academic performance of German students in a Dutch university

In this introductory section, we report on the academic performance of German students at our university in relation to proficiency in Dutch as a Second Language to provide quantitative evidence on the differences between Dutch and German students.

The study load for each year of study is expressed in European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits. Students who obtain the full complement of 60 ECTS credits are deemed to have completed the first year of the Bachelor (BA) programme. University reports show that study results of German students are lower than those of Dutch students. Results of recent research amongst the same group in the 2016 cohort by De Vos (2019) show the same trend. Figure 1 shows the percentages and numbers who passed their first year (with 60 credits) between 2011 and 2017. There was no obvious pattern of increasing or decreasing pass rates over the studied period.

Figure 1: 
Percentages of Dutch and German students in 2011–2017 who received a positive BSA after one year (Source: Rapport Bindend Studie Adviezen, Radboud University)

BSA Binding study advice: positive when students have enough (at least 40) ECTS credits, negative when the number of ECTS credits is too low, in which event students are forced to stop.
Figure 1:

Percentages of Dutch and German students in 2011–2017 who received a positive BSA after one year (Source: Rapport Bindend Studie Adviezen, Radboud University)

BSA Binding study advice: positive when students have enough (at least 40) ECTS credits, negative when the number of ECTS credits is too low, in which event students are forced to stop.

In our previous study (Zijlmans et al. 2016), 36% of our sample from the 2014 cohort did not proceed through the first year. To enrol at the university, the German students of the intensive preparatory course in Dutch must pass a test of their Dutch language skills (DFL test) at the B2 level of the CEFR (Council of Europe 2001). This assessment consists of four subtests on writing, speaking, reading and listening developed by the University Language Center (ULC) in line with the State Examination in Dutch as a Foreign Language. Developing this set of tests by the ULC was necessary because the results of the State Examination would not be available before the start of the academic year.

In Zijlmans et al. (2016), we correlated the DFL test scores of 41 German students (2014 cohort) with their academic performances in their first year of study, in terms of the ECTS credits obtained and the grade point averages (GPA). The results of the DFL test correlated with the number of ECTS credits achieved in their first two terms (r = 0.459; p < 0.01; N = 41). Correlations were even stronger with their GPA in the first two terms (r = 0.625 and p < 0.01) and after one year (r = 0.502 and p < 0.01; N = 41). Our hypothesis that language played a role in the relatively high dropout rate was supported.

We repeated these calculations for the 2015–2016 cohort. This time 57 of the 151 German students on the 2015 summer course agreed to share information on their academic performance. Only seven students (12%) achieved enough ECTS credits by the middle of the year, only 12 (21.8%) the full 60 credits by the end of the year.

These results imply a substantial number of resits during the year and over the summer. Figure 1 shows the numbers of students who had obtained sufficient ECTS to transfer to the second academic year.

We found the same trend on the role of language for this cohort as we did in 2014–2015. There was a moderate but positive significant correlation between the DFL test scores and the ECTS credits at mid-year (r = 0.375; p < 0.01; N = 57), as well as a positive and higher correlation between scores on the DFL test and the GPA (r = 0.430; p < 0.01; N = 57). This result again confirms that DSL proficiency plays a role in academic success.

Another way to gauge the role of FL language proficiency is to use data on English proficiency for the German students. Dutch universities increasingly offer English mediated programmes (English-Medium Instruction, EMI). These programmes are very popular amongst German students nowadays. The students in our study took part in Dutch programmes, but English is nevertheless prominent in reading materials and international staff may teach in English. The level of English as a foreign language (EFL hereafter) may play a role in their study performance as well. We did not have formal information on our study participants’ EFL proficiency. When students have a European secondary school diploma with English as subject of their final examination, they are exempted from providing an English language certificate.[1] It is assumed that their EFL is at the B2 level or higher. We measured English proficiency of the participating German students using the OOPT (Oxford Online Placement test, a standardized placement test from Oxford University Press). We found that 23% scored B1 or lower. We identified a significant positive correlation between EFL and GPA at mid-year (r = 0.333; p < 0.05).

Finally, we see an argument for language problems in the reports from the writing lab that substantial amounts of German students make use of this service. In 2015, the percentage of new German students was 5% (236/4067). The percentage of German students using the writing lab was 11% (117/1040). The overrepresentation of German students may indicate that they experience problems or insecurities in their writing performance.

1.2 Research questions

We investigated the academic success of FL German students, concentrating on FL proficiency. The analysis in Section 1.1 helps us to formulate our questions for the present research.

Learning Dutch is relatively easy for German people due to the small linguistic distance between the two languages (Schepens et al. 2016). In an intensive summer course, students manage to advance from zero to a CEFR level of B2 in a little less than five weeks. In 2015, this was the case for 80% of the participants. Despite this, German students seem to experience problems. A successful student, even in a Dutch-instructed programme, additionally needs a high level of proficiency in (academic) EFL as the relevant literature is in English and international staff members may teach in English. In our study, we therefore cannot ignore the role and impact of the level in EFL when assessing the academic performance of German students. The question arises to what extent academic performance and FL proficiency are related. The specific questions we want to answer are:

  1. Do German students encounter language problems in their starting year at our university?

  2. Which problems do German students encounter in their starting year at our university, due to the fact that they have to study in languages that are not their native language?

We sought to answer these questions more thoroughly by interviewing staff and students. Do they experience discrepancies between the requirements for admission and the actual requirements for study activities, and do these discrepancies affect academic performance as other studies (Deygers 2017; Meyer et al. 2013) suggested? Admission tests may not reflect the true requirements for academic tasks (Deygers 2017).

We will explain our methods of research in the following section. In Section 3, we will assemble the results, in factors, processes and motives experienced that influence study performance. A general discussion and conclusion follow in Sections 4 and 5.

2 Methods

We used a qualitative approach to obtain an accessible, explanatory context (Rubin and Rubin 2011) for the data collected in our earlier work. Conducting interviews is an appropriate method to answer our research questions. We aimed to achieve a deeper understanding of the actual experiences of the stakeholders involved. We needed to be able to ask people to expand on their answers, give concrete examples, elucidate, and articulate their experiences (Rubin and Rubin 2011). We chose the instrument of semi-structured interviewing with stakeholders with the aim of gathering rich and informative data (Boeije 2005; Doorewaard et al. 2015; Rubin and Rubin 2011). The selection of participants and the construction of interview guides are explained below.[2]

2.1 Participants

We approached relevant stakeholders who could provide us with information covering all aspects of the research questions (Doorewaard et al. 2015). We collected information from three parties: the students themselves, their teachers, and members of the academic advisors. We contacted teachers and academic advisors for an interview by e-mail, in which the goal of the study was explained. All of them work in the two faculties where the majority of the German students are, the Faculty of Social Sciences (17% German first year students in 2015–16) and the Faculty of Natural Sciences (5% German first year students in 2015–16). We approached all German students who took part in the DFL prep course in the summer of 2015. In a letter the goal of the study and the required effort was explained. A consent form was attached. Students gave permission to obtain their study results (see Section 1.1), and/or indicated that they were willing to take part in interviews after the first semester and at the end of the first year. After transcribing the interviews, all participants’ names were replaced by reference codes.

Students can turn to academic advisors at the Student Information Desk for help with a variety of issues, including falling behind with their studies, doubts about their chosen subject or withdrawal. We selected two academic advisors in faculties with the largest numbers of German students, one from the Faculty of Social Sciences (FSS) and one from the Faculty of Natural Sciences (FNS). Quotes taken from these interviews are referred to as “Staff” in Section 3.

We approached teachers in the two faculties who were highly involved with German students. We contacted these teachers and asked for an interview. This resulted in positive responses from two teachers in the FSS and one teacher in the FNS. The respondents were mentors in addition to lecturers, and as such well-informed about the challenges new students face. As mentors, they conduct interviews with each student during their first year and discuss whether the students feel settled in their education and in the city, and whether the training they have received matches their interests, expectations and study skills. They also talk about the students’ grades and whether they are expected to pass the first year of the BA programme. Quotes from our interviews with these mentors/teachers are referred to with a “T”.

The start of our study was a pilot study in which six German students were interviewed. We integrated the findings of these students in our research.

When we sent out the invitation for the interview to the 47 students who had consented to take part, six students responded for the first interview at mid-year, and four also responded to the call for the second interview after the completion of their first year of study. We found out that five students had already dropped out by the middle of the year, while only seven had obtained the maximum number of 30 ECTS credits at that time. We did not succeed in interviewing students who had actually dropped out. After we discussed this with the teachers one of them put us in contact with two additional students who had struggled through the first year. We spoke to these two students once, at the start of their second year.

Ten of the 14 interviewed students were from the FSS, two were from the FNS, and two from other faculties. Quotes from the student interviews are marked with an “S” in the results section. Table 1 gives an overview of participants and interviews.

Table 1:

Participants in the qualitative study.

Staff interviews N Reference in quotes
Academic advisors 2 Staff1, Staff2
Teaching staff 3 T1, T2, T3
Student interviews Reference in quotes
Students in pilot study 6 S5, S6, S7, S8, S9, S10
Students interviewed at midyear only (marked a) 2 S2a, S12a
Students interviewed at midyear and after year 1 (marked a + b) 4*2 S1a + S1b, S3a + S3b, S4a + S4b, S11a + S11b
Students interviewed after year 1 only (marked b) 2 S13b, S14b
Total number of interviewees 19
Total number of interviews 23

2.2 Construction of interview guidelines

After the pilot interviews, we continued the project with two one-on-one conversations with general informants from the FSS and FNS academic advisors on the academic progress of the German students. As researchers in FL acquisition, we were interested in the FL proficiency of the students, in DFL and the role of EFL. The central aim was to determine the explanation for the higher dropout rate among German students. Our questions were prompts for open conversations at this stage. We then constructed interview guides comprising major and follow-up questions (Rubin and Rubin 2011) on the topics submitted by the counsellors for the interviews with teaching staff and students. We also included a brief report of our previous quantitative study (Zijlmans et al. 2016) in the introduction to these interviews, as part of the explanation of the goals of the present study. The questions for the teacher interviews were related to the productive tasks in FL. For this, we translated the staff interview guides concerning academic writing by Leki (2007).

The interview guides for the first series of student interviews, held in the middle of the year, started with questions on their motivation for studying in the Netherlands followed by questions about their DFL proficiency in general and in each of the four language skills. In recognition of the importance of English, we added some questions on the role of this additional FL. There were questions on their personal experiences, such as housing, extracurricular activities and friends. Finally, there were questions on possible differences between academic life in Germany and in the Netherlands. Students were also asked if they knew fellow students who had had problems. The interview guide for the second set of student interviews, held after they had completed year one of their studies, contained quotes taken from the interviews with counselling and teaching staff. The interview protocols are provided as appendices to this paper.

2.3 Analysis of interviews

The interviews were recorded with the consent of the participants. An assistant transcribed them almost verbatim; only grammatically incorrect sentences were corrected, and hesitations, fillers and the like were left out. For the interviews of the pilot study, elaborate summaries were available. The first author checked the accuracy of each transcript. The analysis took place with the help of the software programme Atlas.ti in three steps (cf. Doorewaard et al. 2015). In the first step, quotes were marked and general keywords were assigned such as “reason to study in the Netherlands”, specific keywords on FL proficiency such as “language (not) sufficient at the start”, “(no) problems listening to lectures” and “(no) problems writing in the FL”. In the second step, frequency counts were conducted for all topics. This resulted in the identification of the most deeply discussed topics across all interviews. Our focus was on DFL proficiency, but other recurring topics in the interviews were what is called, in the literature on the study success of international students, “academic integration” or “academic adjustment” (Klatter-Folmer and Weltens 2017; Morrison et al. 2005; Rienties et al. 2012). We divided the frequently recurring topics into two groups, the first group being the topics related to FL proficiency, the central issue; the second group the more general topics on academic adjustment (Table 2). The interviewer brought up topics, but whether this resulted in many comments depended on the individual interviewees. Some topics were hardly discussed, such as “have you ever felt German students are an extra burden for you or the course?” (Leki 2007) and “do you think German students/you need more time than domestic students?”

Table 2:

Frequently recurring topics.

Topics concerning the role of FL proficiency General topics
  • General level of Dutch at the start (sufficient or insufficient to participate in class and to perform properly in various tasks)

  • Listening in lectures, listening and speaking in discussion groups

  • Writing in Dutch in examinations and assignments

  • Impact on FL proficiency on grades for written assignments

  • The use of English as an additional language

  • The workload

  • Study attitude of the German students

  • German students do not make use of facilities to help them

  • Number of resits required by German students compared to domestic students

The third step in the analysis was to summarize and interpret the information for each topic and between topics in search of the factors, processes and motives influencing the academic performance of the FL German students

3 Results

In this section, we present experiences and beliefs of German students, their teachers, and academic advisors as they unfolded during the interviews. We will present the topics related to the central issue of FL proficiency first and then turn to some observations on the more general topics.

3.1 Topics concerning the role of FL proficiency

Teachers and students alike reported that the DSL prep course was merely a basis and that the students had to continue learning DSL for study purposes to achieve the required level (all quotations are translated from the original Dutch):

S8: The real language skills I needed only came to life when I started studying.

T1: In the first year, they have the most communication problems; in the second year, they are reasonably okay, I think.

We asked questions in relation to the four traditional skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing. Reading in the FL did not seem to be problematic. None of the students claimed to have specific problems with the multiple choice questions, a topic brought up by staff members, although two students said they were not familiar with this form of assessment. One student explicitly mentioned she could derive the meaning of Dutch words by comparing them with German words. Teachers did not put forward reading skills as the source of problems. Four major language-related issues emerged, which we will report in the following subsections: listening and speaking in lectures and discussion groups (3.1.1), writing for examinations and assignments (3.1.2), the impact of language proficiency on grades for written assignments (3.1.3) and the use of English as an additional language (3.1.4).

3.1.1 Listening in lectures and spoken interaction skills in discussion groups

In general, students only found listening in lectures to be difficult in the beginning:

S7: In the beginning, I sometimes barely understood anything from the lectures. I had a hard time understanding Dutch. The problems I had with this were catching and interpreting (complex) constructions, as well as the vocabulary, my Dutch vocabulary was sometimes inadequate.

After this “cold start” however, the students adapted quickly. Reading the slides of PowerPoint presentations supported their comprehension, and the students felt that teachers often adapted their speaking rate because of the presence of FL students in the lecture hall.

When participating in discussion groups, five students thought their listening comprehension and spoken interaction skills were insufficient. They attributed this solely to their language skills; embarrassment and uncertainty played a role, but speed was the main culprit. The students felt their proficiency level of DSL was insufficient to formulate the proper arguments quickly enough in a persuasive format:

S11a: It was difficult at first, if you were the only German in a group of Dutch people, to get in there and to say something. That was hard. It [the discussion] goes too fast and you keep thinking, shall I say it now?

S8: Having a discussion during these working groups was simply not possible for many Germans. After a few weeks, I had to take notes and write a summary of the discussion, this is interspersed. This made me very unhappy, as I did not understand half of the content.

The teachers noticed that German students are less actively involved and are hesitant to participate in discussion groups. The two FSS teachers observed that the students’ unfamiliarity with this teaching method, as well as cultural differences in the German way of handling hierarchical relationships, were more relevant than their FL proficiency. They suggested that, in Germany, it is considered strange to answer questions in a direct way. Therefore, German students are reluctant to take turns:

T2: They are more reluctant to answer. When I ask a question, Dutch students will come up with an answer, they will be eager enough to respond. Germans, from their culture, it is peculiar to them to answer a teacher on an equal footing. These discussion groups, they just are not used to it. I once had someone who found it scary, this interactivity, too close. That someone is so personal with you.

3.1.2 Writing in FL in examinations and assignments

Of all the topics discussed in the interviews, deficiencies in writing in Dutch most often led to elaborate answers. It was by far the most prominent topic in the teacher interviews. Writing produces the most concrete, tangible outputs, such as answers to open questions in exams, reports, essays and theses. Students hand in assignments individually or as the result of group work. A lot of writing takes place within the courses for Academic and Professional Skills, which are compulsory in the first year across all faculties. These courses centre on a variety of aspects of writing including discourse conventions, text structure, how to report methods and data, and how to quote. The students themselves indicated that writing was the hardest part of their studies. They often mentioned the compulsory assignments for this course in the first year as the assignments that they had to repeat. All of them talked in general about the incompleteness of their skillsets. Nine students felt that the Dutch academic style is very different from what they were used to, which made them feel insecure about writing in Dutch. They said that they could not express themselves as well as they would like, causing a feeling of anxiety that the teacher would not take them seriously:

S4a: I am going to write an article for my portfolio next month, which will be difficult because I will have to use a different language than the general language… It is not hard, but you want a certain level for your text. … I also feel that it may not be appropriate. I always have the idea that the teacher is sitting there, reading it and thinking: “What is she doing here? She cannot even write a text” or something like that.

On top of these feelings of inadequacy, writing required a lot of time and attention. In examinations with open questions, the difficulty was to formulate concise answers without running short of time (Haverkamp 2014).

All three interviewed teachers and the two counsellors mentioned the quality of Dutch as a problem. Although the teachers stressed they try to read “co-operatively”, they also mentioned that the occurrence of errors could hamper their understanding of a piece of text. The strongest quote on this issue came from one of the academic advisors:

Staff 2: Once a professor, after evaluating an exam, said: “It is distressing; this is beyond me!”

Teachers spoke of the poor quality of the writing and of having interpretation problems due to the interference of German vocabulary and syntax:

T3: None of the writing produced by these [German] students was very good, in terms of spelling, grammar, but also structure.

Teachers sometimes claimed to observe “the elaborate German sentence structure” in the German students’ writing, which also led to incomprehensibility. The Dutch style is anecdotally more compact and direct than the German style.

All German students mentioned that they turn to fellow students, roommates or friends for peer reading and feedback, but one of the teachers expressed doubts on the success of this strategy:

T3: Returning to your previous question, whether the Dutch students are willing to do that, to revise texts, or to provide feedback … I think that their willingness is still quite high, but I think they can’t do it. When I look at a group product when handed in, it has still those strange sentences in which I recognize a kind of German sentence structure. They are still in the text.

Teachers said they advised the students to take different roles in group work; for example, letting the Dutch students focus more on grammar and spelling and the German students more on structure and content. Some students followed such a division of tasks.

S1a: We take care that they [=Dutch students] write or formulate. Sometimes when I formulate something, I ask if it is correct.

All students told us that they preferred to undertake group work with other Germans; however, the possibility of this depends on the number of fellow German students in the faculty.

3.1.3 Impact of FL deficiencies on grades and academic performance

When asked, teachers reluctantly confirmed that FL proficiency might negatively affect grades. This might explain the high and significant correlation we found in Zijlmans et al. (2016) between the results on the writing subtest DFL and GPA (r = 0.694; p < 0.01). The teachers said they do their best to avoid being too fussy about language; however, if the message was not clear due to language problems, they did not give a score:

T1: … in exams, if there are open questions and they have to write a bit of a story to give an answer, sometimes you cannot really follow German students, and you really do not know what response they have given. Then you do not give a score for that answer, no.

Students were not always aware that their language proficiency might negatively influence their grades:

S12a: I always have the feeling, even when writing an exam, that if you make a mistake, the teacher thinks, “Well, he is German” … that it is not a problem. I do not feel the pressure.

The grade form that teachers used for marking written assignments had a specific section for grammar and spelling, these mistakes did not have a dominant impact on rating: 80% for content, 20% for “form”. However, if either component is assessed with a five out of 10 or less, the final grade cannot be higher than five. Too many mistakes could therefore certainly influence grades. In addition, when mistakes influence comprehensibility, this has a negative effect. One of the teachers explained:

T3: It can definitely make the difference between a seven and an eight if many mistakes are made. However, maybe I am too firm now. Well, half a point can certainly be the result of it, for a whole point, it would have to be very bad. If there are so many [mistakes] that I have difficulties understanding the message, yes, it has a big influence on the grade. If it is not too bad I do not judge it, but if it is so bad that I find it hard to understand, then, I am aware of it, it does happen, and then grades are really lower.

When a text contained too many mistakes, teachers stopped grading and returned the text to the student with the comment “review language first”. The result was in such a case that this assignment was marked “NS” (non-sufficient) in the student information system and recorded as the first official attempt.

3.1.4 The use of English as an additional foreign language

As stated earlier, most of the subject literature is in English. Students indicated that reading English was not a problem on its own, but six students mentioned the combination of reading in English and, for example, having discussions or writing examinations in Dutch as problematic.

Four students told us they circumvented the writing problems by writing in English. Teachers do (FNS) or do not (FSS) encourage this. Teacher 1 (FNS), who encouraged writing in English, said she anticipates that this will be required in their Masters studies, while Teachers 2 and 3 (FSS), who discouraged the use of English, said they found the English written products by German students to be of poor quality:

T1: They all choose to write in Dutch, although I actually try to direct towards using English. They find it [writing in English] so terribly difficult, they really prefer to use Dutch, because of course they have focused on it. Then their text is so poorly written, they really receive low scores because of it.

T2: It is my experience that German [students’] written English is not always perfect.

Students were surprised to hear the teachers’ quotes that writing in ESL is not always recommended, although three students had themselves observed that their ESL might not have been good enough.

3.2 General topics

Students and teachers mentioned the necessity to work systematically and hard as the important reason for early drop out. This is within the first few months. This appeared in 11 interviews. One of the interviewed students explained:

S13b: It turned out that many students have, eh, stopped their studies, so in the end I was the only [German student] left. … I think most [German] students I was with in the beginning; they stopped in the first semester, before January, something like that.

The students said the workload is “overwhelming” (S13b) in comparison with what their friends at German universities experience. An indicator of the difficult start was the additional number of resits taken by German students. This was an issue in six interviews. The results figures confirm this picture. For the 57 German students included in the study, the modal number of ECTS credits obtained by mid-year was 17; only seven had achieved the full 30 credits.

Although we only interviewed students who had not dropped out, most of them indicated that the first year had not been easy. They experienced it as being extremely stressful. One of the students expressed this situation for fellow German students in the following way:

S3a [about friends]: They said they really could not study more. They said, “I do so much already and I really can’t do more now. Then I really do not feel happy anymore, and my grades are too low. … If I have to resit everything and take more examinations, I simply could not cope.” Therefore, they stopped.

Students had to get used to different ways of teaching and assessing. In the section on speaking in discussion groups, one sign of this phenomenon was the observation of the teachers that students were reluctant to take part in the discussions, as they felt uneasy with this way of teaching. When asked whether reading in exams was a problem, two students declared they had no experience with multiple-choice questions in their earlier educational career.

One staff member introduced the topic of study habits and skills, which was confirmed in the teacher interviews; staff and teachers do not always consider the German students’ expectations of what they have to learn to be appropriate. They observe a mismatch between their study habits and the way academic knowledge is tested at a Dutch university:

T2: [For the German students] it is very much about facts; this is the concept and that is its meaning. They buy hundreds of cards, write the concept and its meaning on them, and they practice it. That is a lot of knowledge and a little bit of what we are testing. We want insights, we want them to apply their learning, and we want to test a lot more than just that factual knowledge.

One student noted that the Dutch grading system was not completely transparent for her at the start. In fact, 10 and 9 (the top grades in a 10-point scale) are hardly ever given, and an eight is considered “very good”. She was not aware of this and was discouraged when she received grade 8 or even 9. This caused extra stress, as it made her work harder.

When they are having problems, German students do not easily turn to staff members for additional help. When staff and teachers spoke of this, they attributed it to the perceived hierarchical relationship between staff and students in Germany. The Dutch system is less hierarchical. Faculties offered workshops to raise awareness about this, but have stopped running them because of a lack of interest. All the interviewed students stated that they had never heard of such workshops. One teacher mentioned the lack of interactivity as a possible cause for the distance that the German students maintain from the staff, which also restricts them from overcoming the language barrier:

T1: They are very quiet and do not ask questions; they just do what they have to do. All German students are very quiet and do not speak much to the teachers, so they do not ask much. I also think that perhaps those who I see as not so good might indeed be able to perform well if they would seek more contact and ask more questions, which I think they do not dare to do because of the language barrier.

The views of the interviewed students about seeking help were diverse; five students affirmed that they do not easily ask for help or that it is not the German nature to ask for help. Two of them stated that they would do so when necessary. On the other hand, six students explicitly mentioned that they appreciated the approachability of teachers and staff.

S12a: We Germans, somehow, we are like, “That is my own problem, I will do it myself,” and then we act like that too. We do not need that much [help from] staff.

4 Discussion

One of the most conspicuous findings in our interviews with teachers is that they are eager to emphasize the overall success of German students, while mentioning various problems repeatedly. They often added that there are only two types of students; they are doing either very well or not well at all, with no students in between. The problems of less-successful students were considered incidental and individual. There is a contradiction though with the figures on their academic performance and dropout rates. And then these are the German students, for whom the language is not a great barrier and cultural differences are small (Claes and Gerritsen 2011). We believe that this is not unique for this group of international students or for our university. However, most studies (Cho and Bridgeman 2012; Morrison et al. 2005; Rienties et al. 2012) have focused on the overall benefits of the international experience and much less on concrete study results. We interviewed stakeholders about possible problems because students study in a language that is not their L1. We concentrated on the academic success (ECTS credits and GPA) in the first year of study as many drop out early, within the first few months, or have a weak start and therefore have to resit many exams. University refugee students in a small-scale study by Klatter-Folmer and Weltens (2017) reported problems with Dutch in the academic setting, not only in the beginning of their study programme but also in the later stages. These students said that the required level increased every year, and for them academic EFL was equally problematic.

Of course, there are multiple possible explanations for the lower success rate of the international students such as student background, previous education, talents, motivation, and the student’s personal and emotional adjustment (Cho and Bridgeman 2012; De Jong and Benigno 2017; Klatter-Folmer and Weltens 2017; Rienties et al. 2012). A recurring statement in earlier studies was that first-year international students have to juggle many balls at the same time. Apart from following classes and taking part in other study activities, they must adapt to an unfamiliar way of teaching and testing. In their personal lives they have to find new friends and adapt to life in a new country and city whereas many domestic first-year students do not leave the parental home (Lonkhuizen 2016; see also Baumgarten 2014). On top of all this, international students have to communicate in one or two FLs (English and/or the local language). In this study, we tried to shed light on the FL problems by adding personal experiences through semi-structured interviews. A drawback of our study would be that we did not interview students who had actually dropped out. This kept us from a full 360-degree perspective (Doorewaard et al. 2015).

4.1 FL problems

The small linguistic distance between the Dutch and German language is probably helpful to the students’ reading and listening skills. Their reading in Dutch does not seem problematic, nor is reading in EFL. PowerPoint presentations support listening to lectures. In speaking, FL users draw more on pragmatic skills than on linguistic proficiency to resolve disruptions in communication (Björkman 2013). The small linguistic distance also makes it relatively easy for German students to make themselves understood in Dutch, even when they use “Dutchified” German words or speak with a German accent.

Writing skills were by far the most important theme in the interviews. All German students had passed Dutch tests at the required CEFR B2 level before starting their studies; however, the experiences of the subject teachers in our study seem to suggest that the assessed level does not match the language skills required for academic tasks. Deygers (2017) also concluded this in his study. There seems to be an imbalance between the ideas of the language experts who develop and judge the FL tests and the requirements of the subject teachers. The test developers do incorporate the content aspect in the correction models of the assessments and award this with 24 points out of 70 (34.3% of the total possible score: CvTE 2016). The score on linguistic features adds up to 46 points (65.7%), and so linguistic features play a very important role. The reverse appears to be the case in the correction models for the study assignments: content is weighted at 80% of the final grade, form at 20%. However, if either component is assessed with a five or less, the final grade cannot be higher than five. Teachers intend to judge written products largely on content, with less of a focus on language proficiency; however, they are still hindered by syntactic and lexical errors. The teachers say that they ignore errors that do not interfere with the comprehensibility of the text, whereas major deficiencies in accuracy, such as serious deviations in spelling, meaning or grammatical form (Kuiken and Vedder 2012), will unavoidably influence their rating, as they cannot be clear of the student’s understanding of the subject. Teachers often return the text without constructive feedback, simply assigning “not sufficient” or low grades that require the student to re-write the assignment. Teachers refer students to additional DFL courses; however, students often ignore this assistance because they are not aware of their own deficiencies. Students feel that expressing their thoughts properly in the FL and the use of the different academic writing style are the most important obstacles for them and therefore turn to the writing lab for assistance. However, the tutors are not DFL experts and give no feedback on FL deficiencies.

German students nowadays prefer to attend the EMI tracks but, even in the Dutch mediated track (or bilingual track as it is called at present), they use English as an escape route and hand in their assignments in English. However, we have shown that a great number of German students also show deficiencies in their EFL skills: 23% of the German students in our study scored at or under the B1 level in the OOPT, while the study tasks are set at the higher B2–C1 skill level. The differences with domestic students in academic performance as described in Section 1.1 still existed for the 2016 cohort (De Vos 2019).

We are not the first to question the pass level in the admittance tests (see for example Deygers and Hamnes Carlsen 2014). It is generally assumed that international students will develop FL to a C1 level soon enough in their daily exposure to and experience in the academic register. We conclude that this is not true for all students. Baumgarten (2014) attributed this to the fact that most interactions within and outside the university are in the students’ L1. As there are many German students on our campus, this is the case for this group.

The B2 level should be sufficient for successful academic performance, based on the descriptors of the CEFR. The problem is that grammatical accuracy in the CEFR is only given in very general terms. For various languages, professionals started projects defining the CEFR levels of linguistic competence into Reference Level Descriptions (RLDs) (Hulstijn 2015); however, for DFL, there is no RLD that can be used by test developers.

We should also question the assessed tasks themselves. Deygers (2017) shows that various tasks in the DFL admission tests used at Belgian universities were never required during the course of study. Leki (2007) concluded that the tasks in the FL writing classes did not match the writing tasks in the study programme.

4.2 Problems with academic adjustment and its effect on FL development

We questioned possible problems due to FL proficiency, but the other recurring factor mentioned in the literature is the role of the academic and social integration of international students (Klatter-Folmer and Weltens 2017; Morrison et al. 2005; Rienties et al. 2012). Importantly, social contact and integration is directly relevant from a FL perspective as they foster the learning of FLs (Deygers 2017) and enhance confidence in using the language, which in turn supports further integration (An and Chiang 2015; Ferenz 2005; Hsieh 2009). Cultural differences can affect academic integration. For example, on the dimension uncertainty avoidance, which has to do with anxiety and distrust in the face of the unknown (Hofstede n.d.), Germany and the Netherlands score 65 and 53 points respectively (Claes and Gerritsen 2011). This suggests that Germans have a higher uncertainty avoidance and try to prevent this feeling. Here, we came across the German students’ unfamiliarity with teaching via discussion groups that hinders them from actively participating. Differences in the power distance, the different hierarchical levels of society, in the two countries (Claes and Gerritsen 2011) could also cause this attitude. The low power distance in the academic community of the Netherlands, where professors and students deal with each other in an informal way, seems to cause unease to the German students. As disciplinary discussions create an environment in which students develop and practice their academic language (Ferenz 2005), this attitude negatively influences the acquisition of academic disciplinary language when students maintain a high barrier between themselves and their professors. Having to work hard, unfamiliarity with the Dutch grading system and a focus on facts can cause unnecessarily low grades. Finally, reluctance to approach teachers and student advisors for help is another self-limiting academic behaviour, possibly caused by the above cultural differences.

We do not want to dismiss low levels of integration as a possible cause for negative academic performance; however, the previously reported correlations between EC and GPA scores were relatively low (Rienties et al. 2012). The high numbers of German students on campus means they need not feel lonely or socially excluded. It is possible that turning to familiar cultural and social structures helps students to overcome psychological and physical distress. However, the dominant role of the L1 might hinder their development of the FL (Baumgarten 2014).

5 Conclusion

In this qualitative study, we found confirmation of our quantitative findings on the relation between FL proficiency and academic success or, to formulate it more precisely, the lack of it for a particular subset of the international students, i.e. German students doing their degree at a university in the Netherlands. This finding is imperative as German is linguistically very close to Dutch and the university in question is just a few kilometres away from the border between the Netherlands and Germany. We focused in our qualitative study on the impact of studying in a FL and our conclusion is that stakeholders observe and experience that deficiencies, particularly in the domain of writing, have a negative impact on dropout rates and on study achievements.

More research is needed in order to better define academic writing proficiency and the notion of an adequate communicative level in academic writing. Additional training on academic FL proficiency seems necessary for international students. In order to construct effective programmes we need a deeper knowledge about actual differences between academic L1 and academic FL language features and about the constraints on transferring academic L1 to academic FL proficiency.

Corresponding author: Lidy Zijlmans, Radboud in'to Languages and Radboud Universiteit Centre for Language Studies, Nijmegen, Netherlands, E-mail:

About the authors

Lidy Zijlmans

Lidy Zijlmans has been active in the field of Dutch as a Second Language since 1978. Currently she is conducting research on the role of second language in higher education at Radboud University Nijmegen.

Marc van Oostendorp

Marc van Oostendorp is Professor of Dutch and Academic Communication at Radboud University.

Roeland van Hout

Roeland van Hout is professor em. of applied linguistics and variationist linguistics at Radboud University Nijmegen.

Appendix 1

Interview guidelines: Teachers

Note: the original guidelines were in Dutch

  • What subject/course(s) do you teach?

  • Which other teaching tasks do you have (like BA thesis supervision, mentoring)

Questions about international students, German students in particular

  • What helps/hinders them in working for your course?

  • Do they ever come to talk to you about their work in your course?

  • Have you ever felt they are an extra burden for you or the course?

  • What is your impression regarding the German students compared to Dutch students? (Are they better students or less/more diligent, different in behaviour towards each other, fellow students, and teachers?)

  • What productive tasks do they have?

    • ○ Essays/papers

    • ○ Theses

    • ○ Presentations

    • ○ Take part in group discussions

    • ○ Writing e-mails

    Question about writing assignments

    • How important are written assignments in your course?

    • What difficulties or problems do they seem to have in doing these assignments?

    • What do you look for in evaluating this writing?

    • What kinds of comments do you give when evaluating the assignments?

    • Do you offer help or are there any resources available to improve the quality of the written assignments?

Questions about group work

  • Do they have to participate in group work? (Why a group assignment rather than an individual one?)

  • Do they prefer to do group work with German students only, or also with Dutch students?

  • What problems have you seen with group work assignments, if any?

Questions about examinations

  • Are these all written, or also oral?

  • Do you use open or multiple-choice questions?

  • Do these students have to resit exams more often?

  • Do you hear about study load (do you think they need more time than Dutch students?)

  • In what language is most of the literature?

Final question

  • Do your colleagues share your experiences or do they have different ones?

Appendix 2

Interview protocol: Student interview 1 (after the first semester)


My research is about the role of language for study success. The German students study in English, in Dutch or both. Does that influence their studies?

Study results

In the first place, I need all academic results. How many ECTS do you have by now? Is that the maximum? Do you have a positive result for the rest of the year? Did you take any resits? How many?

General questions

What do you study? Why did you choose to study in Nijmegen? Do you feel that some aspects are difficult, or not so difficult? What do you find most difficult?


Was your knowledge of Dutch sufficient at the start of your studies?


What is the role of English in your studies? What is the Dutch – English ratio? Do you experience the mix as problematic?

Co-operating with others

How many Dutch and how many German students are in your group? Are all the Germans usually together in the lecture hall? If you need to write a report, or work on a project, do you do that with Germans and/or Dutch students? How is the co-operation? In which language do you discuss matters? In which language do you write? Who is writing?

Social aspects

Where do you live? Do you live with Dutch and/or German students? Do you speak Dutch in your free time?


Do you know people who had a harder time than you did? Do you know why? Do you know anything about the differences between studying in Germany and studying in the Netherlands? Are the German students different, do they study differently? Is there a cultural difference?

Appendix 3

Interview protocol: Student interview 2 (after 1 year)

Sources: Interviews with staff (student advisors) and teachers


We talked before, at the beginning of the year. Then I asked how you were doing and how you were getting on with Dutch. Now I would like to know: how did you get on? Did you acquire all your study credits (ECTS)?

I want to show you statements on language and behaviour of German students made by staff members. I invite you to respond to these statements. When they do not match your own experiences and situation, do they match other German students that you know of?


  • When German students do not integrate well, their Dutch language proficiency is still low in the 3rd year or even reduces. (Maybe this does not apply to you, but can you say anything about fellow students?)

  • Germans often stick together and keep living on the other side of the border. Even those living in the Netherlands draw back amongst themselves.

  • Faculty has a policy to distribute German students over stem groups. (Is this the case in your faculty? Is that effective? How many Germans were in your group?)

  • Psychology offered workshops on integration, but there was no interest. (Do you know about this facility, was it offered in your first year, were students interested in it?)

  • Biology/Faculty of Science offers workshops for international students: “you should have told me earlier”. Aim was to lower thresholds in asking for help. (Do you know about this facility, was it offered in your first year, were students interested?)

Discussion groups

  • German students’ difficulties in orally expressing themselves slow down the discussion. This is irritating for students and teachers. (Was this a problem for you or for anyone you know? Did you notice irritation?)

  • Fellow students complain about comprehensibility due to monotonous speech and pronunciation deficiencies of German students. (Does this apply to you? Possibly for other German students you know? Did you or this person try to improve? How?)

  • Teachers mention girls that whisper during class, as if they are translating/subtitling. (Do you recognize this? Do you do this? Or other German students you know? Has this changed, improved?)


  • Writing in English is allowed but not recommended. Still many choose to do so, although their English is often not that good.

  • The development of Dutch language skills is lagging behind, in particular writing. Teachers even call the results deplorable.

  • Faculty of science: Teachers try to be co-operative in evaluating and grading exams/assignments. (Do you feel that your or your fellow student’s grades were influenced by the quality of your Dutch/English? Did you receive feedback on your writing skills by teachers? If so: what kind of feedback? Did you try to get help? Where/from whom?)

  • Psychology: No time is spent on language skills: it is either good enough or we do not evaluate the assignment. German students are given the advice to ask a Dutch peer for feedback or even a full review. This becomes a problem when there are many German students in one group. (Do you feel that your or fellow students’ grades were influenced by the quality of your Dutch/English? Did you receive feedback on your writing skills by teachers? If so: what feedback? Did you seek help? Where/from whom?)


  • German students experience multiple-choice questions as very difficult. (Does this apply to you or students you know? What exactly do you find difficult? What did you do to overcome this? Did it get better during the first year?)


  • We record lectures and upload them on the Electronic Learning Environment, so these can be listened to a 2nd time at home. (Is this the case in your faculty? Do you use this facility?)

  • What is the role of English? Is reading English a problem?

  • German students have different ways of studying. They are used to learning by heart instead of gaining insight into relationships between matters. For Dutch students this is less of a problem.

  • German students are very quiet, ask little attention or help. They just do what they have to do.

  • We have mentors with coaching tasks. They speak with students about their progression. The threshold to consult with a mentor is low. If necessary, the mentor will refer a student to the student advisor. (Does this apply to you? Did you use this facility (a lot)? Did it help you? What would be a good way to support/guide German/international students?


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Published Online: 2020-09-19
Published in Print: 2020-07-31

© 2020 Lidy Zijlmans et al., published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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