Thursday, April 17, 2014

Upper Intermediate Dutch User

On February 26th and 27th, a month shy of my 1.5-year anniversary of living in the Netherlands, I snuffled and sniffed my sick way through the four sections of the Staatsexamen NT2-II.  Then I distracted myself for the four weeks that my results were pending.

A number of questions I would like to address:

1. What, exactly, is the NT2-II?  Why did I take it?

NT2 stands for Nederlands als 2e taal, or Dutch as 2nd Language.  The exam judges how good or bad a non-Dutchie is at Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Reading in Dutch.  There are two options for taking the test: Program I or II.  I chose to take the more advanced test because I want to work at a level that reflects my university and graduate education, and passing the Program I test would only allow me to work at the level of someone with an MBO education, which roughly corresponds to a U.S. community college or technical college degree.  There's talk of introducing an NT2 III test option, but that level doesn't yet exist.

Someone who passes the NT2-II, in theory, can Write, Speak, Listen, and Read Dutch at the B2 level or higher.  A B2 command of a foreign language translates into someone being a “Vantage or Upper Intermediate User” of that language, by the European language framework.  A person with a B2 level of Dutch proficiency should be able to*:
  • Understand main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including discussions in my field of specialization. 
  • Interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. 
  • Produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
*  Consider this an average proficiency level.  There are many factors and specific situations that can negatively affect your Dutch proficiency, and these cause the embarrassing moments where you operate at an A1 level of Dutch and feel like a three-year-old.  Apparently, these situations are forgiven if, for two days in a row, you are capable of "faking it" long enough to take the NT2.  Factors that regularly inhibit B2 proficiency may include jet lag, sickness, fatigue, too little caffeine, going on vacation in a non-Dutch country for a week or longer, too much caffeine, introvertedness, having recently finished a taxing aerobic activity, too much beer, talking to an attractive or otherwise intimidating person, noisy places that make it difficult to follow the conversation, spacing out during long meetings, too little beer, and pretty much anything that might affect your ability to function in your own language. 

2.  How hard was the test?

That depends on what you consider "hard".  Taking a computer-based standardized test is something that plenty of people have trouble with.  I'm pretty familiar with them.  By now I know to monitor my time, answer all the questions, prepare with practice tests, and other tricks of the computer-based test trade.  I've taken a few standardized exams over the past five years, and have tutored people for English's version of the NT2.  Tests don't really bother me.

In terms of it being in Dutch, now, that was certainly trickier.  A couple of weeks earlier, I'd panicked and hired someone to help me do some vocabulary-and-grammar cramming.  I'm quick on the draw with a dictionary, of which we were allowed to use up to three during the Reading and Writing sections (Thank God).  Reading and Listening were multiple-choice exams, and I felt confident about passing them.  I was most concerned about what I call the "output" sections, Writing and Speaking, in which I had to construct my answers from scratch.

The best way for you to judge the difficulty level of the test is to go take a look/listen at a practice exam or two.  Non-Dutch speakers, it's the links found under "voorbeeldexamens", and to you, for obvious reasons, it will probably seem rather difficult.

I'd really like for some Dutch speakers and veteran expats to peek at some practice exams

“A guy at my school passed that test, and he can barely speak Dutch.  If he can pass it, you definitely can” is something I heard more than once from Dutch pals with good intentions of trying to motivate me.  Another was, "They probably don't grade too hard on the Speaking".  I appreciated their attempts, but their reassurance sounded glib.  I suspected they had never looked at an NT2 test themselves.  I wanted the speakers to acknowledge that the test was challenging, rather than belittling its difficulty.

For immediate gratification, though, here are a couple of more difficult examples from one practice exam.  First is a long writing exercise:

Here is an example of a Speaking exercise:
And here is one of my favorite short speaking exercises, which allowed 30 seconds to read the text, listen to a voice read the text, and look at the sequence of drawings.  In the next 30 seconds, you explained aloud to the computer what is going on in the pictures.

Nothing is more distressing than staring at these sketches and realizing that you don't know a key word like "shrug".  Despite my year of going through similar exercises In Real Life with physical therapy clients, I was totally baffled by the middle drawing.  Where, exactly, are those elbows going?

Surprise!  I passed.  Hardly with flying colors, but "good enough for the government".


I like to be a rarity, so I tried to find out how many people pass the exam and receive an NT2 "diploma" on the first try.  The College voor Examens 2013 annual report gave some clues, but I couldn't find any data on who passes and who doesn't, i.e. demographic data. 

There are a couple of roads to an NT2 diploma:
A) You can take all of the four sections over two consecutive days, and, if you pass them all, receive your diploma straightaway.  Or... 
B) Take the sections at your own pace, one-at-a-time over several days of your choosing, until you pass all of them.  Once you pass one section, you get a certificate for passing that section (Writing, for instance).  After passing all four sections, you can exchange your four certificates for an NT2 diploma.  There's no penalty for re-taking a section, but you do have to pay again each time, 40 per section.
The CvE annual report taught me that in 2013 there were 6,661 people who took the NT2-II and 10,118 who took the NT2-I.  Of those 16,779 total test-takers, 3,827 of them passed on the first attempt at all four tests and received their NT2 diploma directly.  The report didn't distinguish between people who passed the NT2-I versus the NT2-II, but it doesn't matter too much.  Even if all 3,827 were NT2-II test-takers (which we can assume they are not), that's still a maximum first-pass rate of 57%.

If we assume that, since 39.7% of the testers represented NT2-II testers, 39.7% of the diploma-winners were also NT2-II testers (again, not known information), that would suggest a mere 9% of people who took the NT2-II in 2013 successfully passed all four sections and gained a diploma on the first attempt.

Which makes me feel pretty cool.

It also makes me think about how many people will be returning to those stark grey cubicles, and how many times, on average, and over how many months (years?) it takes the majority of them to get that pesky NT2 certificate.

The total number of NT2 diplomas awarded in 2013 was 6,503.  The rest of the 10,000+ people who took the tests will have to take at least one of the four sections again... at least one time.  

What prevents people from achieving B2 proficiency?  How many masters-prepared healthcare professionals are there hanging out in the Netherlands and not yet working at the level of their education because they haven't gained that NT2 diploma?

When I walked into the exam center in February, I handed over a questionnaire I'd filled out, which asked questions about the length of time I'd spent living in the Netherlands, if I'd followed an NT2 study course, if my partner was Dutch, my household income level, and more.  I dearly wish I could see the data from those questionnaires for previous years.  However, as I haven't found that information free and online yet, I'll start by surmising, based on my personal experience, where the "Dutch is hard" myth comes from.  As part of that, I'll look at the enabling factors that made/makes it comparatively easy for me to learn the language.

On this, I've got pages and pages, most of which nobody will want to read.  I've been waiting until I'm qualified (read: passed the NT2) to write about it here.  I think that there are certain reproducible things that I experienced that made it possible for me to pass this, and I think that it's important to share them.

But for now, I've got some teammates to aanmoedigen.  

On a much nicer track... sorry, Colfax.

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