UN: Dutch schools must welcome mother tongues

Geneva – On the 25th of August 2021, the UN Committee Against Racial Discrimination urged the Netherlands to ensure that multilingual pupils are not restricted or punished when using their mother tongue at school. The Committee expressed its concern about discrimination experienced by pupils with a migration or minority background in Dutch education. Based on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the use of the home language may not be prohibited in the school environment.

Prohibiting mother tongues common practice at Dutch schools
In the Netherlands, it is still common to prohibit speaking other languages at school than Dutch. For example, a teacher recently explained in a national newspaper (Volkskrant 18/2/21) that when she catches her students speaking their own language in class, they are forced to copy pages from a Dutch dictionary during lunch break. This was presented as a good practice. Parents are also frequently asked to speak only Dutch with their children when picking them up or taking them to school. The Rutu Foundation recognizes these practices. Ellen-Rose Kambel, director: “Unfortunately we have been receiving and collecting these signals for years. It is still widely believed that restricting the home language will help students to learn the Dutch language.”

However well-intentioned, research shows that discouraging or punishing by condemning home languages has exactly the opposite effect. When school rejects part of the child’s identity, it restricts the child’s social-emotional and cognitive development. For example, at schools where students are punished for using their home language, these students were found to perform worse in comprehensive reading than at schools where their languages are welcomed. The students feel greater shame for who they are and have less confidence in their future.

A form of racial or ethnic discrimination
With these conclusions and recommendations, the Committee has confirmed that restricting or punishing the use of the mother tongue at school by multilingual pupils with a migration or minority background constitutes a form of discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity. The Committee recommended that the Netherlands expands its teacher training to include multilingual education. Within one year, the Netherlands must report back to the Committee on the measures it has taken to implement the recommendations contained in paragraph 20 (a), (b) and (c).

Discrimination in education
19. The Committee is concerned by reports of discrimination of students with ethnic minority and immigrant backgrounds, including that they are more likely to receive a lower assessment from their teachers for secondary school admissions than what they could receive on the basis of their school results. The Committee is further concerned that:
(a) Students with ethnic minority or immigrant backgrounds continue to face discrimination with respect to obtaining internships, which negatively impacts their future prospects on the labour market;
(b) Multilingual students with an ethnic minority or immigrant background are allegedly restricted from or punished for speaking their home languages in the school environment;
(c) The COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the education of children from ethnic minority groups and with lower socio-economic status (art. 5).

20. The Committee recommends that the State party take measures to increase equal opportunities for all children in education, regardless of their background, and monitor the effectiveness thereof. The Committee also recommends that the State party:
(a) Ensure that all children receive an adequate assessment from their teachers for secondary schools, without discrimination including implicit bias, based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin;
(b) Take measures to combat and prevent discrimination in accessing internships, develop protocols or guidelines that teachers can follow when students report such discrimination, and ensure that teachers are aware of these protocols;
(c) Take measures to ensure that multilingual students from ethnic minority groups are not restricted from or punished for speaking their home languages at school and expand teacher training on multilingual education;

The UN Committee on Racial Discrimination is the supervisory body of the International Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The members are independent experts who base their conclusions and recommendations on reports received from the State, the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights and NGOs. As a Member State, the Netherlands is obligated to report on its compliance with the Convention every five years.

Language Friendly Schools

In a special report to the Committee, the Rutu Foundation presented its findings based on interviews, newspaper and research articles. An estimated 25 per cent of the Dutch population speaks an additional language at home. In the larger cities, more than half of the school children are multilingual, speaking dozens of different languages. Instead of restricting the use of these languages, schools should welcome them as a rich source for learning and communication to the benefit of all students.

The recommendations of the Committee should not be interpreted to mean that schools are required to offer instruction in all the languages spoken by their pupils. Students should be allowed to use their home languages with their friends or their families at the school grounds or in the hallways. In addition, teachers can use the student’s languages as part of the learning process. For example by allowing small groups of students who speak the same language to solve a problem among themselves and report back in Dutch. More good practices of using students’ language diversity as a learning resource, can be found at Language Friendly Schools. This is a global network of primary and secondary schools who welcome and value all the languages present in the school. There are currently 12 schools certified as Language Friendly Schools in the Netherlands.

More information:



Communications Internship 

Application Deadline: September 1, 2021
Timeframe: 01/09/21-15/12/21 

The Rutu Foundation is seeking a creative, motivated, and proactive intern with an interest in languages and education for a part-time (8 hours/week) Marketing and Communications position. We are an award-winning international non-profit based in Amsterdam committed to advocating for multilingual education. As our Communications Intern… read more here


Multilingual Education/Language Friendly School Intern 

Application Deadline: September 1, 2021
Timeframe: 01/09/21-15/12/21 

The Rutu Foundation is seeking a committed, motivated, and proactive intern for a part-time (16 hours/week) Multilingual Education position. Read more here


Marketing & Development Intern 

Application Deadline: September 1, 2021
Timeframe: 01/09/21-15/12/21 

The Rutu Foundation is seeking a motivated and proactive fulltime or part-time intern for our Marketing and Development position. Read more here


On Saturday 3 April 2021, De Dubbeldekker, a public primary school in Hilversum, the Netherlands, celebrated its official certification as a Language Friendly School. “This means that we welcome the cultural identity of our students, which includes multilingualism,” explained the principal, Jacqueline van den Bor.

During the covid-proof celebration, the school raised a flag with the Language Friendly School-logo and offered ‘language friendly school’-cakes to the small group of parents, teachers and students who had gathered.

For De Dubbeldekker, multilingualism is not perceived as a problem, but as a strength. “The use of the mother tongue will never be prohibited anymore at our school”. Lidy Peters, the support coordinator (interne begeleider) said: “It is wonderful to see students’ delight when they are asked to provide knowledge about their home language.”

Becoming a Language Friendly School

The Dubbeldekker-school team had already started professional development courses on integrating multilingualism in their teaching strategies, when teacher Pauline Simons heard about the Language Friendly School.

Using the Language Friendly School Roadmap, the team mapped out what they were already doing and then which language friendly-activities they would like to develop further in the future.

As part of the Language Friendly School network, the Dubbeldekker will have access to an online toolkit, a library and most importantly: experienced colleagues to exchange ideas with.

The Language Friendly School is a programme of the Rutu Foundation. The network is growing fast. Starting with two schools in Amsterdam in 2019, there are now 13 Language Friendly Schools in The Netherlands, Spain, Canada and the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba.

For more information: visit the website www.languagefriendlyschool.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Linkedin.

Interested in becoming a Language Friendly School? Sign up here to receive more information.