Dutch-German school exchanges: from border to shared roads

Date of news: 14 April 2021

The project Nachbarsprache & Buurcultuur will come to an end this year. Project leader Paul Sars, coordinator Henning Meredig and scientific supervisor Sabine Jentges look back on the Dutch-German exchange project in the border region, in which more than 6000 students, 130 teachers and about 50 school leaders from the German and Dutch side are involved. After five years, the view on the ‘traditional exchange’ has changed considerably.

'Five years ago - when we finished the project proposal - I was told by the German ministry: no way, this is not possible, how did you come up with the crazy idea of bringing German and Dutch students together in this way?' recalls Paul Sars. ‘Two years ago, at a conference, the chief of primary education of that ministry came up to me: could you please also do something for primary education?’


In 2017, Radboud University Nijmegen and Universität Duisburg-Essen received 3.4Euregio rijn-waal million euros to stimulate exchanges between secondary schools in the German-Dutch border region. The project was named Nachbarsprache & Buurcultuur and aimed to prepare young people for life in the multilingual and multicultural society of the Euregio Rijn-Waal. Of the five Dutch-German Euregions, Rijn-Waal is the largest in population and this year the border region is celebrating its 50th anniversary. At the time, it was mainly the necessity of cross-border area development that put cooperation high on the agenda. Both in Germany and in the Netherlands, the border regions could not benefit from developments in the rest of the country due to their peripheral location. ‘One of the ways to promote cross-border cooperation is to strengthen socio-cultural cohesion by learning about each other's language and culture’, Sars explains. ‘But we wanted more: not just to learn about each other's culture, but to learn from each other's culture together.’

Sausage sandwich

Catch them young, was the idea. Sabine Jentges: ‘Dutch students living in a border region learn German at school, but are afraid to order a sausage sandwich from the snack bar in Kranenburg when they are there with their parents. The same is true for German students. They find it unbelievably nerve-wracking. In our project, we not only wanted to take away the tension, but above all make it much more fun.’ Normally, students learn about foreign language and culture in their own classroom and in their own school. But to really get to know a language and culture, actual contact with students from across the border is indispensable, says Jentges. The project was therefore not only about lessons in German and Dutch, but about a broader exchange.


To make this exchange possible, German schools and classes had to be matched to Dutch schools and classes. Some schools were an hour's bus journey from each other (for example Arnhem - Krefeld), but other schools were with a 10-minute cycling distance from each other (for example Kranenburg - Ubbergen). ‘It was very complex from an organisational point of view’, says Sars. After all, there is geographical proximity, but the differences in school culture are considerable. In the Netherlands, for example, schools have all kinds of directions, but in Germany 95 percent of schools are public. German teachers are employed by the government, Dutch teachers are employed by the school. The curricula differ, the school years differ, the pedagogy differs. School buildings in the Netherlands are often a lot lighter and more modern than their German counterparts. German students have a long joint lunch break during which the school provides hot food, whereas Dutch students bring their own lunch boxes and have a lot of freedom to fill in their breaks. In the Netherlands, schools have a lot of freedom in the choice of subjects for a school year, while Germany has detailed curricula that tell you exactly what to do and when.


Coordinator Meredig soon discovered how important it was to look for connecting factors with school management and teachers. ‘We have an example of a school in the Netherlands that was linked to a public school in Germany without an initial introductory meeting. This was preceded by weeks of misunderstanding before the first exchange was realized. That is why we switched to individual matchmaking.’ In consultation with the school management, teachers and students, the exchange was tailor-made. During the school year, a Dutch and a German class had intensive one-day or multiple-day exchanges at various times, for example joint lessons and excursions. ‘New partner schools first thought: participating only takes a lot of time. But almost all schools said after the first two to three months: what this project offers is real support. With teaching materials, with students as guidance, with administrative support. Now, towards the end of the project, more than forty schools have indicated that they want to continue as permanent partners’, Meredig says proudly.


University involvement played a critical role, says Sars. ‘We are natural partners for secondary schools: we train teachers, and secondary school students come to study at the university. We have linguistic and cultural expertise. And we have a helicopter view. You cannot ask one secondary school to organise something like this for sixty other schools. And if the province were to organize this by itself, there might be a booklet, but that would not really land on the student's table.’ In addition, the secondary schools are a source of scientific data, Jentges adds: ‘Within such a project it is much easier to conduct an experiment in school classes. Or set up a corpus of conversations between students. Twenty to thirty bachelor's and master's theses were written for the project in four years.’ In any case, involving students was a golden opportunity, Jentges emphasizes. ‘University students turned out to play a very important role in our project. Young people, who spoke German and Dutch, were real examples for the pupils. We have had more than 40 interns, language assistants and students who came to the exchanges, especially in the last four years.’

Paul SarsSabine JentgesHenning Meredig
Paul Sars, Sabine Jentges, Henning Meredig


Eventually, during the course of the project, the focus shifted from language learning to communication, and from the classroom to the entire region, say Jentges and Meredig. Jentges: ‘In the beginning we thought that Dutch and German students would learn the language ​​from each other. But for the exchange, it turned out to be necessary to encourage students to use different languages. So not: We are now in Germany, you have to speak German or now we are in the Netherlands, so you have to speak Dutch. No, you can use German, Dutch, maybe some English, Turkish, Moroccan or Polish. Only then does communication arise. It is not important whether the datives and accusatives are correct, it does not have to be perfect. The exchange turned out to be much broader than language.’ Meredig nods. ‘That actually came as a surprise. In the beginning, we thought it would be a very big step for students to be in one classroom together. But they wanted to show the entire school and even the city to their guests. ‘There are guests from Germany. Surely they don't just want to see the classroom, do they? They also want to walk into the AH!’’


COVID-19 ended physical school exchanges but did not stop the project. Digital exchanges have now been set up with jointly developed teaching materials, so that students and teachers can keep in touch with their neighbouring schools. ‘Funding for the project will end on December 31’, said Sars. ‘But we are thinking: are we going to apply for such a project again? We have ideas, we have gained new insights and especially from the German side the question has arisen whether we also want to start with primary education. A new project should be at least that size again. This is extremely labour-intensive and expensive, but it yields benefits in many ways. For teachers, students, but also government officials. We live in this Euregion with our backs to the border, on the Dutch and German sides. What we have tried with this project is to ensure that the children who are now growing up have a 360-degree living environment.’


The project was made possible with support from the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the province of Gelderland, the Euregio Rijn-Waal, the Taalunie and the European Interreg fund. The project is carried out by a project team from Radboud University Nijmegen on the Dutch side, in collaboration with a project team from Duisburg-Essen University on the German side. The closing conference of the Interreg project ‘Nachbarsprache & Buurcultuur’ (2017-2021) will take place online on April 14, 2021 (9.00 am - 1.30 pm). Registration is closed, but all material will be made available online on the website.