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My Local Friend

Practicing your newfound Dutch skills can be tough in the Netherlands: everyone just starts talking to you in English. City Central’s My Local Friend programme was dreamt up in 2017, and has matched hundreds of native Dutch speakers with foreign residents who want to improve their Dutch skills.

The Netherlands has the highest level of English fluency as a second language in the world, so most Dutch people don’t bat an eye and jump straight into English if they detect a foreign accent or someone stumbles over a word in Dutch. Even though it’s meant to be helpful, the tendency to switch to English can actually keep internationals from being able to really participate in Dutch society.

My Local Friend began to solve this common problem that so many internationals face: an opportunity to practice their Dutch with a partner who was tasked with only speaking to them in Dutch. “it’s kind of what makes My Local Friend very necessary”, says Deborah Bremmer, a member of the My Local Friend team. “It’s so nice to have a person that will not switch to English, and it’s often the only person they will have contact with who speaks Dutch to them.”

Just talking

Deborah is Dutch herself, and helps out with the intakes and matches made through My Local Friend. And she’s also a volunteer in the programme itself: since autumn 2018, she has been matched up with Fatemeh Fereidooni, a PhD candidate in experimental psychopathology from Iran. Over the past three years, Deborah and Fatemeh have met up periodically to go for walks or share a meal at one another’s homes and, most importantly, just talk.

Fatemeh found out about My Local Friend through her supervisor, who is also an international. Deborah says that most folks find them after their language course instructors recommend it to them, or from a friend of a friend who’s already been matched up. For Fatemeh, learning Dutch at first was fundamentally about feeling more aware of what was going on around her.

“I couldn’t understand anything on the signs in the streets, or if someone was making an announcement on the train or the bus, I couldn’t understand so I felt a bit freaked out about what was going on,” Fatemeh says. But as time went on, her goal was to make sure she wasn’t the reason her Dutch friends felt they had to switch to English. “I’m going to stay here, so I have to learn the language to communicate well with people.”

Getting to know you

What can you expect if you come to City Central in search of a Local Friend? Signing up for the programme involves paying a one-time fee of 15 euros (volunteers who serve as “friends” do not have to pay), and Deborah and other team members from around the world have a short conversation with the applicants to get to know them. “We ask what they are doing in Groningen, what kind of work they do or what they study, just to get an idea of the person”, Deborah says.

“What is their motivation to learn Dutch? Do they want to stay in the Netherlands, or do they just need it for work? Then we ask about their hobbies, interests, and we try to focus on that so we have a good idea of what someone likes and how they would envision a meeting with a match.”

Just as motivations for seeking out a language practice partner can vary, the Dutch-speaking volunteers that the internationals (more often than not connected to the universities in the city) run the gamut too, from students themselves to older Dutch men and women. “I think the oldest was 92 or something”, Deborah says. The majority of the programme’s volunteers are middle-aged or recently retired.

Does the person have a dog?

During the intakes, the MLF team inquires about what kind of lifestyle applicants lead: if they have a Dutch volunteer who’s an avid rock climber, then it’s a natural fit to pair them up with a sporty international, too. They also try to figure out what sort of person (the international person is looking for - or, in some cases, house pet.

“We always ask if they have a preference for someone from a certain age category, or male or female, sometimes people really want an older person to have a grandma figure or sometimes they want someone who has children - or someone who has a dog. We hear that quite often, it would be great if the person has a dog.”

The intake conversation is held in Dutch in order to evaluate their own language skill level, a change which was actually implemented after Fatemeh joined: she hadn’t started taking any Dutch classes herself when she walked in the door, but now, three years later, she and Deborah speak in Dutch with each other more and more often.

“I don’t know if you see the progress in me or not, but I think I am progressing”, Fatehmeh says. “Oh definitely, yes!” Deborah replies. “It’s mostly that you dare to speak it now!”

Welcome Friend

If a newcomer doesn’t speak Dutch quite well enough yet to benefit from a Dutch-speaking match, there’s also Welcome Friend. Social isolation is an unfortunately common experience for many internationals, but it was exacerbated by the Coronavirus lockdowns and social distancing rules over the past year.

So in September 2020, City Central introduced Welcome Friend, an English-language programme to pair up long-term city residents of any nationality with newcomers who just want to be introduced to the city and feel more at home during their first six months living here. With the addition of Welcome Friend, My Local Friend was split into two tracks for English and Dutch speakers. The Dutch side of the programme is now called Taal Friend.

Up to you

It’s up to each matched pair to decide how often they meet up: some choose to be in touch on a weekly basis or, like Deborah and Fatemeh, every few months. Many pairs go for bike rides together or visit museums. Over time, Fatehmeh says that her Dutch social circle has grown too, which means she has more organic “local friends” of her own these days. “I was very lucky, because now I have four Dutch friends that I even go to their parent’s homes, but I know for some other people that it’s very difficult to even make friends”, Fatehmeh says.

Even though she has her own growing social network here, Fatemeh says she would not hesitate to recommend My Local Friend to other newcomers – and she has: “Whenever I have friends who are new and if they don’t have any Dutch friends and want to get to know someone, I tell them they can go to City Central. I think I’ve introduced it to a few people. I’ve enjoyed it and I find it a nice programme to help people start something here.”

Deborah seconds that thought, and emphasises that while internationals gain more confidence and a much-needed social contact, the volunteers also get a lot out of meeting new people whom they wouldn’t otherwise have in their lives.

“It’s very interesting to get to know a new person from a very different country. It’s not one helper and one who needs help: it’s an equal relationship, because you both learn from each other and help each other.”

Are you a Stadjer interested in becoming a Welcome Friend or Taal Friend volunteer? Or are you an international resident looking to improve your Dutch or get to know Groningen? Visit My Local Friend to find your match!