Assessment of the Delft Method of Second Language Teaching

The following essay is a school assignment for a course called ‘History of English Language Teaching‘ which is given by one of my favourite teachers. Indeed, I count myself amongst the very lucky to have a teacher of this quality. (I am not saying who, or else you will all be over here and I’d have to share his time with even more people…!)

Purpose of the essay is to investigate the underlying purpose and validation of a particular style of teaching, and establish if it is a method or merely an approach. Furthermore, I honed down the central issue of my investigation to include a notion of whether this method was appropriate in its specific context and with regard to the target group it aims at.

‘Assessing the DELFT METHOD of Language Learning in its appropriate and specific context’ by Amber Nowak

What is the Delft Method’?

The Delft Method was initially developed by lecturers at the Technical University in Delft, the Netherlands, in the early 1980s as a method by which foreign students could quickly learn Dutch as a foreign language in order to study and survive in Holland. The motivation for this was that it would thus allow foreign students to study effectively and participate in the country’s culture, rather than be isolated in smaller cultural groups all of the same origins. A new method – the Delft Method – was designed especially to meet these requirements. The method itself focusses mainly on productive language skills (speaking and writing), which are learned through use of the target language only. It soon became popular because it proved to be effective and because its content was known for its simplicity and clarity. (Makkink 2007)

The method focuses on acquiring grammar and language structure through texts chosen for their strong cultural focus in a Dutch cultural environment. The lessons emphasise listening and speaking skills, and the texts are designed to improve knowledge about the Netherlands at the same time. The emphasis lies in speaking, in transferring meaning, paraphrasing and using discourse to arrive at an agreement in meaning, in other words, the emphasis lies in language performance, in oppose to language competence in the given target language (English) (Canale&Swaine1980)

The Delft Method is typically one of high work load. The student is expected to be able to focus on a full-day course for a period of six months. It could be compared to the sheltered model used in America to prepare foreign students for studying in English in the United States [Holly Hansen-Thomas 2008].

Using the Delft Method for teaching English

Since the onset of using the Delft Method for learning Dutch, it became clear that the method could also be used for students to acquire English. In fact, there was a growing popularity amongst TU Delft students in the 1990s to rather focus on English than on Dutch. This has specific socio-political motivation that I will discuss now and deals with the status of the English language in the Netherlands.

Learning English to survive in a formally Dutch-speaking country is a realistic objective in the Netherlands. This is due to the specific relationship that Dutch natives have to the English language. Historically, the Netherlands quickly accepted colonial dominance of the British Empire in the 19th century. With this domination came the onset of the inevitable status of English as a global lingua franca. As a nation of traders, the Dutch approach to speaking other languages is one of practical nature: they needed to be able to trade with speakers of many languages, and thus flexibility in their own use of other languages for purposes of communication was inevitable. Today, the Dutch pride themselves on being easily multi-lingual and will show surprising bravour and spontaneity when presented with the opportunity to speak other (European) languages. This is an example of what is termed civic ideology in terms of language assimilation in the Netherlands. (3 -Kutlay 2005)

Of all European languages, English is most popular amongst the Dutch. This is confirmed in international statistics, some of which claim that the Netherlands ranks 2nd highest in the world (after Norway) with regard to proficiency of English on the whole (EPI – English Proficiency Index) (4 -EF-EPI 2011 report).  Since the arrival of mass media this scenario has reached another level; the combination of sub-titling in English-speaking television broadcasting and in films, in addition to music and a large prevalence of the English language on the internet, all provide more than sufficient exposure to English to accomplish the above-mentioned rating. English now has an unofficial “second language status” here, to the degree that using English as a lingua franca in the Netherlands for communication with foreigners is now considered a very normal thing. The Dutch government, for one, will accept correspondence written in English (5), and there is no hostility toward the English language in the Netherlands, on the whole. This fact may very well be a foremost contributing factor to the success rate of a prescribed language course taught here in the Netherlands, aimed at a specific group of learners for the purpose of learning English or Dutch.

Who are the target group for the Delft Method?

Who is learning languages in the Netherlands, and for what purpose?

Careful investigation of the objectives of potential target students and the identification of starting points they may share, are leading factors when deciding on syllabus strategy.  What will be most suitable syllabus design in a given context? More specifically, the setting for the TU-Delft students is -

-          They have convened in the Netherlands in order to excel academically in a particular technical academic field

-          Practical knowledge of Dutch and/or English are a vital ingredient for their success in their field

-          Practical knowledge of Dutch and/or English are a vital ingredient to forestall social isolation while in the Netherlands

-          Limited time for learning L2 (similar to the ‘Sheltered Model’, TU students may arrive beforehand in order to get a head-start on language difficulties)

-          Large diversity in L2 amongst students who will need to use the same materials and follow the same curriculum

-          They do not share the same L1 background

From the above-mentioned factors it is clear, that we can identify our group quite closely. If we may criticize methods for being too prescriptive and assuming too much about a context before the context is given (Brown, 1a pg 9), in the case of students wishing to use the Delft Method, we can closely identify the group and the context in which they will be learning. Thus, we can make safe assumptions about what they will need in order to achieve this goal.

No common linguistic background

With consideration for the above-mentioned conditions, one can safely say that the Delft Method was developed to cater to a large group of individuals which share linguistic L1 diversity as a common denominator (in oppose to a common L1), and the broad common goals as identified above. By viewing these points, we can assume that these students “share” that they come from fundamentally different linguistic backgrounds. In practical terms this means that it must be possible to teach people from Vietnam, Colombia and Germany all in the same room using a particular method. This renders the method prescriptive and non-eclectic in nature.

Intellectual copyright on the Delft Method?

The Delft Method was developed by the department of applied linguistics at the TU Delft, by Professor Dr A.G. Sciarone and his associate professors, as what they called an ‘innovation’.  Let us take a close look at the characteristics of their innovation:

Principles of the Delft Method:

  • L2 – instruction
  • Emphasis on most frequently used vocabulary
  • Learn and apply the most frequent words and phrases used
  • Learn the grammar by studying the examples
  • Gap fills as a review exercise for the previous lesson
  • Listening skills are considered a vital ingredient for success
  • Words are learned in the context that they appear in; and in a number of other contexts for recognition purposes
  • Daily testing

(Source: 7)

Given the characteristics attributed to the Delft Method above, one may surmise that the Delft Method is a prescriptive style of teaching language which is effective exactly because so much is known about the target group beforehand. The method prescribes all instruction to take place in the target language, and relies on the students’ willingness to ‘do the work’. This last point is the axis of their success rate, and not what the method will do for them, as this only supplies a platform for the student in his course of learning.

Comparison to Direct Method

The Direct Method is described by the British Council as “a method by which to immerse the learner into the language in the same way as when a first language is learnt.” (9) Various sources indicate that this method has had its best day, and has been left to wallow in the marshes of post 1980s method-frenzy – a period in which analysts believed they had some sort of an obligation to discover the end-all teaching method that should be everybody’s panacea in the classroom. (Brown, 1a, p 10) More specifically, the Direct Method is described as:


Characteristics of the Direct Method:

  • Ø all teaching is done in the target language (L2)
  • Ø grammar is taught inductively (no grammar rules-based lessons)
  • Ø focus on speaking and listening
  • Ø everyday language is taught
  • Ø emphasis on use of demonstrations and  ‘realia’
  • Ø abstract vocabulary taught by association of ideas

[Source: number]


When compared, I think it is safe to say that the department of applied linguistics in Delft did not need to reinvent the wheel in order to cater to international student corps. Instead, they have borrowed aspects from other effective teaching methods, where these methods have met their specific needs. A case of begging apples from many different baskets, one may say.

When reflecting on the notion that methods are now not considered a central issue in language teaching anymore (Brown 2002), it is somewhat surprising that the Delft Method has withstood the changes in pedagogical climate and focus. In the Netherlands today, propagators of the Delft Method are still as industrious as ever.

Using a particular approach suggests that the teacher takes the liberty to apply eclectic teaching approaches or strategy at will. A steadfast method suggests that a prescriptive unambiguous and controlled curriculum is needed when dealing with such linguistic and cultural diversity. The method needs to be generic in nature, should be easy to follow from home, or when working from a workbook, and checking answers online. Applying a definitive method with very secure boundaries makes the success rate more easily controllable by any generic teacher who teaches it, and the result (= good knowledge of Dutch) more predictable. It may even render the individual teacher’s personal style in teaching obsolete, since the assignment material and the classroom work are strictly controlled by the syllabus and ‘teach themselves’, as it were.

Language on the street; the wider communicative context

When attempting to reach criteria that endorse the usefulness of a language in context, we could state that besides academic proficiency, the use of language has to meet several socio-cultural goals, which then again need to fall into a given category of appropriateness [Canale&Swain1980].  A communicative approach may help to transfer classroom language into the real-life environment, because it takes the authentic environment beyond the classroom into account. Students have the opportunity to exercise hearing and responding to authentic signals in daily life in order to gain fluency.

The rules of grammar mark systemic agreements within a language, but that they may fall short of a broader definition of which rules are – or could be – acceptable within authentic discourse. For example, if a young Chinese student meets his Dutch friends in the streets of Delft and speaks English to them, he may make an unconscious choice to speak a colloquial form of English as a signal to the others that there is sufficient resistance, as per age group, to the prescribed rules, and that there is room for innovation in communication, or simply an incentive to not sound “too correct”. Under these conditions, it may thus be more appropriate for person A to say:

“Me and my friend were just over there; just checking out that whole bunch of latest skis for later this year…”

Rather than saying:

“My friend and I were just over there, viewing that display of latest-design skis for the upcoming season…”

The above example illustrates context and fluency to take priority over grammatical correctness due to social context. Much can be said for this, although as a language teacher it is a foremost goal to supply the underlying language structure upon which such colloquial forms rest. I still would not deem them ‘impossible’ or savagely incorrect in usage. It is the immense variation in linguistic possibilities which breach the boundaries of acceptable use that give birth to new dialects and new forms of the same language endorsed by their youngest generation of speakers.

Lacking in communicative elements – What do the students say about the Delft Method?

However, in the case of the Delft Method, it is assumed that the wider context of the use of L2 (specifically, Dutch and/or English) is taken care of by daily use in all manner of truly authentic situations. This may explain why the Delft Method does not feel the need to ‘clutter’ its syllabus with all manner of communicative strategies. Although they maintain that one of the core elements in their course deals with speaking, and that as much as possible, it does not seem to mean for communicative purposes. Speaking seems to facilitate grammar acquisition and pronunciation rather than the functions of speech in authentic settings. The result of this is that the Delft Method is analytical and straightforward, and therefore dry. When viewing some of the responses on the internet forums, I came upon the following opinions by Delft Method students.

I quote:

 “It lacks the focus on conversation, and I will find some Dutch Speaking community to practice on this lack.” [sic]

“But you do learn a lot of words in a short time and you get a lot of information about the Netherlands at the same time, so it’s not totally useless.”

“Now, after finishing the course using the Delftse Method, Tweede Ronde (at U.v.Amsterdam), I would say that I agree: this is a very impractical material.”

“I am taking the UvA class in Roetersstraat, the green book second level stuff and while the text seems dry, the workbook and such really seem to be good at getting sentences structure into my head.”



I conclude that the Delft Method could very well meet its objectives, by supplying a fundamental basis to a language using their system and syllabus. The target group is a defined and capable of reaching its goal by the means of the Delft Method. Learners with another set of factors and needs, such as refugees with a non-academic background, require another method or approach. The Delft Method can only be applied so rigidly and deliver its rate of success when the target group’s prerequisites are strictly adhered to.

Language distance (distance of learner’s L1 from western Germanic languages) plays no role in the success rate of the students when compared to the success rate of the same students using a different method.

The Delft Method supports a purely functional language acquisition process in the individual, and activates the students’ natural abilities to recognise the structure of a language as approached cognitively and by means of hard work. In this situation, the language structure will be learned and can be reproduced without natural interaction, without generating new meaning and paraphrasing. The joy and discovery of culture and literature are not part of this course, and thus learner motivation will be at a minimum. People who learn most optimally via natural communication will need to source other means of learning.

If a student choses for the Delft Method they should realise that they are using a very functional and direct means of language acquisition which will not appeal to any differentiation in leaner type, or style. In itself this method has proven itself to be sufficient in reaching this particular goal, but does not appeal to a human sense of enjoyment in learning.

Author: Amber Nowak

Date: 15 December 2011

Course: History of English Language Teaching


All sources retrieved between 15th October and 15 December 2011.

(1a) Main source: Methodology in Language Teaching Jack C Richards Willy A. Renandya Cambridge University Press 2002

[1]‘Looking back: The Delft Method’ Henk Makkink (2007) TU Delft ‘Outlook’

[2] Holly Hansen-Thomas ‘Sheltered Instruction – Best Practices for ELLS in the mainstream’ 2008; Kappa Delta Pi record 2008

[3] Yagmur Kutlay, Babylon, Tilburg University pdf; Language policy in the Netherlands /pg 3: civic ideology in the Netherlands 2005

[4] EF-EPI – Education First – English Proficiency Index

[5] ‘we speak English… to a point’/forum 2011

[6] Canale&Swaine Approaches to Second Language Teaching 1980/ Oxford University Press 2002

[7] The Delft Method today: Jan Erik Grezel in opdracht van Uitgeverij Boom, 2007

[8] Handleiding ‘Effectief werken met de Delftse Methode’ Jan Erik Grezel 2007

[9] British Council ‘Teaching English’ knowledge database: Definition of the Direct Method:


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