AMSTERDAM — DURING German class at Augustinus College, a private secondary school in Amsterdam, the 16- and 17-year-old students are looking at slides and discussing Impressionism in German.
When interrupted by a group of American visitors, the teacher asks several of the students to switch to English and explain the discussion to their visitors. The students easily break into flawless English.
"These students are fluent in English, but they can do the same in German and to a lesser extent in French," says English teacher Jan-Eric Remmelts proudly.
In the Netherlands, everyone learns to speak several languages. Nearly all students take English and many add French and German to their repertoire. English instruction used to begin at age 12. In 1985, it became mandatory for all students beginning at the age of 10.
As immigrant and refugee children pour into Dutch schools, the language-training system is learning to accommodate students with a wide range of native tongues.
In one Amsterdam English class for 12- and 13-year-olds, the 11 students represented seven different nationalities.
"There are at this moment a lot of people who come to Holland as refugees," explains Fred de Zoete, principal of a public school in Leiden, Netherlands. "And their children need education. We have a special educational program for children of refugees."
When they arrive, all immigrant students are put into a special program that emphasizes Dutch but quickly introduces English as well.
It usually takes newly arrived students two years to progress through three levels of intensive language instruction, says Hannie Verberg, coordinator of an immigrant language program in Leiden. The first level focuses exclusively on Dutch. English and other academic subjects are introduced in the second and third levels.
Nadia Damijan, a 14-year-old who moved to Leiden from Slovenia less than a year ago, speaks positively about her first months in the Netherlands. "I came here and had to learn Dutch," she says. "I was going to a very good school when I first came here. I must read Dutch, Dutch, Dutch all the day until 4 o'clock."
Dutch educators' attitudes toward immigrant students have changed dramatically during the last decade, says Dirk van Kooten of the Netherlands Association for Adult and Continuing Education. "Ten years ago there was a little bit of pity. Now we say, `You have to learn Dutch and work hard. We expect you to come every day and try your best.' Most of them understand this."
In Leiden, a class of 12- to 16-year-old new immigrants are learning to write the months of the year in Dutch. Several girls in this class wear scarves to cover their heads in the Muslim tradition. The class includes students from Turkey, Morocco, Poland, Iraq, Eritrea, and Lebanon.
Many of these students will thrive in their new surroundings. But not all will succeed in academics.
"They will certainly get fluent in Dutch at an every-day level," says teacher Ton Venden. "But it's very hard to catch up. They will have to work extra hard. More of the immigrant children will end up in vocational programs because of their disadvantaged backgrounds and language problems."
About 40 percent of the students in the vocational-education system end up dropping out. Overall, 20 percent of all students in the Netherlands don't finish secondary school.
"There is a dropout problem in this country," Mr. van Kooten acknowledges. "And it is becoming worse and worse in large cities."