Reading together sparks language learners’ interest in Flemish literature


A recent gathering of a collective reading group in Antwerp shows how useful books published in simplified Dutch can be, to learn words but also something about local culture

Elsschot for beginners

Every Tuesday morning at the Kielpark library in Antwerp, a group of Dutch learners gather, not for a language table or tutoring sessions but for a group reading of a book in Dutch. Diving into Dutch-language literature is daunting for those less than fluent in the language, but the group’s most recent book was a version specifically designed for them.

Lezen voor Iedereen is a Leuven-based publisher that rewrites books in simple Dutch. In its library are simplified versions of books that were originally written in Dutch but also English. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, are both recent translations into easy-to-read Dutch.

As is the book being read by the group in Antwerp: Een ontgoocheling (A Disappointment). Written by the celebrated 20th-century Flemish author Willem Elsschot, the book is the latest in the publisher’s Vlaamse Reuzen, or Flemish Giants, series.

Master of the tragi-comedy

Elsschot was a master at relating the trials and travails of the little man; his cheesesellers and housekeepers suffer life’s tragedies, both big and small, whether at the hands of the more powerful or of their own poor decisions.

Een ontgoocheling (1921) is classic Elsschot tragi-comedy: A hapless cigar salesman loses all hope in his son’s ability to make him proud, while watching his beloved playing card club fall to pieces.

At Kielpark, a native speaker reads the book allowed, stopping every few paragraphs to lead a discussion with the Dutch learners. This method ensures that everyone understands what’s going on in the book and that they can discuss the characters’ situation and motivations.

While Lezen voor Iedereen’s books are also aimed at native speakers with dyslexia or other reading disabilities, or simply with less-developed reading skills, this group concentrates on people speaking Dutch as a second language. The means they can concentrate not just on the language but on the cultural aspects of Flanders that pop up in the books.

In the book, for instance, nine-year-old Karel drinks a beer with his father in the local café. This led to a discussion about how much has changed in Belgium in 100 years.

“I was a bit concerned about the level,” Hans told Lezen voor Iedereen, which sent someone along to see how their books are being used. “It’s simplified text, but still not terribly easy. But the readers seem to understand the story very well and engage in meaningful discussions.”

The group went on to talk about a lot of the book’s themes, many of which are timeless, such as bullying and the gap between what children want and what their parents want for them. While the themes are universal, they are in a Flemish context, making the lessons relevant to learning a people’s history of Flanders.

“What I like about this book is that it is a window into Flemish society and culture: playing cards at the café, the school system. The story is 100 years old, but some things never change. Such as parents’ high expectations of their children.”

Anyone can buy books from Lezen voor Iedereen on the organisation’s website. There are meeleesgroepen, or collective reading groups, for Dutch language learners all over Flanders. Check N2T Samen Lezen or Het Lezers Collectief for more information.