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50 years of the Academic Language Centre: plus ça change?

That's just learning parrot-fashion. This was the argument with which the proposal to establish a language lab at Leiden University was rejected in 1962. But six years later, the language lab was launched. And now the Academic Language Lab is celebrating its 50-year anniversary.

It is without doubt thanks to the passionate commitment of Dr B.C. Damsteegt that Leiden University has an Academic Language Centre. Damsteegt, a Dutch language specialist who was later to become a professor, had called for a language institute to be set up as early as in 1962. 'But,' as Agta et Agenda, the news magazine of Leiden University, recalled at the official opening in 1969, 'the group of professors in the different language areas rejected the idea: who would work there and what was its purpose?' Repeating words and sentences in a foreign language would at best be 'learning parrot fashion'.  

ATC Bachrach and Damtsteegt
1969, at the opening of the language lab: Dean Professor A.G.H. Bachrach and to his left Dr B.C. Damsteegt.


Damsteegt must almost have had a heart attack when he heard this argument because he had specifically emphasised that students in the language lab would also learn the grammar and sentence structure of the foreign language. This did not deter him, however, and in September 1968 the language lab was launched - it goes without saying with Damsteegt as director. He was immediately proved right, because the interest in the language lab was enormous, with up to 600-700 users every week. Within a short time the lab was also open in the evenings and the facilities were expanded. In no time at all the foreign students and staff who wanted to learn Dutch were an important target group.   


Damsteegt got off to a good start. In the lab, students could practise English, German and French, as well as Spanish, Russian, Polish, Serbian, Swedish and Chinese - and Dutch. Today that seems an unusual package of langages. Slavic Studies was a major programme in Leiden at that time, but Swedish? It is no longer possible to trace why this language was included, but the fact is it continued to be offered, and is still taught even today. The director had good reason for calling the facility a language lab: he also wanted research to be done there. This led to such publications as 'Self-study in the language lab. Report of a survey' (1973) and 'An error analysis of the use of subject, object and verb by Indonesians learning Dutch' (1975).

To Breestraat and back

The Language Lab started in a building at the Witte Singel and moved to a former restaurant on Breestraat when the buildings at Witte Singel had to make way for the new premises of what was at that time still called the Letterenfaculteit. Later the lab returned to the Witte Singel and even to the facilities building, now the Lipsius Building. The ATC is currently part of the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics.

Gea Hakker
At the celebration of the 50-year anniversary on 24 August: director Gea Hakker and keynote speaker Professor Lourdes Ortega from Georgetown University.

The biggest change is the technology

In reality, not a lot has changed at the ATC in the past fifty years. Apart from the technology, of course, says current director Gea Hakker, Leiden alumna of English. From the tape recorder ('where you had to put a piece of paper in the reel to show where you had got to') via the cassette recorder ('a big step forward'), CDs and DVDs to internet. And something else that's new, Hakker explains, is that we now teach academic skills (see box). 

There is still no shortage of students (students and staff at the university and people from outside). The ATC has fifteen permanent teachers and around seventy freelancers, who teach language and academic skills. On 24 August the ATC celebrated its 50-year anniversary with a varied programme of workshops. The keynote speaker was Professor Lourdes Ortega from Georgetown University, US, an authority in the field of second language acquisition.

ATC language lab 1968 1969
The basics of the language lab are the same as in 1968.

Forward-thinking approach

At the opening of the Language Lab in 1968, Professor A.G.H. Bachrach, dean of the Faculty of Arts, showed a highly forward-thinking approach. He commented that 'only when mechanical teaching equipment can be linked to a specially programmed computer will real progress be possible. Then, every student will be able to have a programme of instruction that is adjusted by the computer to match that student's optimum learning style, highest motivation and most obvious pattern of errors.' What he could not have foreseen was that this mechanically operated equipment would have disappeared completely from view by 2018 and that Damsteegt's language lab would be anchored more firmly than ever within the university. 

Read more about the distinguished Dr (later Professor) B.C. Damsteegt at the Digital Library for Dutch Literature

Text: Corine Hendriks
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The Academic Language Centre has three sections:

Curricular teaching
This covers academic skills in English and Dutch, and is a new area for the ATC. There was not enough time or attention for academic skills in the regular programmes: writing a paper or essay, giving an academic presentation - how do you go about that? For International Studies and Urban Studies this course is now part of the set curriculum and Hakker expects that more programmes will follow suit. 

Non-curricular language teaching
Students and lecturers who want to learn a language or brush up and broaden their knowledge can find a suitable course at the ATC among the fifteen languages that are taught at a range of different levels. Every othger language that the university works with can be learned provided there are enough participants for group lessons or, if necessary, individual lessons can be organised. It goes without saying that modern foreign languages are taught, but the range of available languages also included Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian and - even today - Swedish.  

Courses and training programmes for the external market
The ATC teaches academic-level Dutch to civic integration candidates. External candidates can also learn a language at the ATC. Hakker explains that there is often a fashion in foreign language learning. Whereas ten years ago Italian and  Spanish were highly popular, today the classes for Arabic, Japanese and Korean are much bigger. The ATC also organises tailor-made courses for businesses and in particular for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These include language courses, but also courses on intercultural communication and acculturation. On request, courses can also be given in economic French, legal French, financial English and legal English. 

The ATC provides the facilities for lab lessons in all the university's regular language programmes, but its role is restricted to managing the technical aspects and booking lab rooms. The ATC also provides translation and editing (English and Dutch) for internal clients at Leiden University. 

ATC logo
The ATC logo
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