International English in the International Classroom

The number of international students is still expanding rapidly. In 2016 there were 42.286 international students at universities in the Netherlands, this is 16% of the total student population (VSNU, 2020). These students all bring their own varieties of English to the international classroom. There may be native English speaking students from countries such as Great Britain, the United States or Australia and students from other countries where English is still the first language such as South Africa, or various islands of the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, or Pacific Ocean.

This already brings a diversity in accents. Regarding the non-native English speakers in the international classroom there will of course be Dutch ‘home-students’ but also other students for whom English is a second or sometimes even third language. Furthermore, lecturers are often also non-native English speakers, whether they are from the Netherlands or from somewhere else. What does this mean for the use of English in the international classroom?

Use of English by non-native English speakers

When English is used as the medium of instruction in teaching, it is usually based on the standards of either American English or British English but it can also include terms or expressions from native languages. For Dutch non-native English speakers sentence constructions from Dutch may be used, such as the phrase: “Sorry, I am too late.” Here the use of the word ‘too’ is not required in English but the sentence structure is a copy of the Dutch phrase used in these situations.

Other well-used phrases from Dutch education also find their way into the international English used for teaching. A good example is the word ‘plenary’. In Dutch education we often refer to a group discussion as a ‘plenary discussion’ and although this is not a wrong use of language, a native English speaker would hardly use the word ‘plenary’ in their teaching. They will perhaps rather use ‘reporting back to the group’. Native languages can also influence the use of English in the sense of incorrect use of stress, word order or use of pronouns, or the misuse of plural or singular word forms. But do these mistakes affect the understandability of the language? Very often, perhaps after some initial adjustment, it does not.

International English

When graduates operate in a global professional field or when they attend conferences during their later professional life they will also encounter many varieties in use of English. Perhaps being taught in international English rather than ‘British’ or ‘American’ English prepares students better for their role in a globalised world.


Educational Development & Training (Onderwijsadvies & Training) offers the course ‘Teaching in the international classroom’ for teachers who are interested in the intercultural, language-related and didactic implications of teaching in the international classroom. The course will provide you with practical tools for teaching in an international context. More information

Written by: Nathalie Veenendaal (former employee Onderwijsadvies & Training)
Published: April 2018
Links updated: November 2020