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Too much English?

Too much English?

You’ve got to feel a bit bad for Dutch universities. There is a cycle in the public debate on language policy in Dutch higher education that goes like this.

First, somebody high-profile laments in a national newspaper that English-language study programmes are a scourge to society. The lecturers' English is worse than Louis van Gaal’s, we are told, and graduates might have good English, but they can barely put together a sentence in Dutch.

Then everybody wrings their hands and comes out with the usual meaningless pronouncements: Dutch is valuable too, dammit, and needs to be promoted and protected.

Meaningless because no one in their right mind is suggesting otherwise, yet universities are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have a duty to protect and promote the Dutch language and culture. And yet they are slaves to the market, needing to attract foreign staff and students and score highly on international rankings. And so their administrators wring their hands one more time, then go back to business as usual, and the proportion of English-language programmes keeps on creeping up.

Time for a new idea. What if we got really radical? Forget the either/or choice between Dutch and English – what if we opted for both Dutch and English at once? An unstructured, beautiful mishmash of the two – and hell, why not other languages too, while we're at it? Bilingualism out, plurilingualism in!

It’s not as outrageous as it might seem. Most of us pick up bits and pieces of different languages as we go through life, and mixing them is a natural thing to do. What’s more, our nature as cooperative beings means things don’t descend into chaos when we mix languages. Groups that need to get a job done make it work, using whatever linguistic means they can, creating their own ad-hoc ‘language’.

So how about this for a language policy in tutorials: a spot of Dutch, a splash of English, plus a dash of whatever else, in whatever way works best at any given moment in time? On reflection, it’s not so much a policy as it is a radical decentralisation of policy. And isn’t that all the rage right now?

Alison Edwards

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