UPDATE Bilingualism at the UM: “Dutch is difficult”

UPDATE Bilingualism at the UM: “Dutch is difficult”

University Council committee not enthusiastic about language policy


MAASTRICHT. Maastricht University is officially bilingual and staff is required to speak both languages – English and Dutch – with a certain degree of fluency. The policy was introduced in 2018, but in practice you don’t notice much of it. Now it is going to make a new start, but it is especially the foreign members of staff who are protesting, as appears from a University Council committee. “Dutch is difficult”.

How bilingual is the UM actually? Rector and president Rianne Letschert said in the University Council’s strategy committee last week: “I speak English 95 per cent of my time. We seem more like an English university.” Earlier, a council member remarked that there are official working groups in which the language used is Dutch. You exclude a large number of staff members this way. Letschert: “I hear the exact opposite: that almost all meetings and working groups are in English. We need to think about this: what does being bilingual mean to us?”

Dutch and English

The language policy that was on the agenda last Wednesday, is not new. It dates back to 2018, fits in seamlessly with the new strategic plan, and will now be extended to 2024. Anyone who teaches in English must speak the language excellently. This is the case at the moment, as various surveys have shown. In the Keuzegids, for example, Maastricht lecturers score well with regard to their command of the English language. For years, they have been the best in the Netherlands. But because Dutch is also still an official language at the UM and “communication, consultation and documentation” therefore take place in both English and Dutch, it is important that every member of staff has the “necessary” (depending on the position) knowledge of both languages, states the memo. Not only in order to be able to work properly, but also to feel more at home within the UM community, the city and the region. For that same reason, the university offers students an opportunity to follow free basic Dutch language courses.


The emphasis on bilingualism and the promotion of the Dutch language is also strategically important now that for some years there has been criticism in Parliament about the extent of internationalisation and the anglicisation of higher education that goes with it. The UM stands out even more because of its international character. At the moment, there is a Language and Accessibility Law for approval by the Senate; this should safeguard the accessibility of higher and other education and control the influx of foreign students.

Three years

The revived language policy was already introduced in the University Library, on the Berg (MUO) and at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences before COVID-19. The Faculties of Science and Engineering and Law have started this and, just like the other faculties and service centres, will assess whether their employees meet the language requirements. If not, those involved can follow additional courses paid for by the unit. Should it appear that after three years the knowledge of the language is below par, the lecturer will only be allowed to teach in the language in which he or she is fluent. Support staff who do not reach the required proficiency in a language, will be given a different position where that knowledge is not necessary. In less than five years, at the end of 2026, everyone must meet the requirements.

Work pressure

During the University Council committee meeting, sounds of alarm came from the foreign members of staff. What will this do to the already sky-high pressure of work if everyone has to learn Dutch? Moreover, Dutch is a difficult language, you can’t learn it just like that, another person added. Letschert pointed out that only lecturers who teach in Dutch are required to meet the higher demands (native-speaker level). For the others, the bar is set considerably lower.

The language policy is on the agenda for the University Council’s committee meeting and plenary meeting in February.

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Shutterstock

Tags: bilingual, dutch, english, language policy,instagram

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