“If this council only spoke Dutch, I wouldn’t be part of it”

“If this council only spoke Dutch, I wouldn’t be part of it”

Discussion in University Council: What does it mean to be a bilingual university?


MAASTRICHT. Will everyone who attends a council meeting be allowed to speak the language (Dutch or English) in which they feel most comfortable? If that is the case, what are the consequences? Over the past months, a University Council committee and the University Council itself have discussed the matter (on two occasions): What does it mean to be a bilingual university? 

It was President Rianne Letschert who raised the question during a meeting of the Strategy Committee at the beginning of April. The question itself is not new, and has already been answered: the University Council decided years ago that whoever preferred to speak Dutch could continue to do so. In practice, this remained a dead – and as appears now, also forgotten – letter.

At the moment, an Academic Affairs working group is looking into the subject and will give advice in either June or July. In the meantime, politicians in The Hague are urging for more curricula in Dutch, maintaining Dutch as an academic language, and halting the Anglicization of higher education.

Letschert: “When I was a member of the Jonge Akademie in Amsterdam, everyone had to be able to read and understand Dutch – because of the policy documents. You were allowed to speak either English or Dutch. That was the rule. I don’t have the answer for Maastricht University, but if we refer to ourselves as a bilingual university, then we will have to be bilingual and see what the consequences of that are.”

She pointed out that almost all council meetings are in English (“What does that mean for those who speak Dutch?”), but at the same time she realises that learning the Dutch language is difficult for many foreigners, much more difficult than improving the English spoken by the Dutch. Vanessa LaPointe, council member on behalf of the academic staff, completely agreed with this. What would it mean if the councils were able to speak their ‘own’ language? she wondered worriedly. “If this council spoke only Dutch, I wouldn’t be in it.”

No language police

It doesn’t need to be a one-size-fits-all, Letschert emphasized. “There is a difference between staff and students. Students are in Maastricht temporarily, staff usually stay longer. Is it justified to ask for more effort from the latter?” Also, there are differences between the faculties. The Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, for example, has a completely different student population (i.e. more Dutch) than the School of Business and Economics.

And no, she again emphasised later in the plenary University Council meeting, at the end of April: “Nobody will be punished because their level is not up to scratch, we won’t be installing a language police. We want to facilitate the improvement of the command of languages so that staff feel comfortable. At the same time, it doesn’t feel great if you are not sufficiently fluent in the language.” 

If bilingualism officially becomes the standard, then this requires that we provide the means and time to improve language proficiency (free courses are already offered to students), said a student council member at the beginning of April. Letschert completely agreed with this. “We have made no decisions yet, everything is still up for discussion. I hope to be able to encourage students to learn the Dutch language, certainly if they are going to do a bachelor’s here. It will make you feel more at home and it will be easier to stay in the region, should you wish to do so.” The South of Limburg is a region that has an ageing population, wants to grow, and hold on to young talent. Aside from that, language is a good way to integrate into society, Letschert added.

Work pressure

With respect to the concerns about increasing work pressure expressed by the University Council – after all, staff have to take language lessons during office hours if their level is not up to scratch: “I can understand those concerns, but I don’t think that many staff members will have to take language lessons. But should that be the case, we will facilitate that."

During the committee meeting at the beginning of April, Letschert explicitly asked for the opinions of the Dutch council members present. Two staff members (administrative and support staff), Collin Prumpeler and Nathalie Dirks, commented (in English) that the automatic switch to English when a foreign colleague joins a team, sometimes leads to irritation. Why should a group of fifteen people adapt to one person? Certainly when you know that a number of them do less well if they have to express themselves in English. The solution (this was a real case) was given immediately: the newcomer took a language course, understands Dutch by now and answers in English.

Language policy at the UM

The language policy dates back to 2018, fits in seamlessly with the new strategic plan, and has been extended to 2024. Anyone who teaches in English, must be highly fluent in the language. At the moment, that is the case, as appears from various surveys. In the Keuzegids, for example, Maastricht lecturers come out as eminently fluent in the English language. They have been the best in the Netherlands for years. But because Dutch is still an official language at the UM too and “communication, consultation and documentation” therefore can take place in either English or Dutch, it is important that every member of staff has the “necessary” (depending on their position) knowledge of both languages, the memo states. Not just to be able to work well, but also to feel more at home in the UM community, city and region. For the same reason, the university offers students the opportunity to follow free basic Dutch language lessons. Whether the language proficiency of staff meets the requirements of their position, is being evaluated at the moment.

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Shutterstock

Tags: bilingual university,dutch,english,council,u-council,instagram

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