The article in ScienceGuide was based on the UM election debate at the beginning of May. During the debate, a candidate of student party NovUM, which obtained most seats in the University Council, said that his party is “completely against” any obligation to learn the Dutch language and “needs to protect the English speaking tradition of the university as hard as possible.” A candidate for List Lex, another Maastricht student party, did not want to have any compulsory Dutch courses either. He felt that UM had invested much in study programmes, such as European Studies, that are aimed at an international environment. “They speak English there, not Dutch.”
The statements were a reaction to the plans by education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf, who wants to compel universities to give the Dutch language a more prominent role in education. Whether this will be in the form of Dutch language courses, is not entirely clear yet. Dijkgraaf wants to meet the long-cherished wish of Parliament to curb the influx of foreign students.
The reluctant attitude of the Maastricht students has not remained unnoticed. On Twitter, Lotte Jensen, professor of Dutch Literature and Cultural History in Nijmegen, made mincemeat of it: “So much for the inquisitive, cosmopolitan attitude of the students in Maastricht.” Jensen’s tweet was watched more than 370 thousand times and retweeted almost 250 times. UM president Rianne Letschert could not let that pass. “The article in ScienceGuide does not represent the views of all students in Maastricht,” she replied to Jensen’s tweet.
Is this true? What do UM students think about mandatory Dutch language courses? And what are the official stances of the student parties? For NovUM, the position is different than the election debate may suggest, chairperson Rose Cooper states. “We are by no means against Dutch language courses for international students. On the contrary, we feel it’s a good thing that should be encouraged. The courses provide a great way to immerse yourself in Dutch culture and they increase your chances of finding a job here later. That is also the reason why our members in various councils argue for more free Dutch language courses.”
But what about making such courses compulsory, something her fellow party member lashed out at and was “completely against”? According to Cooper, the latter is not the party line. “It is up to him to say so, but as a party we have not yet taken a stance on the issue of compulsory courses. We’re not per se against, but you need to look carefully into how this can be fitted into the already busy study programmes.”
Andrew William Scrivener, the NovUM member who made the statements during the election debate, claims that he endorses the party’s views. Why did he react so strongly then? “I interpreted the question differently. Namely: whether you should be required to speak Dutch in order to be admitted to the university. I am strongly against that, because that would make it more difficult for foreign students to come and study here. Doing a course during your studies is a different matter. I certainly see the value of that.”
Other party members are also not unsympathetic towards a compulsory course in Dutch. Zuzanna Węsierska, student council member at the law faculty, stated in the council meeting last March that even German students, for whom Dutch would not be too difficult, are not learning the language. “It is because they don’t have to, there is no obligation, no incentive. Are you surprised that foreign students come to study here and then go back? They can’t integrate.”
How does this go together with ‘protecting the English speaking tradition’? “With that, we mean that we want to keep English as the main language at this university, because it facilitates internationalism and diversity”, NovUM-chairperson Cooper says. “As far as we are concerned, this goes together with learning Dutch and that is not a particularly controversial view within UM.”
Student party DOPE, the second-largest party after NovUM in the university elections last month, appears to be more critical. Chairman Cédric vanden Berghe wonders what the point is of making Dutch language courses compulsory. “If it is meant as a deterrent for foreign students, it will almost certainly fail. Internationals will still come to the Netherlands, where university study programmes are very good and affordable.”
In addition, learning Dutch is a disaster, says Vanden Berghe, especially for students from India or China. “And why would you, if English is so dominant in education and science? I study Dutch law, and even then, I need to read a lot of literature in English.”
Whether knowledge of the Dutch language provides access to the culture and promotes integration, remains to be seen, he thinks. “Internationals get such access also through English, because the baker on the corner speaks that language too. Of all countries in which English is not the official language, The Netherlands has the highest percentage of people speaking English. In Italy, it is a different story. If I were to study there, I would try hard to learn Italian.”
According to Laetitia Teta, chairperson of Kaleido (the Maastricht student association for internationals), it is not true that knowledge of Dutch promotes integration. She also points to the fact that “everybody can speak English in Maastricht. And if locals start to speak Dutch, they sometimes speak the local dialect. In that case, having completed a Dutch course is not going to help you."
The usefulness of a compulsory language course depends on the situation, Teta thinks. “I believe such a course may be a good idea for foreign student of Medicine or Law, who may stay in the Netherlands and would therefore benefit from a greater fluency in Dutch.” For those who only come to Maastricht to study and then leave again, she sees no benefit. “Those students would be deterred by a compulsory language course. Maastricht University especially advertises its English-language study programmes and learning environment.”
A random enquiry among students in the inner-city University Library also produces critical comments. Thomas and Leonie, who only want their first names in the paper, don’t think much of compulsory courses. Leonie, who is from Switzerland, definitely sees the point of having a command of Dutch, she says. “It is nice in the supermarket to speak the local language, but it is not a good idea to make such courses compulsory.”
That is also Thomas’ view, third-year student of International Business, whose roots are in Belgium and Switzerland. “I studied in Sweden for a while, where both compulsory and voluntary courses were offered. The voluntary courses were so popular that not everybody was able to partake, while there was hardly any motivation for the compulsory courses. That is because students do not always have time for language courses. IB students in Maastricht have an extremely busy programme, the dropout rate is high.” He might not have registered for a programme at UM if he had heard beforehand that he would be compelled to learn Dutch. That is more or less true for Leonie too: “It would discourage me from choosing Maastricht.”
For Meo, from the Walloon city of Verviers, this is not a breaking point. The first-year student of IB would have come to Maastricht, but would have taken the compulsory course with reluctance. At secondary school, he did Dutch for two years, but he doesn’t remember much of it, other than ‘Ik spreek geen Nederlands,’ he says.
“Everybody around me speaks English, learning Dutch is really not necessary. When people from Maastricht speak to me, as happened at the fun fair, I have no idea what they mean. But I don’t really mind. I don’t know if I would integrate better if I spoke Dutch. This is my first experience living abroad.”
The two Italian students Yasmina (European Law) and Arianna (International Relations) – no surnames either, please – on the other hand, are in favour of the obligation to learn Dutch. “A very reasonable proposal. Of course, within our ‘student bubble’, it is no problem that we don’t speak Dutch. But outside the bubble, it just increases the gap between us and the rest of society. The other day, a mechanic came around for our washing machine and we could only communicate in English. Quite unfair really that he couldn’t speak his mother tongue in his own country. In Italy, they would think it very odd if foreign students didn’t speak a word of Italian.”
Moreover, being fluent in the language increases the bond with a country, they say. “We are not currently planning to look for a job here after graduation, but perhaps that would have been different if we had spoken Dutch.” A compulsory Dutch language course would therefore not deter the two master’s students. “At least, if the outcome did not weigh too much in the study programme. A ‘pass or fail’ course outside the curriculum, for example, would be fine. A large course that counts towards your average grade would be a different story.”
Scare away students
The assertion that Maastricht internationals were ‘absolutely against’ the compulsory learning of Dutch, as ScienceGuide headlined, therefore appears to be somewhat exaggerated. “Indeed, it is more nuanced than that,” said UM president Rianne Letschert, when asked for her reaction to the opinions collected by Observant. According to her, they are similar to the image that she herself has garnered from the talks that the university has had with students.
This includes the point that not every student sees the benefit of learning Dutch. What is Letschert’s view on that? “I understand it from their perspective. Just like – depending on how tough the language requirements will be – I also understand the point of view by some political parties that knowledge of Dutch is important.” Although she does emphasise that there is also another group: “The (voluntary) basic courses of Social Dutch, which we have been offering for years, are quite popular.”
But what if ‘objectors’ no longer choose Maastricht in the future? According to Letschert, it is especially important that the objectives of the language measures are clear. “That is what we are also emphasising in The Hague at the moment. Is the objective to improve the knowledge of the Dutch language and culture, as an important value in itself, or to scare away as many students as possible from coming to the Netherlands? We think that it would be wrong to achieve the latter through a language policy. It goes against the ideals that make up the foundation of the European Union, and also against the position that UM has in the region.”
Is she herself an advocate of compulsory Dutch lessons? “In general, no I’m not, I prefer not to have generic measures. I hope that we can determine on the basis of content for which students and programmes it would be useful. Some of our international students will remain here to work and so an attractive living and housing climate are important. Some knowledge of the Dutch language complements that. It is up to us to find the right balance in all of this.”
Maurice Timmermans and Dennis Vaendel