We made it seem like we didn’t care about our ‘teeny-tiny’ language

We made it seem like we didn’t care about our ‘teeny-tiny’ language

“Good morning, would you like a piece of vlaai?"

27-02-2024 · Opinion article

It’s hardly surprising that the government has decided to crack down on the increased use of English in educational institutions like Maastricht University. We brought it on ourselves, argues former Observant editor Wammes Bos, who has been keeping a close eye on developments at the university since the 1980s.

Just before Carnaval, three UM administrators – two deans and the president of the Executive Board – held an online “Ask Me Anything” session to answer questions about the ongoing political debate on internationalisation and the increased use of English in Dutch higher education. They also had some news: UM will be recruiting more Dutch students and offering more bachelor’s programmes in Dutch.

Towards the end of the session, someone floated an idea. What if we made Open Days just a little less English-dominated? And perhaps the university website, too?

I was flabbergasted. Who decided it would be a good idea to hold Open Days in English in the first place? Didn’t anyone realise this might put off Dutch high school students, locals included, who still have no idea what they want – especially if they bring their parents along, who might not appreciate being greeted with a “Good morning, would you like a piece of vlaai?"

Doctrine

I’m afraid the truth is that no one did stop to think about it. And that no one at this university has stopped to think about these questions for a very long time.

After all, this situation has crept up on us. It all started with internationalisation in the 1990s. What began as a survival strategy grew into a conviction and then became a defining feature, maybe even an ideology. Or worse, a doctrine. To be sure, the intention was good: to prepare students for the global labour market, embracing the concept of the International Classroom. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But have we taken it too far? At one point, it was decided that universities have a responsibility to preserve Dutch as an academic language. It even says so in the law. Apparently, Maastricht decided this didn’t really apply to us. Our Dutch student population was dwindling anyway; local enrolment rates were too low while international student numbers continued to rise, even more so when programmes aimed at them were introduced. After that, the focus shifted to developing even more English-taught programmes to attract even more international students, who now make up almost 75 per cent of new admissions.

Out of sight

And that’s how Dutch gradually faded out of sight at Maastricht University – and no one seemed to mind.

Here are a few examples to illustrate my point.

--Not too long ago, a professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences wondered aloud what “CMW” stood for again. Mind you, this professor has been around since the establishment of the Dutch faculteit Cultuur- en Maatschappijwetenschappen (CMW) – now known as “FASoS”.

This very faculty used to offer a Dutch-taught Arts and Sciences programme until about a decade ago. According to some of its last cohort of students, the faculty had begun to actively discourage students from taking the programme. Eventually, the Dutch version was effectively axed.

--The University Council switched to English. As we once agreed to be a bilingual university, it was decided that members could still speak Dutch at meetings. This was particularly nice for support staff who didn’t need English for their work. But if you spoke Dutch, you’d be the odd one out because everyone else spoke English. So you either remained silent or used some kind of English and kept it brief. I wonder how many people refrained from running for the University Council because they felt intimidated by its use of English – and how many of our community members went unrepresented as a result.

--A Dutch business administration student once wrote Observant a note in shockingly poor Dutch. When this was gently pointed out to him, he said with a grin, “Oh well, who cares? I don’t need Dutch for my studies. Everything is in English.”

Or take international staff members who have lived here for years, sometimes decades, yet can barely speak Dutch. They never felt the need to learn the language – and worse, they were never encouraged to.

--We also had no choice but to adopt an English name. Clearly, “universiteit” is a Dutch word that wouldn’t be understood anywhere else in the world. Universiteit Maastricht? No, we are Maastricht University, even in Dutch texts. It’s plastered on all our buildings (all of which are located squarely in the Netherlands, last time I checked). Randwyck came up with a reasonable compromise; seen from the A2 motorway, the name on the building reads “Universiteit-Maastricht-University”. Tapijn only has English on the facade. The same goes for the FSE building. The Faculty of Law says “Law”. And if you want to work on your health and fitness, just follow the signs to “UM SPORTS”; and not Sport without an s, the Dutch way. Nowadays, our faculties exclusively sport English names.

--UM has brought in international staff, both academic and non-academic, across all levels of the organisation. No problem. Or is it? We now get policy documents that were clearly written in English and then translated into Dutch, if translated at all. UM once published a Strategic Programme, the official document of the university, to be sent to the Ministry of Education in The Hague, the province of Limburg, the municipality and any other interested parties. The Dutch version was riddled with awkward phrases.

Disdain

Why is this? Is it disdain for our native language? We’re just a teeny-tiny country with a teeny-tiny language, so why bother making a fuss – is that it? Or is it simply a matter of carelessness, laziness?

Either way, it makes sense that the government is grumbling (although they’re admittedly going a little overboard). We’ve brought this on ourselves. We made it seem like we didn’t care about our language. UM administrators never fail to remind us that we are “an international European university”. Is it any wonder, then, that international students and staff come here expecting everything – and really èverything - to be in English?

And now the tide is turning.

Here’s a thought: why not return to a fifty-fifty split between Dutch and international students? That would feel a lot more balanced than the current ratio. And let’s be serious about being a bilingual university, rather than just paying lip service to the idea.

Author: Wammes Bos

Illustration: Bas van der Schot

Tags: language,english,dutch,maastricht,the hague,internationalisation,international students,language policy,instagram

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