Bilingual meetings: common elsewhere, but not in Maastricht

Bilingual meetings: common elsewhere, but not in Maastricht

Most Dutch universities make use of an interpreter

17-04-2024 · Background

Completely in English or, in the odd case, completely in Dutch. In University Council and faculty council meetings at Maastricht University, it is that and only that. This regularly leads to grumblings among participants who are not sufficiently fluent in the language concerned. Are there alternatives? Observant asked around among other Dutch universities and found that ‘bilingual’ meetings – including an interpreter – are not unusual.

Officially, Maastricht University is bilingual, but those who sit in on the various representative advisory council meetings, won’t notice much of that. Both the University Council and most of the faculty councils – often with multiple foreign members – have meetings entirely in English. Because even though managing bodies should legally “use the Dutch language,” exceptions are always possible if this “is more effective,” states the Higher Education Act. In practice this comes down to UM councils determining the official language themselves, on the condition that “everyone must be able to understand”, said Nick Bos, vice chairman of the Executive Board, in a recent University Council meeting.

The latter, however, is not always the case. An example is the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) council, the only council at UM where the working language is still Dutch. This academic year too – despite the presence of a Czech student who doesn’t speak, read or understand the language. Various council members would “rather not” switch to English, said chairman Boy Houben previously to Observant, because they “feel that a discussion in English is not the same as in their mother tongue.” The solution, to the dissatisfaction of the student herself: she is allowed to ask her questions in English, a fellow student member can bring her up to date about the discussions that were had in Dutch.

There were also mutterings in other councils, where the official language is English. A regularly reoccurring complaint is that the discussions lack depth and nuance, people are constantly looking for words. The same goes for speakers invited by the council, such as policy officers who work mainly in Dutch. “As a University Council member, I have experienced often enough that such a person makes a very awkward impression, purely because they can’t express themselves well enough,” OBP member Pia Harbers remarked last week during a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) council. “Why would you not have them do the presentation in Dutch, and afterwards provide a written summary in English?” Moreover, does the language discourage some employees from standing as a candidate for a council, FASoS vice dean Sally Wyatt wondered out loud.

Whispering

The reason for the remarks in the recent FASoS council meeting was a letter submitted by researchers Lies Wesseling and Leonie Cornips with the message that is could be done differently, referring to Utrecht University. They work with the concept of ‘listening language’: council members must be able to understand and read Dutch, but they may ask questions in English. In order to reach the required level, the university offers courses to employees and students. Moreover, should it be necessary, the council meetings are also attended by an interpreter, a spokesperson for Utrecht University stated to Observant. “Non-Dutch members can use an earphone to listen to a translation.”

This type of system is also used at other universities. At seven of the twelve UM sister institutes, University Council meetings are bilingual or are held in Dutch as a standard, while members who are not fluent in the language are allowed to speak in English. There is always a translator present too: usually an interpreter who types or whispers simultaneously. In Leiden they use ‘language buddies’: someone who can whisper the gist of the discussion to a non-Dutch member (since simultaneous interpretation is “quite expensive”, sister newspaper Mare recorded in 2019 from the mouth of the University Council chairperson at the time).

Official policy documents, provided for advice or requiring agreement, are usually supplied in both languages. A number of universities, including Delft and UvA and VU in Amsterdam, don’t have just one University Council, but a separate student council and a works council for employees. In practice, meetings of the former one are completely in English in all three cases, for the latter they are in Dutch.

On a faculty level, the picture often differs per council. Depending on their members, the meetings are sometimes completely in English or completely in Dutch. The faculty councils often have the option to use a translator, if they find this necessary, just like in the University Councils. The University of Groningen will replace this shortly by a computer programme, a spokesperson announced.

Internationalisation

However, with its University Council completely in English (without a translator), UM is not an exception. This is also the case in Wageningen, Tilburg, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, and Twente. At the last two universities, this change was very recent (in 2020) and the interpreter who had been present until then, was also abolished. A spokesperson for the University of Twente stated, however, that “in light of the discussion about internationalisation” they are investigating what is necessary to return to a bilingual policy. “In practice, a lot is already actually in two languages, but we also want to formalise that.”

The Maastricht University Council has held its meetings in English for many years. The minutes of meetings back in 2009 already state “that as much English as possible be spoken” during meetings, but that “it is not the intention to ban Dutch as an official language in meetings”. In practice, the latter is to a large extent what has happened; policy documents are practically always in English as well. The current regulations say nothing about the official language, according to the registrars. However, the UM-wide language policy does mention that during meetings it is important "to give all participants the space to speak the language (Dutch or English) they can express themselves best in" and that "bilingualism is encouraged at UM".

Invest

“In the present University Council there has never been a discussion about English as the official language,” said chairman Teun Dekker. “It feels as something obvious. As far as I know, none of the current council member have a problem with the language, but that is an assumption on my part. Moreover, the situation can change with the arrival of new members. Maybe we would do well to discuss this.”

Speakers can still use Dutch to have their say, if they want, says Dekker. “Then, as chairman, I jump in as an interpreter. But this could also be dealt with more systematically, for example with a translator, just like at other universities. And these days, a lot is possible with AI technology and translation programmes. Yes, one would have to invest in that. But student and employee participation does not come for free.”

Working language of the University Council

English (without translator):
Maastricht
Wageningen
Rotterdam
Tilburg
Twente
Eindhoven

Bilingual or Dutch (with translator):
Groningen
Universiteit van Amsterdam
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Utrecht
Delft
Leiden
Nijmegen

Photo: Joey Roberts

Tags: language,council,university council,faculty council,english,dutch,internationalisation,meeting,piolicy,bilingual,instagram

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