Blog and opinion
9 September 2019 • Dave van Ginhoven
Don’t look back in anger
We’ve just completed our annual introduction period, something I always enjoy because of the way it fills the Atrium at THUAS with a lively ritual reminiscent of the circle of life. Now that school’s started, I see that it’s time for another annual ritual: endless discussion about the ‘verengelsing van het hoger onderwijs,’ a topic I’m even more tired of hearing about than Brexit.
For as long as I’ve worked at THUAS, I’ve been confronted with frustration about the increased role of the English language in Dutch higher education, a topic that has provided regular fodder for repetitive news narratives and public debate. The story is always the same and hits the same beats: “people are angry because more and more courses are taught in English to attract international students, there’s concern about young people learning proper Dutch and not all instructors are perfect native speakers, etc. etc.” (It’s so repetitive and predictable that I actually wrote this blog a year ago and only had to change a few words to use it this week.)
I used to shrug off this story, pointing out that while not every teacher I know speaks perfect English, the vast majority are experts in their field and skilled enough storytellers to get their points across. I’ve also argued that the occasional use of the wrong preposition by someone who speaks English as a second language is a small price to pay for a diversity of perspectives brought by lecturers and students from all over the world.
But now, this narrative has been repeated so many times that it has provoked a political push to take action and the government, after much discussion, is promising ‘more balance.’ That makes me worry about the future, and not just because English-language education pays my bills.
I wonder about the early days of Dutch higher education, because I don’t think they always spoke Dutch in the classroom back then. Were Renaissance scholars regularly criticised for the “verlatijnsing van het Nederlands onderwijs?” and did all that Latin threaten the Dutch language or culture in the end? I doubt it, and I doubt that the much-touted Golden Age of Dutch society would have even been possible if the country was as obsessed with keeping things Dutch as it is today.
Throughout its history, the Netherlands has always been at its best when looking outward and engaging with the outside world. It’s a small country that relies on a strong knowledge economy and that only works if you have different types of people and ideas regularly coming and going. Since international students bring in more money than they cost, the process is also pretty useful for the Dutch economy, in addition to keeping a lot of study programmes open in an increasingly competitive academic environment. Our country and our institutions need foreign students, so maybe it’s time to stop acting like they’re destroying the Dutch language and blaming them for a housing shortage that actually hits them harder than a lot of Dutch students. Maybe, we should try thanking them for their contributions to our classrooms and communities instead.
We can keep going around in circles on this, but unless someone invents a DeLorean that can travel back in time to make changes, globalisation cannot be undone and while it’s sad to see a lack of demand for studies dedicated to the Dutch language, the internationalised labour market is what it is. If our students are going to compete out in the world, they need to be comfortable in an international environment and skilled at intercultural communication. We can’t prepare them for that if we try to turn back the clock and make everybody speak Dutch.
Listening to people talk about limiting the use of English or the number of foreign students at Dutch schools is a lot like listening to that friend we all have who constantly converts contemporary prices back to the old Dutch currency while complaining that everything used to be cheaper and better. I sympathise and understand the attractive lure of nostalgia, but I wish these folks would face facts. The guilder isn’t coming back. Globalisation isn’t going away and, like it or not, we have a duty to prepare young people for the future and I don’t think you can’t do that if you’re busy living in the past.
But that’s just one guy talking.
Dave van Ginhoven is a senior lecturer at European Studies, which he’s happy to promote to anyone who will listen. Before that he used to be a journalist and a Canadian. He loves to talk, but don’t take him too seriously. He’s only one guy.