Will the Netherlands’ own students be at a loss for (Dutch) words?

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Psychology students at Radboud University are protesting at suddenly being forced to study in English, even though they signed up for a Dutch course. Here Karen Maex, the rector of the University of Amsterdam, presents the case for a bilingual university in the face of a growing number of English-language courses.

An increasingly English language-orientated university education is putting the population at a serious risk of ‘de-wording’, Annette de Groot said recently when she stepped down as professor of experimental language psychology at the University of Amsterdam.

De-wording is an interesting term. By thinking and writing exclusively in English we will lose part of our Dutch vocabulary and with it the ability to think in that language. Language replacement, De Groot calls it, and it is happening partly as a result of the increasingly international character of higher education.

There is no doubt thatuniversity education is seeing an increase in English. Some 20% of bachelor’s degrees and 70% of master’s degrees in the Netherlands are taught in English. The number of foreign students is growing and Dutch students too are interested in English-language courses. English is the lingua franca of science and international cooperation is proving extremely fruitful. The question is whether English should become the lingua franca at Dutch universities as well.

After years of discussion and reports by the Taalunie and the Education Council, the Dutch Science Academy (KNAW) has published its own report. Should we protect students from lecturers addressing them in bad English or is teaching them in English helping them find their way in a globalising world? KNAW’s answer is to leave it up to the university departments themselves.

Policy

It’s not such a bad idea at first sight. The departmental heads know the type of student they attract, they can judge whether or not the curriculum is suitable to be taught in another language and whether or not they have the staff to teach in English (with the proper qualifications). But to leave it completely up to them would be unwise. Just letting everyone do whatever they like does not constitute policy.

That is why the University of Amsterdam has chosen to remain a bilingual university. It sounds easy: we’ll have it both ways and won’t have to choose. But in practice it’s much more complicated. Documents have to be translated, meetings have to be bilingual, curricula take different routes and making up groups of students is more complicated. Having two languages means work – and that is why keeping them both is definitely a conscious choice.

There are several reasons why the UvA has made this choice. The most important reason is that we want what is best for our students. Of course we offer them the education that will prepare them for an international jobs market. At the same time, a large number of Dutch students will live and work in the Netherlands and their Dutch language skills need to be at an academic level.

Cherish bilingual education

And here we come to Annette de Groot’s second argument: instead of having students neglect their language in an English-language environment, bilingualism should be cherished: it’s good for the brain, and improves language skills and cognition. Fortunately the university doesn’t operate in splendid isolation. Scientific insights must be shared. Apart from the ability to publish in English, scientists must be able to share their findings in Dutch. They can do that in an environment in which Dutch is also spoken.

Without an overarching policy there is a risk that universities make the transition to English language-only education without having weighed the consequences, without guarantees for accessibility and quality and without recognising the value of Dutch as a teaching language.

Mutual understanding

There are cogent arguments for some subjects to be taught completely in English to a mixed group of students. It contributes to mutual understanding, international experience, a broadening of insights and an excellent command of the language.

But English is not a goal in itself. The choice has to be made centrally and under certain conditions, and that is exactly how the UvA is going to do it. We want to see two types of university courses: Dutch-language courses with elements in English because an active command of English is important there too, and English-language courses with specific educational goals and students of different nationalities.

The criteria for an English-language course must include an added value. Educational quality must be guaranteed, which also means end terms are clear, and options and accessibility for students are ensured.

Call it internationalisation based on policy, or maintaining bilingualism – it comes down to the same thing and will ultimately benefit education, and the future of the students..

This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant