On English in education and the question of Identity

By Daniël van Hemert

Lately, to an increasing extent, the atmosphere towards the use of the English language in Dutch higher education has turned sceptical. Although it is difficult to put a finger on exactly where this change in atmosphere originates from, most of the news media started reporting on the issue after the petition of Beter Onderwijs Nederland around July 2017. With the new coalition agreement comes the moment where the government has committed itself to assessing whether there is merit in teaching in English.

First of all, let’s establish that a public debate on any topic should always be applauded. The importance of reassessing that which has been done in a certain way for a long time is what helps us break taboos and innovate. Whilst I view the increasing use of English in higher education as a good thing, a discussion on implementation is definitely warranted. However, it is concerning and faulty that an increasingly big argument for this negativity towards English education has been a focus on identity and culture.

The Dutch Identity

According to sceptics we are Dutch, we should feel Dutch, and we have to protect this identity. The increasing amount of English in education, according to them, is a threat to this Dutchness. This argument in some way, shape, or form can be in opinion pieces as well reports and speeches.

Personally, whilst I consider myself many things – I definitely consider myself Dutch. This has made me wonder greatly why this identity argument is brought forward. It is not the Dutch identity that is threatened by the frequent use of English. It’s the Dutch identity that is threatened by a lack of English. Sceptics and I seem to have different interpretations of the Dutch identity.

Just as much as there exists a link between the Dutch identity and the Dutch language, the Dutch identity is inevitably linked to principles of openness, adaptability, tolerance, and flexibility. The Dutch have used these features to try to make a difference matter as a small country in a big world. There is a reason why The Hague is the city of peace and justice with numerous international organisations, just as there is a reason why the Dutch are the import and export gateway of Europe.

The way the English language is treated is a prime example of this, especially in education. We are the best non-native English speaking country in the world. Great improvements have been made compared to our recent history, in which our nation’s leaders still made embarrassing bloopers such as calling our nation a nation of ‘undertakers’ (Joop den Uyl). The question at this crossroad we now stand on is whether we want to give up the advantages that follow, for a perceived protection of our language. One thing I’m sure of: we are a nation that’s proud of our tolerant and inclusive roots and our ability to matter in the world.

The language of life, the universe and everything

Whilst the use of English might not always be immediately clear to those who look at the education, a quick glance at what students do after their studies illustrates its value. English is the mother tongue of all of modern science. Do we not want our doctors to be up-to-date with regards to the latest medical research and developments? They will need some understanding of English for that. Do we not want those who study international political relationships or economic developments to understand the world and our place in it? They will need English for that. Do we not want our anthropologists and foreign experts to have field experience? They, again, will need English for that. Even in Dutch language studies, sometimes writing assignments are given in English in order to prepare themselves for the academic environment. How could any education prepare its students properly without teaching in English?

Trade and diplomacy

Furthermore, we claim to be – and want to remain – an open, trading, knowledgeable and diplomatically leading nation. Our higher education provides the people to achieve this. On the other hand, some continuously fail to establish that in the modern day and age, for all these goals, English is a basic requirement. If we want companies with Dutch origins to grow to be large multinationals, or if we want to be at the diplomatic forefront, English is a necessity. It thus makes sense that English in higher education is the rule rather than the exception, and it should remain that way.

Cultural exchanges

The benefits are definitely not limited to the use of English in academia or work related matters. As most students would agree, the time of study a student does not only go through academic, but also through personal growth. In this process, different perspectives and backgrounds are significant. An international atmosphere where cultures meet should not be seen as a place where someone’s own culture is under threat; instead it should be seen as a place where all cultures can flourish and learn from each other; where one can be confirmed in the strengths of one’s identity in some aspects and yet be challenged in others. This however, is only possible when studies attract international students, which in turn is only possible when a study is taught in English.

Short-term v. long-term

Nonetheless, there is one valid reason for the sudden reconsideration of the use of English in Dutch Universities. Both students and certainly professors appear to have difficulties in the switch of language. They have difficulties to express themselves in English, resulting in less valuable discussions. The quality of education then could suffer. What tends to be forgotten in this case, is that this is a mainly short-term problem and a problem of implementation.

Children get in touch with English earlier than ever before. This is not only due to social media and television, but also through videogames, apps and English lessons at a young age. A large percentage of students is already studying in English (bilingual education), whereas their teachers have only been taught in Dutch. Let’s not forget that the students of today are the teachers of tomorrow. For those teachers and professors which have difficulties, tools should definitely be provided to help them transitioning.

Thus, instead of reversing the aforementioned progress we have made over the past generations because there are still minor inconveniences, we should double-down on English. If we continue our progress in English for a few more generations, and provide those who need extra support with just that, it will not be long before everyone who needs it can speak proper English.

Where it works

This January, I will conclude my bachelor at the University College Roosevelt. I have travelled to a multitude of University Colleges in the Netherlands and met and spoke many students from all over the country. What you will find, is that this system works. These Colleges and their communities often turn out to become places of great discussion and ethical debate, personal growth, and provide great preparation for a continued career in international academia, politics, trade, and a whole lot of other fields.

In these past three-and-a-half years I have been in contact with more cultures than ever before. I have explored academic fields to the fullest extent. I have grown the most I have ever grown and learned the most I have ever learned. Not despite of, but because of the English language. And unlike some might argue, I do not feel any less Dutch because of it.