Call for Dutch to brush up on translation

March 22, 2002

Globalisation has increased the need for better communication. THES reporters look at universities that are promoting English as the common language.

At the end of the 1980s, a wild rumour circulated that the education ministry planned to scrap Dutch as the principal language of instruction at universities in favour of English.

The rumour prompted widespread outrage. As a result, the government instigated regular inspections of the extent to which foreign languages were used in university teaching. Its aim became twofold: to ensure Dutch was not under threat as the main language of instruction, but also that students' foreign-language abilities were developed adequately throughout their course.

In practice, this meant that components of many courses - particularly technical subjects where much of the international vocabulary is English - were taught in English. But despite the Netherlands' adoption of English as a medium of instruction, insiders believed Dutch teachers of English might be failing in their job.

"The Dutch have a firmly fixed perception of themselves that they really do know and understand English," Monica den Boer, associate professor of public administration at Tilburg University, said. "This assumption is misleading and may become an obstacle in the internationalisation process occurring in mainstream European education."

Dr den Boer, a leading academic in the area of international policing and the legalities surrounding crime and terrorism, works in a field where there is little or no margin for misunderstanding. English as a world language is the ultimate communicator.

She has detected a systematic devaluation of English that has arisen from poor translation into Dutch of spoken English derived from high-quality British television plays. In addition, there has been the endless bombardment of American-style infotainment and the advent of the internet and text messages on mobile telephones.

"Unfortunately, too many Dutch academics who teach in English cannot be bothered to improve their own standards. Lectures are short, hurried and the result is that with both foreign and Dutch students their English oral and written skills are sub-optimal," Dr den Boer said.

She said there was room for improvement in understanding differences in cultural and social attitudes and ways of behaviour, especially with learning.

According to Petrus van Duyne, of Tilburg's law faculty, communication differences have also resulted from students from central and eastern European countries. "Students aren't encouraged to talk with teachers, they are used to being docile; they listen and produce what the teacher says, even if it is incorrect."

Dr den Boer said teachers could use other skills to break such waves of indifference. "Every set of students is different. One must seek out the way of connecting."

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