Dutch plug gap with English

October 9, 1998

The Dutch are excellent speakers of English. However, the idea of being taught in English was unheard of until recently.

Students might read mostly English textbooks but they spoke and wrote in Dutch.

The University of Amsterdam started a trend in the mid-1980s when it introduced a European studies course in English. These days every university offers at least one or two courses in English, ranging from international law to engineering.

Stephen Smith, director of the British Language Training Centre in Amsterdam, said: "The Netherlands is leading the field in the blanket offering of courses in English."

The centre trains Dutch lecturers to teach in English. But many lecturers are expected to teach in English with no training.

Mr Smith said: "If you don't have a good quality of English you can wipe off a lot of the education, and I don't think teachers understand that. They say 'Well I get my message across.' But that's not good enough. Really good language skills need to be in abstract subjects, such as psychology, law and history where there's a lot of intellectual content going on."

The shift to English is partly by government design but also because of a decline in student numbers, Europeanisation, and growing competition between universities. There are also many more native English speakers working in Dutch universities.

Kees Brants, director of the European communication studies masters at the University of Amsterdam, said: "We have a large number of foreigners in the Netherlands and we don't force the English speakers to speak Dutch, unlike other countries."

Even British or American staff who speak Dutch are frequently begged by their students to revert to English. "You could say it's a mixture of cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and an inferiority complex on our side," he said.

To attract more overseas students, the University of Twente offers a variety of courses in English. Vice-chancellor Frans van Vught said: "We're competing on a global scale and strategically it is not wise to teach just in Dutch."

The enthusiasm contrasts with opposition in 1989 when former education minister Jo Ritzen proposed greater use of English. In 1992 he was forced to legislate to ensure that Dutch remained the official language in teaching institutions.

The resistance now is from those who fear that Dutch will lose to English, as more students see the advantages of an internationally oriented education.

Professor van Vught said: "We have the feeling that English is the lingua franca, so why assume that you would lose Dutch culture if you gave courses in English?" The new University College Utrecht gives all its classes in English. It wants to attract highly-motivated Dutch students aiming at the international job market. The Netherlands conducts most business in English.

Dean Hans Adriaansens said: "We are still proud of our Dutch language and culture, but it is important to raise students in an international environment, especially in a European context."

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