The English question

Body: 

“Alright, welcome everyone! First off, is there anyone who isn’t comfortable with Dutch? If not then we can just continue in Dutch, no? Oké dan, dan kunnen wij gewoon in het Nederlands door…”

 I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had warmer welcomes. The above was the beginning of a university-wide workshop for curriculum committees, and the two second pause between the host’s question and subsequent switch to Dutch wasn’t long enough for me, or the other non-Dutch speakers in the call, to even unmute my microphone. Eventually, we were able to make our voices heard, and had the pleasure and privilege of being able to participate in and understand a workshop we were required to attend. Huzzah.

When I first applied to college in the Netherlands, I was required to provide three kinds of documentation to prove my English proficiency, even though I’m a native speaker and have only ever been taught in English. Countless international students are asked to do the same, and are asked to attend interviews in part to further determine their comfort communicating in English.

So why the double standard? Every international student I know has been in a situation where their Dutch professor couldn’t find the English translation for a word or phrase, so they used the Dutch equivalent and assumed everyone could either understand or figure it out, even if it was specific to the discipline or didn’t have an English cognate. Of course, in theory, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a second-language speaker having a momentary lapse, but they’re more common than you’d think, and it also matters who the speaker in question is.

When students of color are asked again and again to prove that they belong in an English-instruction program, it gets exhausting to see that not even our professors are held to the same standards - especially when these are the professors who assume that my English is substandard before I’ve even spoken. I need both hands to count the number of times a professor has walked up to me on the first day of class and talked in slow, halting English just to “make sure” that I understand them, or an instructor has assumed that I need help writing papers in English because “well, I mean, you’re clearly not from an English-speaking country, no?” I mean, come on, I know ignoring that colonialism happened is on brand for Dutch people, but really? Yikes.

I’ve also heard the other argument more than enough times: “Why can’t internationals just learn Dutch?” And listen, in the two years I’ve spent here, I’ve picked up a fair amount.  But I’ve never focused my efforts towards fluency, because I shouldn’t have to: my programs have all been taught in English, and outside of class, I should be able to carry out my function as a student employee at the UU without needing any Dutch at all. Students, generally, should be able to come to the Netherlands to study and leave without learning a single word of Dutch, if they want to. That’s what the university advertises itself as, anyway; an institution offering “an extensive range of English-language academic programs”.

It’s far from just a classroom problem. Imagine you’re me at that workshop, and you hear the words at the top of this page. You’re in a (virtual) room with twelve people, you know none of them, and you don’t know if anyone will stick up for you if you speak up and ask to be accommodated. You don’t want to inconvenience anyone - at least one person has made it clear that they would rather stick to a language that you don’t know, so maybe you should just leave? The email for the meeting was in English, did you misunderstand somehow? Your coworker couldn’t find the link to the meeting because it was in Dutch, but that’s not the organizers’ fault, is it? It has to be your fault. Why don’t you just learn the language? Yes, you’re here to study, not to assimilate, and yes, your program is in a language you already speak, but why can’t you just make the effort? If you’re the only person here who needs special treatment, then you can’t blame them for not giving it to you, can you?

Can’t you?

Look, thought experiment aside, all I’m saying is that English proficiency and English-medium instruction need to be more than just labels, both within programs at the UU and administratively. Professors, chairs, deans: ask yourself what your goal is: to accommodate what you believe to be the majority? Or to address the needs of everyone in front of you?

 

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