No complaint tradition in The Netherlands? (ctd.)

I’m teaching another MA course on prescriptivism this semester, this time with the general research question as to how much of what is in the English usage guides reflects non-standard language use. All students in the course are once again expected to write blog posts on topics relating to the course that attracts their attention. Here is the first, by Emmy Stevens. 

In the blogpost No Dutch complaint tradition?, published about two years ago, an interesting comparison was drawn between the English complaint tradition and the absence of one in The Netherlands. The Dutch rarely send letters of complaint to the editors of newspapers, whereas English readers seem to get upset about language all the more quickly. Do Dutch people never complain about language at all? This seems highly unlikely, as Dutch people have complaining as one of their favourite hobbies: traffic jams, high taxes, and the weather, which is always too cold, too windy, too wet, or even too hot. But do they never complain about the Dutch language? This seems highly unlikely.

Complaining about the Dutch language? What does English have to do with this? There is in fact an interesting link here. As The Netherlands tries to be an international leader and welcomes millions of tourists every year, there is a need to be able to speak a language that is understood by more than just the thirty million people or so around the globe that speak Dutch. The language of our neighbours across the North Sea comes in handy, and during the past few decades, English has become more and more prominent in Dutch society: on television, in international companies, and in the educational system – these are just a few places where Dutch met this strong opponent.

Especially in universities and colleges, there is an ongoing debate on the usage of English. Some argue for, others against. Do we want to keep our strong position in international research and attract students from abroad? More English, please. Do we want our Dutch students to master their mother tongue at a highly proficient level? Dutch only. It is difficult to find a solution that satisfies all participants in the debate, but the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences gave it a try and published a document last summer in which they advocate more English at universities while maintaining the level of Dutch. Especially the first part of their recommendation evoked a lot of criticism, and that is where we return to the question of Dutch letters-to-the-editor.

During the past summer, De Volkskrant, a mainstream Dutch quality newspaper, published at least ten letters in which readers, including university teachers and students, pronounced themselves either for or against the use of English in Dutch higher education. The contributors who were most strongly opposed to using English felt this as a threat not only to the Dutch language, but also to Dutch society as a whole. Is English going to replace Dutch altogether? In one of the letters, Rint Sybesma, professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of Leiden, described a scenario in which we teach all of our children in English rather than Dutch. After a few generations, we would come to a situation where Dutch is completely abolished.

This letter upset quite a few readers, and Sybesma received threatening emails by people who are strong supporters of the Dutch language. Someone prescribing which language they should speak evidently aroused feelings of agitation and even hatred. However, what these people failed to understand was that Sybesma’s letter was not serious. It was just meant as an ironic contribution to the discussion. This example illustrates how easily Dutch people get upset about their language and specifically the potential threat of the English language slowly conquering the Netherlands.

Prescribing English as the language of instruction at Dutch universities to some implies that the English language is considered a better language. And that of course is something the proud Dutch do not want to admit. Dutch readers might not be as eager as the English by writing letters-to-the-editor for every language mistake they find in the newspaper, but when it comes to the hypothetical decline of the Dutch language as a whole, they are all the more eager to express their opinion in a complaint letter.


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