• Switching from Dutch to English

    Watch your language

    Calls for English to become the language of the RUG’s decision-making bodies are increasing, but not every faculty is able – or willing – to make that change. Many staff and students are open to the idea, but what are the consequences of an English takeover?
    in short

    The Board of Directors and students parties in the University Council are calling for more business to be conducted in English at council meetings.

    Although most faculties have at least a couple of international members, few councils provide documents or hold their meetings in English.

    That is partially because most permanent staff members eventually learn Dutch.

    Another reason is the concern that support staff will not be adequately represented if they have to discuss subjects in another language.

    Councils are also split on whether or not implementing requirements for Dutch and English fluency would ensure the quality of discussion.

    Providing a live translation from Dutch to English is helpful in the University Council, but few councils think that is necessary vice versa.

    Most council members feel that it should remain up to each faculty to decide which language is spoken in their own meetings.

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    The University Council meetings are unlikely to be mistaken for the United Nations anytime soon. A wider range of nationalities at the table may become the norm, but providing iPads or earpieces with live translations for every member is probably beyond their budget, much less that of most faculty councils.

    Although many faculties see that a two-way translation from Dutch to English – and vice versa – would be the best way to guarantee everyone understands one another, few think it’s realistic or even necessary. But given that 20 per cent of the RUG’s staff comes from abroad, equal representation in the University’s decision-making bodies seems logical and fair.

    Most of the RUG faculties already have at least a couple of international members in their councils. The arts faculty has one German representative in the student faction. The Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies has two German members. Behavioural and Social Sciences had one international student member and one staff member, but he recently stepped down. FEB has at least one non-Dutch member in both the student and staff factions, and the law faculty council has one international staffer and one student. Mathematics and natural sciences has one non-Dutch-speaking council member.

    On the other hand, UMCG’s Research and Education Council currently has no international members, nor do the Faculties of Philosophy or Spatial Sciences. As for the University Council, there are two internationals: computer science professor Nikolai Petkov, originally from Bulgaria (but a fluent Dutch speaker), and Taku Mutezo, a student member of SOG from Zimbabwe. Five international students and one non-Dutch staff member are candidates for the upcoming University Council elections.


    One persistent concern across multiple faculties is how support staff may be discouraged from joining councils if they make English the language of discussion. Not everyone agrees that a switch to English is inevitable, either.

    Although the majority have some non-Dutch speakers at the table, very few of the councils even partially conduct their meetings in English. Most faculty representatives attribute that to permanent international staff members eventually learning to speak Dutch, which some students – particularly Germans – also do, albeit fewer.

    Being able to speak Dutch is not a requirement for a person to become a candidate in any council, but members are divided over whether or not language requirements should be implemented. Perhaps unexpectedly, some of the non-Dutch staffers are not in favour of a complete switch to English.

    The faculties who say they are open to making the switch seem faced with a chicken or the egg scenario: should they go ahead and change to English to make non-Dutch speaking students and staff more willing to join, or should the councils wait until there’s someone sitting at the table who can’t speak Dutch to do it?

    University Council

    While president Sibrand Poppema is clearly an advocate of internationalisation, he remains aware that the RUG is, after all, a Dutch university. ‘The Council consists of both students and staff. That includes both support and educational staff, so language use can’t be a barrier from English to Dutch, either’, he says. He suspects that if the Council were to make an official switch to English, staff would likely be even less well represented out of concern about expressing themselves adequately in another language.

    University council chairperson Hilly Mast agrees. ‘Everyone in the council is elected, and no matter where they come from, they have the right to fulfil their duties to the best of their abilities.’

    As for documents, those originating from the Board of Directors should only enter the University Council once they are also available in English. But that doesn’t always work out. ‘Sometimes, things are quite urgent and it’s still only available in Dutch. Those are the kinds of things that you encounter’, Poppema says.

    Is it worth it to consider offering English to Dutch translations of discussions as well? Probably not. ‘It works with a translator for the English-speaking student, but certainly passive English is understood by basically everyone at the University’, Poppema says.

    Student parties

    The only English-speaking international student in the University Council presently is Taku Mutezo. She has a live translation from Dutch into English on an iPad during Council discussions, but the fact that not all of the documents being discussed are available in English makes her job tough.

    In some cases, the Council covers hundreds of pages of material for which there may only be a summary of a few sentences in English. ‘Having my translator helps a lot, but if the documents aren’t translated too, then that only goes so far. If you don’t understand the content, you’re lost.’

    Taku says that she sometimes recognises subjects being covered in Dutch that are also relevant to international students. ‘But if you look at something that’s written in Dutch, you may still hesitate and wonder, ‘do I really know the content?’’ That doubt sometimes prevents her from speaking up. Currently, the University Council conducts roughly 40 per cent of its meetings in English, according to Taku. But it depends on the subject at hand: ‘if it’s about the budget, that’s nearly 100 per cent in Dutch’, she says.

    Leon Sloots, a member of Lijst Sterk in the University Council, suggests that more of the Council’s own budget could be spent ensuring more documents are fully translated. ‘I think the budget should be increased, and then everything can be bilingual. That will improve the quality.’

    Lijst Calimero is in favour of starting a transition to speaking English in the Council. Student member Loes Kreijtz wrote recently in an editorial in the UK that ‘international university and faculty councils are inseparable from receiving policy documents in English.’ But she maintains that faculties with few to no internationals should have the right to conduct their meetings in Dutch. ‘The use of English in co-determination should be a consequence of internationalisation but never an end in itself.’

    The faculties

    Although more English is being spoken in the University Council, how do the faculty councils feel about their language situation, both now and in the future?

    ArtsHans Jansen, chairman of the Faculty of Arts council, says that an interpreter would be an ideal solution in the long term, but making English mandatory would be wrong. ‘The net effect would be negative, because a small number of international staff and students would be aided in participating in council work to the serious detriment of the majority of staff and students who will find English an obstacle.’

    Members of student faction Lijst Alpha say that it would be logical to base the language choice on the composition of the council. ‘The language should be switched to English or an interpreter should join the meetings in case there are members not able to communicate in Dutch.’

    MedicineAlthough none of the faculties have experienced specific communication issues as a result of different languages thus far, Gijs Bruntink, a member of UMCG’s Education and Research council, accepts that it is a possibility. ‘I think it can become an issue, in the case of all-English meetings, if the members aren’t native English speakers. Especially for the younger students who have no experience in governance, they have two things to learn: governance, and how to express themselves in English in the context of governance.’

    Theology and Religious StudiesThe biggest concern in some faculties is what effect switching to English would have on the support staff council members. Ria de Hei, a support staff member of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies faculty, says, ‘If all the documents were to be in English, then it would become more challenging to discuss the content of educational and research matters. That could create an obstacle for people who may otherwise consider participating in the council.’

    Student member Eelco Glas thinks that incorporating more English is fairly inevitable. ‘The ideal situation would be that members are at least sufficient in both languages, and preferably fluent’, he says. ‘But the question is whether or not you can really require that of council members, particularly of students who may only be in the Netherlands for a couple of years.’

    Behavioural and Social SciencesChair of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences council, Thomas Zwinkels, says, ‘It is fair to expect the academic staff to be fluent in English, but that is different when it comes to the support staff. Those members will be less represented, so it seems to pose the question: whose participation is less important?’ Still, he sees it as being just a matter of time before his council speaks only English: ‘I would be surprised if we aren’t speaking English in five years.’

    BSS faculty council student member Joost Strijtveen recognises both sides of the dilemma: ‘From my own perspective, it would be much harder to discuss complex topics if I had to discuss them in English. The very same problem, however, applies to internationals having to speak Dutch.’

    PhilosophyIs switching to English inevitable, though? Han Thomas Adriaensen from the Faculty of Philosophy council doesn’t think so. ‘If permanent staff is required to become fluent in Dutch, then it’s not an issue.’

    Tomas Ruben, a student member of the philosophy council from 2013 to 2014, puts it simply: ‘When there aren’t any international students in the council, as far as I see it, it’s not necessary to make English the main language. If there are internationals, then it is.’

    Economics and BusinessSimona Augulytė is a Lithuanian student and a member of the Faculty of Economics and Business council. The faculty’s stance is that meetings must be held in English as long as one non-Dutch speaking person is present, and she doesn’t see having a translator as the best solution. ‘I think having a translator or separate councils in each language creates the exclusion feeling as international members might not feel as equal members as their Dutch colleagues.’

    Assistant professor of Economics Richard Jong A Pin is in favour of having only English spoken in meetings. He believes that the impact of making English the required language for council meetings is positive, and cannot foresee any issues arising from the policy.

    Mathematics and Natural SciencesThe faculty council for Mathematics and Natural Sciences has conducted meetings in English since September 2014, according to the head of the faculty council, Lucia van der Voort. She says that making English the required language is a positive move because it allows all faculty members and students to participate, even though only one member of the council cannot speak Dutch.

    But Van Der Voort notes that there have been times when she finds talking about complicated matters in English difficult. ‘Dutch people often do not realise to what extent they misuse the English language’, she says. ‘As a result, the miscommunications range from jokes to insults.’

    Spatial SciencesJan-Aike Noordermeer is a student member of the Pro Geo party in the Faculty of Spatial Sciences council. He says that all meetings are in Dutch and, because there are no international members in the council, does not think that speaking English would have any positive impact. Noordermeer recommends translating all documents into English while keeping the original Dutch documents. ‘This way, the Dutch members can still prepare in their native language and internationals can also understand the topics which are discussed.’

    Tamara Kaspers, member of the staff faction, is open to making a change: ‘I do think it’s a good idea to hold the council meetings in English because everything is about internationalisation nowadays. But there simply aren’t any international students or staff who apply to become members. I think that if there are English-speaking or other foreign language-speaking members in the council, we will automatically switch to English.’

    University College GroningenThe University Council currently functions as the University College Groningen’s council, according to student affairs officer Charlotte Hoekstra. She says that the UCG will have its own faculty comprised of three students and three staff members from September 2015 onwards, and affirms that the leading language of both the council and the faculty will be English.

    LawIn the law faculty council, professor Laurence Gormley actually thinks that forcing everyone to operate only in English in meetings is a ‘bad idea’, even though he can speak both English and Dutch. If English were required, Gormley would doubt how comfortable other council members would be contributing to discussions in English, particularly regarding complex matters. ‘I have little doubt that longer meetings would be the result, and misunderstandings are best avoided where possible’, he says.  He also says that translating all documents would be ‘a waste of money, and very, very expensive indeed.’

    Caitlin Bones, the international student member of the council, relies on her translator, Anne Aagton, during meetings. But Bones says that if she speaks in English, members respond to her in English and that section of the minutes is taken down in English. The faculty also tries to provide her with English summaries of all the council documents, but Bones says they could be more informative. ‘I am quite happy for the council to keep Dutch as its main language’, Bones says, but international topics should be discussed in English.

    Recommendations for more English

    In the Language and Culture policy that was adopted in January 2015, the main focus is on implementation of English-language instruction across the University. But the policy also consists of a list of recommendations by the Board of Directors, including ‘greater participation by non-Dutch students and staff in decision making and higher management positions within the RUG.’ Last month, all faculties were given the advice ‘to communicate in English in all governance bodies at central and faculty level from academic year 2015/2016 onwards.’

    SOG has also called for making it easier for internationals to participate in councils at the University. Their memo about language use lists a series of ways to facilitate that: all Council documents should be available both in English and Dutch; language courses should be provided for council participants; and minutes and email correspondence about meetings should be written in English as well.