Nederlands of Engels op de werkvloer? That's the question


Can foreign teachers at the UU manage with speaking English exclusively, or do they have to learn Dutch to be able to participate fully? DUB asks three researchers who went abroad about the role of the Dutch language in their work.

The theme of this year’s Education Fair (Onderwijsparade in Dutch) is the internationalization of Utrecht University. One of the goals of the UU’s internationalization policy is to attract more staff from abroad. The target is to have a 30 per cent increase in foreign staff members at the UU by the year 2020.

That goal will greatly affect the university’s language policies – for instance, how many classes should be taught in English, or whether English should be the preferred language in the workplace. UU associate professors Saskia Arndt, Andrei Petoukhov and Damián Zaitch talk about the role of the Dutch language in education and research, at staff meetings and at the coffee machine.

Biologist Saskia Arndt (Veterinary Medicine) moved from Germany to the Netherlands. “I think it’s important to speak the language of the country you live in.”

Associate professor Saskia Arndt left Germany in 2005 “because of the amazing job offer I got from Utrecht”. In her job interview, she was asked whether she’d be willing to learn Dutch, but it wasn’t a prerequisite.

Still, she decided to start learning Dutch immediately. “I like learning a new language. Personally, I think it’s important to know the language of the country you’re living in. Not just for better participation in classes, but also for things like understanding your coworkers’ jokes. Aside from that, it’s important to me to know what’s happening around me in society and at the university.”

All her staff meetings have always been in Dutch, but Arndt doesn’t mind. “That was just extra motivation for me to learn the language. Whenever I didn’t understand something, I asked for clarification.”

Arndt has been a member of the Veterinary Medicine faculty council for a few years and is now chairwoman for the council’s staff fraction. She regularly discusses the question of whether the councils should speak English in their staff meetings. “For most people, English is not their first language. I think we have to fully consider all angles before we start discussing important subjects in a different language. Personally, I think we need to be practical about it.”



One of the consequences of Utrecht University’s international aspirations is that the role of the English language will become more prominent. Arndt thinks this a good thing, as long as it’s clear why it’s happening.

At the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, most of the classes are still taught in Dutch – which makes sense, considering that most of the students will find work as veterinarians in the Netherlands. “They need to be able to communicate clearly in Dutch.”

The faculty wants to blend research and education together more. “English is the language of most research, so students will have to deal with it more and more. If we have more English-language education, it’s possible that will attract more foreign students to Utrecht, which in turn can broaden the horizons of the Dutch students. Perhaps the Dutch students would then consider pursuing a career abroad more often, too.”

Arndt says it’s important for researchers to stay firmly grounded in society. “I think it’s my social responsibility to be able to explain to anyone what I do in my research – which, after all, is partially subsidized with taxpayers’ money. To be able to do this properly, I need to be able to speak Dutch.”

Associate professor in Chemistry Andrei Petoukhov hails from the other side of the Iron Curtain: “I learned Dutch by watching the 8 o’clock news.”

He’s never done any Dutch language course. Andrei Petoukhov, associate professor at the Debye Institute for Nanotechnology, never had the time. “I don’t have a special knack for languages either,” says Petoukhov, who was born and raised in the Soviet Union. “We learned English and German because we were expected to understand the languages of our enemies,” he laughs.

Having lived here for the past twenty years, Petoukhov’s Dutch has gotten quite good, although he still has some trouble with a few difficult letter combinations. “I learned the language by watching Philip Freriks present the 8 o’clock news on TV. Ten years ago, I asked coworkers and students to only speak Dutch to me. That was hard on them sometimes. As soon as Dutch people hear you’re a foreigner, they switch to English, which comes easily to them.”

Even though coworkers and students alike don’t mind speaking English, he says it’s important to speak Dutch. “By speaking Dutch, you feel more connected with each other, and with the country’s culture, as language is intrinsically connected to culture.”

In education, English is becoming more and more popular. That makes sense, says Petoukhov, as English is the language of science. “Many first year classes are still in Dutch, but the further you get in your studies, the more the classes are taught in English. I let my students choose what language we use during lectures when there are no foreign students – but in small seminars, I speak Dutch, as I feel closer to the students that way.”

Petoukhov, who was director of the Debye Institute from 2009 to 2014, doesn’t need the Dutch language for his classes and research. To be able to read the university’s policy documents or to get involved in the employees’ consultative body, however, speaking and understanding Dutch is quite useful. “There are more and more non-Dutch employees at the UU. Communication is usually done in two languages, but at this level, English is often forgotten. For the foreign employees, this is disappointing.”

Criminologist Damián Zaitch crossed the Atlantic Ocean. “If you don’t speak Dutch, you don’t have a say when decisions are made”

“If you don’t speak Dutch, you’re an outside during board meetings,” says Argentinian-born Damián Zaitch. “Whether it’s the consultative body, the section meetings, or other political meetings between faculty and departments: if you can’t speak or understand Dutch, you won’t be able to have a say in anything.”

The criminologist, who works for the Faculty of Law, is afraid many great foreign colleagues will leave quickly when they realize they can’t join in at the administrative decision-making level. “That’s why there should be more meetings in English, at every level.”

It really shouldn’t be a problem to increase the use of English within the faculty, Zaitch says. It’s important for the university’s research that researchers cooperate with others abroad. “The Netherlands is small when it comes to research, so if you’re an ambitious scientist, you’ll need to look beyond the border. That means you need to be able to attract foreign colleagues, and speak more English in the workplace.”

His department in the city center might not be the most representative for the entire university, Zaitch claims. “The people who work here are predominantly Dutch nationals. In the ‘90s, when I got my PhD from the University of Amsterdam, there was a large group of international researchers, and we spoke English almost all the time. Now, I’m the coordinator for an English-language master’s program. We’ve agreed to have English as the main language. But when a Dutch teacher has a little chat with a Dutch student after class, they’ll usually speak Dutch. I can imagine it would be weird for them to speak English in a situation like that.”

Zaitch has lived in the Netherlands for about 25 years now. “I’m not a researcher who was headhunted from a different country or something. I did a master’s in Barcelona, and the university there was part of a network that also included the Erasmus University. I thought my chances were good to pursue a PhD in the Netherlands.

“Through the University of Amsterdam and Erasmus University, I ended up in Utrecht about seven years ago. I stayed in the Netherlands because I like the atmosphere at the universities here. People are less competitive than abroad, they’re nicer to each other. It’s a pleasant country to live in--but then, I am a migrant.”

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