Why there should be a place for both English and Dutch in the University Council

On February 24, DUB published two opinion pieces calling for different language policies for the University Council. One of them argued that English should be adopted as lingua franca, while the other offered reasons to oppose the anglicisation of the council. We would like to place this discussion in a broader context in order to provide a more complete picture of the various options available.

This academic year, the University Council is trying out Luistertaal – a multilingual way of communicating in which the Dutch members speak Dutch and international members speak English. That requires both groups of speakers to have sufficient receptive abilities (listening/reading) so they can understand each other's language. There are many advantages to luistertaal. First, it eliminates the fear of speaking, thus contributing to a high quality debate. All interlocutors can communicate in the language they feel most comfortable speaking and are therefore able to express themselves in a more nuanced way than would be the case if they were speaking their second or foreign language.

Although that looks like a good idea on paper, in reality the use of luistertaal requires a lot of effort and adaptability from both sides. The success of luistertaal depends on the level of the interlocutors' command of each other's language, which is why interpreters and translations are sometimes necessary. The research project Multilingualism and Participation (M&M in the Dutch acronym) was created to follow this experiment, and research other forms of multilingualism, so that it can advise which form of multilingualism is the most appropriate in each situation.

Advice and research activities
It is still too early to give advice because the research activities have only just begun. The M&M project is engaged in all kinds of substudies to map out the best ways for participatory bodies (university councils, faculty councils, education commissions etc.) to deal with multilingualism. A national survey distributed through the National Council of University Participation Chairpeople (Lovum in the Dutch acronym) should provide insight about the language politics and satisfaction levels regarding the current language situations within the university councils of other Dutch universities. Additionally, UU is collaborating with the Dutch Language Union (link in Dutch) on a comparison of how universities abroad deal with international students and staff in their participatory bodies.

To assist current and future council members, a receptive course in Dutch as administrative language is under development. This course will use authentic materials based on a quantitative analysis of meeting transcripts. Therefore, it shall pay special attention to strategic listening, with study materials covering the most frequent words and expressions. Learning a new language is a challenge in itself, but administrative language goes a step further. Council members are not averse to discussing strategies and several common sayings pass in review. It's often seen as a pleasurable political game that spices up the debate, but it doesn't make language any easier to understand. That's why a training and a toolkit on multilingual meeting are being developed to raise awareness of the fact that multilingual communication must come from both sides.

Other multilingual situations
Utrecht University is not the only one with a multilingual council. The University of Amsterdam also has a bilingual language policy in which members speak both Dutch and English – a form of luistertaal. Apart from the multilingual variant, there are also universities that opt for either English or Dutch. English makes meetings more accessible for international students and employees, but can be an obstacle for some Dutch speakers.

Not every university student needs to master the English language for their studies, not to mention administrative language is a whole other level of English than the one used at the classroom. Moreover, there are some groups of employees who do not speak English. The power of diversity is that students and employees of all levels can run for a position in the council. But the question arises: how can universities be inclusive without excluding others? Therefore, we must find a way to use both English and Dutch in the University Council.