Should Dutch or English be the main language at Dutch universities? Claudia Werker believes that language is a tool for integration and should be used as such.
Claudia Werker: “A large number of my Dutch colleagues are much more eloquent in their mother tongue than they are in English.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Should Dutch or English be the main language at Dutch universities? Claudia Werker believes that language is a tool for integration and should be used as such.

Lees in het Nederlands

Some years ago TU Delft underwent a reorganisation. An English speaking colleague expressed his displeasure when I was invited for a meeting with the Rector in which the effects of the reorganisation on the department were discussed, and he was not. He wondered why this was. The answer was clear – after living in the Netherlands for 10 years he spoke no Dutch and the meeting was in Dutch.

Would it have been fairer to have held the meeting in English? The answer is not that simple. If you do this, the non-Dutch speaking colleagues are not disadvantaged and the English speaking colleagues are even advantaged, but Dutch speaking colleagues who do not regularly speak English are disadvantaged. This last issue has always quickly been swept under the carpet. In my experience, a large number of my Dutch colleagues are much more eloquent in their mother tongue than they are in English. So they can also contribute to a discussion much more easily in Dutch, and certainly if it is a discussion with the Rector. On the other hand, you do not want to exclude anyone that does not speak Dutch.

‘Be clear about the level of language mastery that you expect’

What is wise? I believe that you should dare be clear about the level of Dutch that you expect from someone. I think a good time to define this kind of expectation is when someone is offered a permanent job at a Dutch university. After a couple of years you can check if the colleague can speak enough Dutch.

I believe that knowledge of the Dutch language will enhance integration at TU Delft. If you work in a Dutch speaking environment for a while, your colleagues and students will benefit from your Dutch language mastery. This is especially relevant for bachelor students as we are taking on more and more international colleagues. If we do not ask them to learn Dutch, in a few years’ time the students will have to turn to the handful of colleagues who do speak Dutch. Either that or they will have to have all their lessons in English, which the House of Representatives is reluctant to have. Even during meetings and chats at the coffee machine it is helpful to be able to speak Dutch with colleagues and students from all parts of the organisation.

Language is a fantastic tool for integration. My Italian vocabulary only consists of greetings, numbers and swear words – everything you need if you spend your summers playing ping-pong with Italian children. Still I try to greet my Italian colleagues in Italian – they know that I only speak a few words of Italian – and, for good reasons, do not use all my Italian vocabulary. But this approach shows that we will do our best to find a language in which to express ourselves, even if we do not share a language which we master perfectly.

Claudia Werker is Associate Professor Economics of Technology and Innovation at the Faculty of TPM. She has worked at TU Delft since 2007. She is also the Vice Chair of TU Delft’s Works Council.