Setting up a language policy in the Netherlands

Setting up a language policy in the Netherlands

This is a story about a language policy in progress at a classical university in the Netherlands. The policy is currently being written and debated. This is being done at the request the Executive Board, and based on needs indicated by students, academic and administrative staff.  We intend to have a future proof language policy and a working document by early 2014. With this article, we hope to share our experiences and learn from others.

Our university has a long history of internationalisation. The university started in 1614 with a German Rector, 50% of all staff and students coming from abroad, and education provided in Latin and Dutch. Today, students and staff come from many different countries from all over the world; education is offered increasingly in English and no longer in Latin. Part of our current mission is: “To prepare all students and staff for working and living in a globalised world. Our work reflects international developments and we embrace our diversity.” In our vision on internationalisation “we strive to have an international perspective at the institutional level, to be reflected in all policies and regulations.” This includes our language policy.

Renewed mission for internationalisation

We have a long history in internationalisation, a strong worldwide network, 80% of our Master programmes taught in English, and a fair number of English-taught Bachelor programmes. Our next challenge is to involve all of our staff and students in internationalisation, to realise an international classroom, and to use internationalisation to improve quality in education and research. To achieve this, we have started a project international classroom with a mixed approach; dealing with strategy and policies at the institutional level, pilots at a curriculum level, and needs and resources for students and staff. From our renewed mission and more explicit vision on internationalisation, it is clear that we need to renew our language policy. Our current formal documents date from 2003 and basically describe English as an exception. The standard is Dutch, and the rights of Dutch staff and students are emphasised in this by-law. The need for a new language policy is confirmed by students and staff.

Time for a new policy

International students complain about the majority of policy documents written in Dutch, and boards and committees being held in Dutch. They find that this seriously limits their access to participate in the university’s governance bodies. Another problem they signal is the lack of involvement from Dutch students. The distinction made between ‘international’ and ‘Dutch/home’ students, combined with separate activities and services seems to seriously hinder integration. Some ‘Dutch/home’ students complain about the “different English” of international students, or find it difficult to talk in English all the time. Some staff members are concerned about the increased dominance of the English language, the impact on the quality of their research and education, and the possible loss of identity. Although they all appreciate their academic freedom, they all agree that the lack of a language policy creates different rules and standards, confusion, and sometimes frustration.

Aims and objectives

Our new language policy aims to make all staff and students feel at home, and confident and comfortable in using another language, so that we can all be good at what we do. We intend to be a bilingual university, fostering multilingualism, and enhancing linguistic and cultural diversity and awareness. In our perspective, language is strongly related with intercultural and pedagogical skills. We will take into account the language needs of all parties, in different domains, inside and outside the university (industry and society), and guarantee access to language learning facilities. We will also encourage native speakers of other languages to use their own mother tongue, facilitate student and staff mobility, and foster lifelong language learning.

Pre-requisites and graduate attributes

For the different domains of education, research, administration and the wider community, pre-requisites and standards need to be set. For students, what is the language proficiency level required from students who apply for our programmes? And what is the level we expect from our graduates? What is the impact on their mobility and employability? Consequently, which language components do we offer inside and outside our degree programmes? We will also look at academic reading and writing skills, in different languages. Similar questions need to be answered for the other domains and stakeholders. Considering the different domains and an increasingly diverse group of students and staff, we expect that their needs for language support will also differ.

At our university there is a clear need for a new language policy, indicated by internal and external stakeholders. In developing a new policy, it will be crucial to involve all different stakeholders and to work from an overall vision on internationalisation. It will not be sufficient to produce a future proof policy document. The process itself and the debate will be even more important. This way, making a new language policy can be an interesting exercise to bring all staff and students together in a shared vision on internationalisation.

By Franka van den Hende, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Does your institution have a language policy in place? What is your experience of creating or implementing a new policy? Is there a need to acknowledge the increasing use of English at universities across Europe?  Share your views below!

Franka van den Hende
University of Groningen, the NetherlandsFranka van den Hende combines policy advising in internationalisation of education with her PhD research from a change perspective on the same topic at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.