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‘Dutch Is Our Language: We Use It, But We Don’t Own It’
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© Tom Christiaerns
© Tom Christiaerns © Tom Christiaerns
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‘Dutch Is Our Language: We Use It, But We Don’t Own It’

A plea for more inclusive thinking

How can we make Dutch more relevant than ever? A debate on this topic took place in Humanity House in The Hague on 10 October 2019. Henriette Louwerse, Director of Dutch Studies and Senior Lecturer in Dutch at the University of Sheffield, argued for an open and inclusive approach towards the Dutch language. ‘We must radically dispense with small-thinking. Small-thinking holds back the potential of the Dutch language. From now on, let us tell an inclusive story about Dutch, a global top-50 language that embraces everybody who speaks it, and wants to learn to speak it. Let’s take the potential of Dutch seriously.’ The text below is her full speech.

As a tutor of Dutch language and culture at a British university, and even more so as part of the Internationale Vereniging voor Neerlandistiek (International Society of Dutch Studies), I have frequently suggested that the Dutch and Flemish authorities resort to ‘small-thinking’ when it comes to the promotion of Dutch as a foreign language. While China readily founds Confucius Institutes worldwide; an Alliance Française operates in every respectable city; where Germany and Austria support a global university network of native speaking tutors, Flanders and the Netherlands persist in their deeply held conviction that the Dutch language and the language-related cultures of the Netherlands and Flanders, are unsuitable as export products.

The internalised notion of Dutch as a small, difficult and highly particular language proves tenacious. Recently the Dutch Language Union produced a comparative study on European language policies and the outcome confirms the worst expectations: the Netherlands and Flanders combined, invest €0.075 per capita to support international tutors and students of Dutch. At €2.80 per capita, Portugal spends 35 times as much on tutors and students of Portuguese.

Perhaps you are familiar with this message. And there may even be small signs that the message is getting through, at least if the recent coalition agreement of the Flemish government is anything to go by. The new government states its intention to invest in the 'internationalisation of the Dutch language'. Bravo. But that is just the start.

In the course of this festive Dutch Language Week, we sing the praises of our language in various events and activities. At least for this week, the return-on-investment-discourse is pushed aside as we celebrate and share our love for and pride in the Dutch language. We savour Multatuli’s sentences; we blame the ubiquity of the English language for all our ills; we honour our mother tongue at the Onze Taal congress; and we celebrate the language right down to the exclamation mark during the 11th edition of the VRT Taalavond!

Celebration is fine, pride and love are beautiful things, but it is not enough. After all, what is new? We worry about the rise of global English, we lament the drop in uptake of Dutch degrees at universities, and we regurgitate the arguments for and against the insistence on Standard Dutch. I hear nothing that leads me to believe that we are about to see the fundamental shift in attitude required if we truly want Dutch to be ‘more relevant than ever’ in the 21st century as the subtitle of this evening reads.

Be the best

During a debate on the Dutch radio program De Taalstaat on 5 October, several prominent scholars of Dutch and Dutch Studies were asked to share why they had chosen to study Dutch in the first place. The answers were predictable: a love of reading, an inspiring Dutch teacher at secondary school. One answer, however, stood out: the revelation of a Professor of Dutch. 'I wanted to study French, but my mother said, "you’d better not, because then you’ll never be the best. If they are looking for a Professor of French, you will always lose out to a Frenchman".' The audience laughs.

I appreciate the ambition of the professor’s mother and, for that matter, that of the Professor herself, but this piece of maternal advice reveals an aspect of our national small-thinking. And this is the persistent small-thinking that we, teachers and researchers in international Dutch studies, keep running into. This is the small-thinking that reduces, restricts, limits and keeps Dutch small.

When it comes to language, literature and culture, I admire the open and inclusive big-thinking of the British

I live in the much-maligned Britain, a country adrift. But in spite of the current existential crisis, when it comes to language, literature and culture, I admire the open and inclusive big-thinking of the British. For example, when I look at my colleagues in the English Department at Sheffield University, I conclude that having English as one’s first language is not a prerequisite. In fact, the outsider’s perspective – the international contribution of Dr. Kook Hi Gill (South Korea), Dr. Agnes Lehoczky (Hungary), Dr. Duco van Oostrum (Friesland) and Dr. Charlotte Steenbrugge (Flanders) – is regarded as enriching, a way of broadening and deepening existing knowledge and expertise. Not only is the idea that 'you would not be able to make it because you are not a native speaker of English' untrue, it is also patently absurd. English is not the exclusive domain of native speakers of English, the British do not have exclusive rights to Shakespeare, and they know it.

Dutch cannot be the exclusive right of people who grew up with Jip and Janneke

Ladies and gentlemen, Dutch is our language: we speak it, but we don’t own it. Dutch cannot be the exclusive right of people who grew up with Jip and Janneke. The Dutch language and the myriad of cultural products in Dutch are open for everyone who wants to examine, seek connections, love and enjoy them. If we embrace Dutch as an open, medium-sized, international language, and no longer consider it the monopoly of native speakers from within a small language area, then Dutch can indeed be more relevant than ever in the 21st century.

Dutch small-thinking lies hidden in glorifying the mother-tongue; it shrouds itself in a closed identity debate; it fetishises difference rather than regarding it as proof of diversity. We must radically shed that type of small-thinking if, as a language community, we want to be ready for the future. From now on, let us tell an inclusive story about Dutch, the language that is open for everyone who loves it, for those who speak it alongside other languages: English (like me and my family), French, Moroccan, Arabic, German and more. Let us be proud of a language and a culture that thinks big and inclusive, that invests in education at all levels, within and outside of the language borders.

Let us tell an inclusive story about Dutch, the language that is open for everyone who loves it, for those who speak it alongside other languages

Last week I was sitting in a large university auditorium during our annual registration event. A young man appeared at my table. 'I would like to study Dutch,' he said. 'What an excellent idea,' I replied, because in Sheffield too, every student is welcome. 'I may not be a beginner,' he said.

I replied in Dutch: 'Well, that’s great, you already have some experience with the language, do you?'
My interlocutor reacted unexpectedly. He welled up and he said, 'Sorry, I’m just so happy someone is speaking in Dutch to me.'

Nathan is Dutch of West African descent. He was born in Rotterdam where he lived until the age of eleven. He then moved to Britain. He speaks English, Dutch and two other African languages. Dutch is his favourite language. He wants to become a Dutch teacher, preferably at university. Are you going to tell him that sadly, that is not possible? That in our eyes, he will never be the best, because we just cannot trust in people who speak other languages besides Dutch.

Let us express the love we have for the Dutch language, by spreading that love to those who use it – to everyone who uses it.

Listen to the speech of Henriette Louwerse (in Dutch)

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