News - February 25, 2016

Warning! Language barrier

Rob Ramaker

Wageningen University attracts students from all over the world and tries to address them in English consistently. Do we manage that? In official communications, yes, say international students, but outside of that they come across Dutch quite often.

Aysha Mareta Karlina, Master’s student of Food Technology, from Indonesia

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‘In the lab I work with my supervisor and a lab assistant. They are both Dutch speakers. I speak English with them but if they are not talking about work they talk to each other in Dutch. In lectures too, the language of communication is English but in the breaks students speak Dutch together. It’s a pity I can’t follow it. Things are well arranged at the university. Classes are always in English. I know from other students in France that it’s different there. If only a small number of students in a class are English-speaking the teacher switches to French. Outside the university it’s harder. You can only apply for housing benefit in Dutch. International students speak English together a lot. This makes it hard to hold a discussion because their English isn’t always good enough to express themselves and exchange ideas.

Almat Kabykenov, Master’s student of Environmental Sciences, from Kazachstan

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‘Officially everyone at the university speaks English as well as Dutch. Emails and other official documents are always in both languages. That applies to lectures and other formal occasions as well. But informal texts are often in Dutch. Take the Facebook page Wageningen Student Plaza. Lots of international students are on it and yet people often post in Dutch. I don’t have a problem with it. I am living in the Netherlands and am conscious that the language of communication here is Dutch. It can still be difficult though. If I eat with my flatmates at the Dijkgraaf I am the only non-Dutch person at the table. People often talk Dutch, even when a conversation starts in English. In my first year I tried to learn Dutch at In’to Languages. But whenever I spoke to people in Dutch they switched to English. Then I gave up.’

Anne Walther, Student Council member for Sustainability and Internationalization (S&I), from Germany


‘Recently the Student Council was invited to the official opening of Campus Plaza. The speech was in Dutch. There are two Chinese students on the Council, who didn’t understand a word of it. Even at Resource it is standard practice to put everything online in Dutch first. Sometimes the translation only follows two days later. In some cases English first would be more logical, like the article on ‘Swimming classes for international students’ on 25 January 2016. Group work at the university can be problematic. It depends on how good people’s English is. Students are tested in their home countries, which makes it difficult to make sure all students have a similar command of English. PhD students sometimes supervise Master’s students for their theses. If the two come from different parts of the world, communication can be difficult. The topics in question often demand a high standard of English. As a German student it annoys me that the first year of the Bachelor’s is taught in Dutch, while the books are in English. It takes a lot of time to translate everything. For the course on Human and Animal Biology I had to learn all the parts of the body in both Dutch and English.’

Loes de Heus, Exchange coordinator for Life Sciences and Erasmus administrator, from the Netherlands


‘Students come to a coordinator with their problems. Actually no one has ever come to me with a complaint about language. The standard of English at the university is high. It needs to be because there are students here from more than 100 different countries. In the past teachers used to come to us complaining about the exchange students’ poor English. That hasn’t happened for a few years now. Incoming students have to do a language test at home. Once they have been admitted here they also take a test at In’to Languages. If the standard is too low we advise them to take an extra course. We ourselves do everything in English of course. Like the welcome back drinks party for students from Wageningen. The invitation was in English, even though they were nearly all Dutch speakers.’

Kelly Nichols, PhD student at Animal Nutrition, from Canada

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‘In general the university does a pretty good job. The thing that surprised me was that the correspondence of the Animal Experiments Committee [DEC] and the Central Committee on Animal Experiments [CCD] is in Dutch. The forms are in English but they ask questions in Dutch. Then you have to ask your supervisor to translate them, but they are always busy obviously. It doesn’t seem like a big ask to translate this into English. ‘I like to mingle with Dutch students and for me personally it’s a hangup that ten people at a table need to talk English because I’m there. They switch easily and say they don’t mind, but nevertheless I feel bad. Myself, I try not to finish sentences for people who cannot find an English word because it’s not their first language. The town of Wageningen seems very much attuned to international students but in Arnhem or Nijmegen you see for instance that some restaurants only have a Dutch menu.’