Wetenschap - 16 maart 1995

Tongue Tied

Tongue Tied

English is neither the first nor only language of many foreign students in Wageningen nor is it the mother tongue of most lecturers. What results when language worlds collide, can at times be hilarious, but also frustrating and sometimes distressing.

When the tiny man came to the podium and began, a lot has already been said so I will be short.., one of the native english speakers sitting near the podium couldn't help but blurt out - you're already short so I hope you will be brief.", tells an eye witness.

The entire language department had to chuckle over the essay written by a student who analyzed stories for children but repeatedly discussed fairy-tails instead of fairy-tales...

With the formulas on the overhead projector, the professor pointed to the i and said e, then motioned with a pen to the e while discussing a. The class, a visiting group from Russia, were more that just a little confused. Mumbling to each other, a Russian among them, who had some knowledge of the Dutch alphabet, whispered beneath the pontificating professor to let the audience know what was going on.

But communication misunderstandings are not always funny. According to Marianne Sanders, Language Instructor at the Catholic University of Tilburg, a great deal of energy can be spent on deciphering the words while the content of messages gets lost. When trying to offer compact intensive international programmes, things are moving so fast that the student who cannot keep up is left in the dust. On the other hand, the lecturer muddling through a presentation can cause confusion."


Stephen Opoku Duah from Ghana, (International Student Panel representative for the MSc programme Soil and Water) raises a couple of points, Sometimes it is quite difficult to follow the line of the lecture when the lecturer's English is poor. Granted there are also problems with students skills. You see, MSc courses are supposed to be in English but when Dutch students participate, a problem arises. As a rule, if there are fewer than 6 or 7 MSc students, the lecturer can give the lectures in Dutch. English is not as much of a necessity for the Dutch students whereas it is the only medium for the MSc student. The lecturer may be compensating for the Dutch students handicaps when he switches into Dutch, but switching to Dutch is also convenient for the lecturer because it's not necessary to rewrite the course in English. We are left to follow the course as a self-study when this happens."

Marianne Nordhoek, Manager of the Language Centre Achter de Aula, admits that the Wageningen language problem is probably larger than one thinks, It is part of university policy to treat English as a sort of second language here. But it is a fantasy to think that everybody is capable or willing to do this. From the personnel side, there is definitely room for improvement. It is often arrogance which has to be overcome. English skills which are adequate for a vacation won't save you in the class room. It's hard to admit that you need to take a course to improve your English." But the language complaints are two-sided. English language instructor Henny van den Steen identifies the MSc students problems as, Fairly serious if you consider for example out of a group of approximately 40 people taking an international English examination, only 10 pass without requiring further tuition. Programme directors recommend that many students brush up their skills at the cen
tre. But, students are so busy, that they arrive for language class totally exhausted and pretty soon they give up or don't do the work. Other subjects take priority. The university only provides the support for us to teach the students 20 hours worth of courses. This is not enough time to be able to attend to the needs of each student individually."

Quality Control

I think if you want your university to offer a product such as courses for international students, then the language of instruction should be up to standard. It is as simple as quality control," underlines Marianne Sanders who goes on to say, I think that what we have set up in Tilburg is a good model for other universities. An English instructor from our centre sits in on the classes to make suggestions. The recommendation can be - you need to take a few courses. Although it is the responsibility of the students coming to the Netherlands to ensure that their English is up to standard, the receiving university is always going to have to deal with cases which require individual help."

Marianne Nordhoek explains, Few people in Wageningen are aware of the things we can do for them, both at the departmental level and also at the individual level. What we are hoping for is better contact between the university's departments and our centre. We can address the complaints by helping the students and the staff, but this requires that the university board makes the language policy more of a priority. If the university wants to increase the numbers of international students coming here, and if they are to compete internationally, language standards should improve."

Laughing as he mimics a favourite mistake made by the Dutch, Stephen Opoku Duah says, How can I explain you?" As the university economizes, we may see more and more combined Dutch and international classes. I think Dutch students and the lecturer should be required to have a higher level of English so that even if there are fewer than 7 MSc students, we are not forced to follow a self-study course."