Wetenschap - 16 mei 2002

Column: The English Languish

Column: The English Languish

Two of my most favourite words are codswallop (untruths or nonsense) and nincompoop (someone not blessed with brains). Both are light-hearted witticisms. They are examples of how language can be misshapen, how words almost have a will of their own. The longer I stay in Wageningen, the more it feels like I am losing touch with my native tongue. I am drowning in a sea of Dunglish.

Dunglish, a hybrid of Dutch and English, is a common adversary. Like most of the international students here, I came to Holland safely reassured that everyone spoke English. The relative fluency of what is after all a second language is impressive, but the similarities and great divisions between Nederlands and Engels mean a mixing of the two can be most perplexing (!). The British, like our counterparts across the pond (USA), are renowned for taking great pride in using only one language, often purposefully misusing it (slang). It is easy to fall into the trap of displaying arrogance, as is the English stereotype, where using patois 'correctly' is concerned. In science literature in particular, the presentation of a lucid account of your work relies heavily on meeting the exacting standards of the native speaker. It can be enjoyable to listen to the eccentricities of speech coloured by another vernacular; problems only arise when complexity enters the equation.

I have some concerns over the University's intention to make it compulsory for all teaching to be in English. The Dutch student majority must surely prefer to speak with indigenous fluency. International students can often have enough problems to contend with in making themselves understood to a willing audience. Lecturers must have acquired a comprehensive vocabulary if they are to negotiate the language barriers. The point is that by removing the choice of speaking in a preferred lingo, you are eliminating the most efficient method of interaction. In defence of the change, often the only way for improvement is practice, and enforcing continuous English use could have that result.

Charisma is an important factor in teaching. Science is not a subject requiring personality but provoking interest is an essential part of holding the listener's attention and making the information easier to absorb. Switching from Dutch to English may unintentionally inhibit a person's character and expressive ability.

It could be argued that it is vital the university sustains the relevance of its teaching by standardising it to the internationally accepted form of communication. Nevertheless, to ensure the success of this overhaul they must, in my humble opinion, more rigorously examine the influence of language on teaching quality. Otherwise, nincompoops like me have the opportunity to complain about all the codswallop that I have to learn.

David Lee Hopkins