Science - May 11, 2006

English the working language at WUR?

Wageningen UR is probably better known in some African and Asian countries than in the Netherlands. The number of international students and employees is large. Internationalisation is therefore an important theme in the new institutional plan currently being drawn up. One of the suggestions made by the working group for the plan is to go over to English as the working language. Is that a good idea?

Dr Alfred Hartemink, soil scientist at ISRIC – World Soil Information:
‘My initial reaction is that we at ISRIC have English as our working language, so I don’t see a problem. But for the whole organisation I would like to see the figures and something like a bottom-up approach. What number of non-Dutch speakers do we have and how many people would find English more convenient than Dutch? Is it going to attract more and better students and international staff? As long as there is no necessity to do so, I do not see advantages. It would probably hamper decision-making at all levels in the organisation. Switching to English may seem fashionable but it should be done based on hard data. Perhaps the gradual switch that is currently taking place is better than a top-down one. I would say: speak Dutch where possible and English where required. Of course, it would be good to start this debate in English.’

Rita Hendriksen, Biotechnion canteen worker:
‘We are Dutch and that won’t change. Of course, more and more foreign students are coming here. Sometimes we have to speak English at the cash desk, otherwise they don’t understand. But I have a hard time making myself understood. If it gets really difficult, I usually ask a colleague to help out. I wouldn't like the idea of doing everything in English. That would be terrible. If you think about it, the foreigners are visitors here. They are the ones who should adjust.’

Payman Akbari, third-year BSc Biotechnology, from Iran:
‘Yes, English is the language of science. If you want to raise the level of education, you have to teach in the language that is the key to science. In the Netherlands I first studied for a year at a university of professional education, and that was in English. I wanted to come to Wageningen: the university has a good name, but the courses here are cheaper than in countries like Canada or the United States. First I spent a year learning Dutch before I was admitted to Wageningen. If the university were to go over to doing all its teaching in English it would certainly attract more foreign students. That might not improve the quality of education to start with, but that would change in the long term. In Biotechnology lots of the courses are already in English anyway. We’re really only talking about first-year BSc courses, and most of the information on studying is already available in English.’

Dr Jeremy Harbinson, lecturer Horticultural Production Chains, from Northern Ireland:
‘For people like me who are native Anglophones it would make life very easy, but we are a minority within the Wageningen UR staff. I can, nonetheless, see many advantages in educating people in the language they will use later in their professional life, and it would probably have a positive effect on the intake of foreign students. On the other hand, I am concerned about negative consequences for Dutch culture. The effect could be a backlash against, say, foreign influences. So I think we should keep the balance between what is practical from a ‘business’ point of view and what is important for reasons of heritage. If they are going to switch, it should be done in a very sensitive way and they have to be careful not to discriminate against those Dutch students and staff members whose command of English is poor.’

Bram Dekkers, first-year MSc Food Technology, transfer student:
‘I think it’s a really good idea, certainly if you want to go abroad later. But I think students need to be screened better, and there should at least be English lessons offered to students who want them. It might also be a good idea to arrange for an internship abroad at the start of the study. At the university of professional education I attended I did my internship abroad, and that really helped my English.’

Jasper Harms

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