Friday 6 April 2012

Minority languages

Universities slash language studies: it’s the type of headline you’d be more likely to come across in a UK newspaper, but in fact these were the words ("Faculteiten schrappen talenstudies") that adorned the home news pages of de Volkskrant last week. The article reported that a large number of language courses at Dutch universities were to be disbanded over the coming years. The reasons are twofold: cuts in the education budget; and – perhaps more alarmingly – a drastic fall in the number of students enrolling for language degrees.

At least 15 courses would disappear in the short term, either scrapped completely, or subsumed into other more generalised degree courses, such as communication sciences, culture and media studies, and European studies. Government policy is for universities to offer courses with a broader (i.e. less specialised) base, the assumption being that this will lead to a decrease in drop-out rates amongst students. Funding will be conditional on a commitment to these broader based courses. In any case, because of the dwindling numbers, universities can hardly justify offering some of the more ‘offbeat’ languages.

For a country which prides itself in its linguistic adeptness and a historic standing as a major trading nation, this represents something of a reverse. The decision to stop Portuguese language studies at the University of Utrecht (the only one of its kind in North-west Europe) is not only representative of this malaise, but particularly disturbing not least in view of the fact that Portuguese is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world and what's more, the official language of Brazil, one of the great emerging economies of the 21st century. The hosting of football’s World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 will only increase Brazil’s profile on the world stage.

Perhaps an even more worrying development at a ‘local’ level over the past decades has been the acute lack of interest in German as a foreign language. Not only do the number of student enrolments point to an indifference in learning the language of its immediate neighbour and biggest trading partner, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence too. English is hugely popular amongst Dutch schoolchildren. It is seen as cool and sexy. German, on the other hand is looked up as stuffy and outmoded. It seems the more the Netherlands embraces the Anglo-Saxon culture in its schools and universities, the further it is turning its back on the 100 million German-speakers in its back yard and, in Germany, the largest and most robust European economy.

Even in the southernmost province, Limburg, where the local dialect and culture is bound up historically not with Holland, but the Rhineland, there is a widespread aversion to German. Furthermore its school-leavers flock to university towns like Delft, Leiden and Utrecht, rather than Aachen, a mere stone’s throw away, which has one of the biggest and liveliest student populations in Western Europe being home of the prestigious RWTH, Aachen’s technical university. Aachen has never attracted large numbers of Dutch students in the past anyway, but you would think that with a single European market and increasing cross-border cooperation in the form of Euregional development, careers advisers might give it more of a plug and interest would be on the rise, not on the decline. The Dutch student society at the RWTH, Alcunius, reports that there are a mere 150 Dutch students amongst an overall student population of 30,000!

Bi-lingual (Dutch-English) streams are sprouting up at schools throughout the province of Limburg (as well as the rest of the Netherlands). More and more Dutch universities are offering mainstream courses taght in English, Maastricht in particular. (You wonder how these establishments are quite going to find enough teachers proficient to teach English to (near-)native levels, but perhaps that is another question for the time being.)

Not only is there an over-emphasis - and over-reliance - on English as a world language in the Dutch economy, there has been an increasing anglicisation of its culture too. In addition, it is not just language studies that are facing a crisis. A broad spectrum of humanities subjects too have been undergoing a demise: in troubled times, their economic value is being increasingly called into question.

So how worried should we be? Is this just part of a wider trend in the globalised climate we live in, or will a return to economic prosperity herald a linguistic revival? Only time will tell.