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Tilburg University: Language barrier for foreign PhDs

27 March 2007, 00:13

Spreken we Nederlands or should we talk English? Foreign PhDs need to understand the Dutch language for daily business. Heejung Chung and Annekathrin Ellersiek aim to raise awareness of the possible isolation of foreign PhD students because of the language barrier.

Spreken we Nederlands or should we talk English? Foreign PhDs need to understand the Dutch language for daily business. Heejung Chung and Annekathrin Ellersiek aim to raise awareness of the possible isolation of foreign PhD students because of the language barrier.

You are a foreign PhD student. Do you dream in Dutch or in another language? An important question, because it is said that it tells something about your immersion in a new country. Hooray for the ones that dream in Dutch. You've mastered the language somehow, and it will help you in your daily business, for example, reading the agenda for a meeting, an invitation to lunch in the mensa, or a newsletter of the supporting staff, all of which are written in Dutch. This is not possible, however, for many foreign PhD students, claim Heejung Chung and Annekathrin Ellersiek.

Chung and Ellersiek are PhD representatives of the Faculty of Law and the Faculty Social and Behavioural Science, respectively. "The first and primary problem the foreign PhD encounters is language", they say. They emphasize that this is the problem of a bigger group, not the issue of one or two PhD students.

"Most foreign PhDs come to Tilburg thinking that communication at the university will be in English. After arriving they notice that department meetings, research seminars, newsletters and other things, both formal and informal, are mostly done in Dutch. Even if you have followed a few courses in Dutch, your basic knowledge is insufficient to participate. This poses an exclusion problem for those willing to integrate."

Chung: "There are also practical poblems, such as finding out what forms you need to fill in to get your funding arranged for a conference abroad."

Ellersiek: "Even a national meeting of PhD students was held in Dutch, although there were a number of foreign PhDs. People often opt for Dutch so they can address all issues on the agenda in time. And, of course, it is easier to express yourself in Dutch if you are a native speaker, but that is exactly what puts the non-Dutch speaker at a disadvantage. OK, as a foreigner you cannot expect Dutch people to talk English constantly, for example, during an informal lunch. On the other hand, PhDs are here for their jobs. There's no family or close friends around, so it would be nice to feel you're a part of university life. In the end, a foreign PhD gets to know mostly other foreign PhDs."

"The fact that there is no uniform policy regarding the use of English is not very helpful." Chung continues. "Across faculties and departments, there are different agreements on when to use English. With an increasing number of foreign students and staff arriving in Tilburg, we feel that the issue of the language barrier has not been sufficiently addressed yet. If Tilburg University strives to be an international university, it should give the language policy more thought."

Ton Heinen, manager of research institute Oldendorff (FSW), agrees that policy on the use of English within faculties is inconsistent, apart from in the Faculty of Economics, where use of English is standard.

"For FSW and the research institute, we have agreed that e-mails between PhD students have to be in English. General notices, however, which are important for all staff, are written in Dutch. There are different rules for the use of English within the university."

According to Heinen, faculties are hesitant about switching to English. "This has to do with practical implications, such as that personnel feel more comfortable using Dutch, or that their ability to speak or write English accurately is limited."

Ellersiek and Chung consider it important that the language issue and its possible consequences for foreign PhD students get more attention. "A group of foreign PhD students is hindered by this language problem, but in daily life we are all in our separate offices."

When asked how the problem can be solved, Chung answers: "The university needs to decide how to handle the language issue. We, as foreign PhDs, need an overall language policy: for instance, to have official meetings and documents in English or in English as well as Dutch. After all, they can't have put those neon letters on top of the Montesquieu building just for fun." [Josine Ducee]

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