“The Dutch language will not die”

Published in the Observant, Maastricht

What’s the value of a small language? Why not just give it up and and turn to English instead? These were just some of the radical ideas addressed at last Friday’s seminar at the University College Maastricht, ‘Small languages in a globalising culture’.

“From an economic point of view, switching over to English completely makes a lot of sense. It would only take a generation and there would be a high return on investment. And the benefits would be permanent, because the domination of English has become self-evident and society would reap the benefits”, says Godelieve Laureys of Ghent University. The professor of Scandinavian Studies was one of the guests at the seminar, organised by the Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish embassies in cooperation with UM. “But of course, we don’t measure these things only by a cost–benefit analysis.” Loss of cultural identity, a widening generation gap and greater polarisation between the ‘haves’ (i.e. those who have mastered English) and the ‘have nots’ would be just some of the negative effects.

The battle for national languages appears to be a fight worth winning. But is there any stopping English? As Arne Torp, professor of Nordic Languages in Oslo, points out: “Scandinavians now understand English better than each other’s languages. This is a sad development.” Sad indeed – but one that we need to get used to, according to UM’s own contributor, Dr Jan de Roder from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “The first time I gave a lecture in English was a traumatic experience. Afterwards I ran to my office, closed the door and laid down on the floor for half an hour. It was the fear that I might be perceived as a Dr Strangelove, the Dutch variant of him. But adapting to this new environment was inevitable.”

A fact of life, you might say. But does it really threaten the existence of smaller languages? The answer – for now – seems to be a resounding no. “We need to distinguish between the functions of the languages”, says the Danish delegate Bent Preisler, professor of English Language and Sociolinguistics. “English is a means of communication. There’s no way I can communicate my ideas to the world using Danish. If I want to make my point visàvis a Chinese person I need to use English.” But in his own country, “if I want to make my point visàvis a Dane, I need to use Danish.”

So English is just a tool for the international stage, not for use at home. And this, the speakers agree, is what safeguards their languages from extinction. Indeed, De Roder sees Dutch as very much alive and kicking: “Our language is part of our national identity.” Until ten years ago, he says, national sentiment was never popular here – except perhaps for when it came to football. But recent populist movements appear to have stirred up greater pride in Dutch culture. “The overall effect is clear: Dutch as our national language is strengthening rather than weakening.” As UM rector Gerard Mols put it: “The Dutch language, however small, will not die”.