“It’s always the Dutch ones”

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

As a country, your English is just tops. Really. It’s a credit to your education system and your international outlook.

But. Stop. Correcting. My. English.

Now, this isn’t just me. The phenomenon of Dutch people correcting other people’s English found its way into the academic literature back in 1998, when the British-but-Netherlands-based editor Joy Burrough-Boenisch wrote that whenever she shared her experiences with fellow editors working for speakers of other languages, they “expressed astonishment that Dutch clients should be so assertive about their second language”. And many of my own contacts who also work with French, German and other clients lament that “it’s always the Dutch ones who want to ‘correct’ my English”.

I’m often wearing two hats: as a researcher on the one hand, and an editor on the other. From a researcher’s perspective, this phenomenon is genuinely fascinating. But as an editor, correct my English and I’ll want to stab you with my red pen. One colleague recently relayed the experience of having her Live Music on a party flyer ‘corrected’ to Life-Music. Another recalls being told to make all his translations “lekker levendig”, which apparently meant everything had to be in the present tense.

Pronunciation, too, is often a battlefield in itself. A friend of a friend was recently told by his child’s teacher that the child – an English native speaker attending primary school in Almere – was pronouncing words like ‘caravan’ wrongly. It turned out that the Dutch teacher was (naturally) pronouncing it as ‘cereven’ – but insisted she was right, because after all, she was a trained professional.

Our very own UM is by no means exempt from this phenomenon. Some years ago, a particular faculty – which shall not be named – requested that some of its coursebooks be professionally translated by my former colleagues at the Language Centre. The result, apparently, was “too English”. They have since had their own lecturers write the coursebooks directly in English (Dunglish?) without the help of editors. The result – aside from the dubious example this must be setting to the students – has been to prompt several native-speaking students drop out for lack of understanding the goggledygook.

Burrough-Boenisch sees this as a matter of identity. “Sometimes, the … client insists on restoring Dutch features that make the text look foreign. These are subtle ways of asserting the text’s Dutch origins.” She’s talking about, for example, the insistence on keeping – my favourite – Dutch titles like Prof. Dr. Or – whoops, what have we here? – the Dutch-style paragraphing format (notice the lack of indent) that you can see on these very Observant pages.

[i] Author of the book Righting English That’s Gone Dutch (2004), published by Kemper Conseil.


Battle of the sixes

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

It’s not as readily apparent as Geert Wilders’s hair or, you know, the orange stuff everywhere. The zesjescultuur is subtler than that. It won’t hit you over the head like a glass of Heineken. But it’s there.

For the uninitiated, the ‘sixes culture’ is a sort of complacency, apparently the spawn of the Dutch educational system where you only ever need a grade of 6 to pass. Time spent studying for anything above that, so the theory goes, is time wasted.

Here in Maastricht, nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the culture clash – sorry, integration – between students at UM. In the red corner, you’ll find the German students. They’re known as strebers: pushy careerists who’ll fight tooth and nail for every half-grade. In the blue corner, you’ve got the Dutch students. Toss them a 6 and they’ll be in seventh heaven.

But the zesjescultuur is not just the elephant in the classroom; it also rears its head in the workplace. Given the unionisation of many professions in the Netherlands, you could do nothing but pick your nose all day and you’ll still get decent pay and more leave than you can squeeze into your schedule. You could bring a rocket launcher in to work and you might get hit with two weeks of counselling – if you’re unlucky.

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t exactly promote performance drive. I’m speaking comparatively, of course. Not many countries are as welfare-oriented as the Netherlands. Here, you have the stress of the citotoets at the age of 12 to decide on your high school stream. But your next – and only other – government-sanctioned stress will be to watch half your salary vanish in taxes.

This means you miss out on many of the dubious joys experienced in countries elsewhere. Where your university admission hinges on your final school grade, so you must do well. Where you will pay the price of a small house in tuition fees. You will need a proper job to pay off your debts the minute you graduate, so there’ll be none of this faffing about with internships. And when you do get hired, you could just as easily get fired.

Now, the idea of a cushioned existence giving rise to the zesjescultuur may be a theory half-baked. But it certainly might explain the rotten table service: after all, Dutch waiters don’t need tips to survive. And it might explain why competitiveness in the Dutch workplace is viewed distastefully. But know this: your foreign colleagues aren’t trying to be aggressive. They’re just fighting for survival.

Moi? No. I’m just a streber.