“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.

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