The nativisation of English in the Netherlands: A corpus study

Last week I presented this paper at the Variation and Change research cluster conference in Cambridge.

Corpora are increasingly being built and used to examine varieties of World Englishes (WEs), from different L1 varieties to L2 varieties like Indian and Singaporean English. Fewer focus on ‘EFL’ Englishes, i.e. those from Kachru’s (1984) Expanding Circle, and those that do usually take an error-based SLA perspective. For example, the Dutch component of the International Corpus of Learner English (Granger, 2002) includes only undergraduate essays, by definition precluding the English used daily by countless Dutch professionals and academics. Thus no corpus yet allows for insight into the wide-ranging, educated use of English in the Netherlands from a WEs perspective.

The Corpus of Dutch English that is currently being built fills this empirical gap. With 200 texts and text extracts of 2000 words each from different academic and business genres (i.e. 400,000 words in total), in size and structure it is modelled loosely on the written component of the regional ICE corpora. This presentation explores the implications of this design for the positioning of the corpus (as ICE currently only targets ENL and ESL varieties) and the issues surrounding description of varieties traditionally seen as belonging to the Expanding Circle. The corpus will eventually be made accessible and searchable along parameters like age, sex, region, occupation and education. Given its comparability with ICE and other corpora, it will be of use to WEs researchers as well as ELT practitioners.

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Double Dutch

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

Had we been born in the 17th century, you and I, we would not have been friends. This was the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars, the bloody quest for supremacy of the seas, when the Dutch hated the English and the English hated the Dutch. And while the hostilities are long past, their remnants still linger in the English language today.

Even the word Dutch itself came to be a pejorative, an adjective used in the sense of ‘false’. For example, Dutch metal is a form of fake gold, made mostly from copper, which is used to make cheap jewellery. A Dutch concert is an unmusical racket, where everyone is playing or singing to a different tune. And to mount a Dutch defence is to retreat, rather than fight.

Double Dutch refers to something nonsensical, incomprehensible or needlessly complicated. This might be where we get Dutch crossing from; that is, to cross the street slant-wise. Or Dutch auction, also known as a reverse auction, where the auctioneer starts with a high price and lowers it until someone is prepared to pay. Then there’s my personal favourite, that general expression of disbelief: “Well, I’m a Dutchman!”

The usual Dutch stereotypes are never far away here. For example, a Dutch uncle is someone who likes to give heavy-handed advice without being asked. Sure, it may be sound advice – but it’s also overbearing, paternalistic and dripping with Calvinistic severity. Then there’s Dutch courage: the kind you get from being blind drunk. It was said that, back in the days of battle, the Dutch needed to sink a few drinks before they could face the fight.

Inevitably, many of these terms of endearment-slash-abuse relate to what the Dutch coyly describe as ‘thriftiness’ (and everyone else calls ‘stinginess’). A Dutch party, a Dutch supper and a Dutch lunch, for instance – all terms that have since fallen out of use – referred to events where you had to bring your own supplies because the host was too cheap to pay your way. (Incidentally, in Dutch this is known as an ‘American party’.)

Similarly, a Dutch treat means to pay your own share (read: no treat at all!). This, of course, is a variant of the better-known phrase going Dutch, where you split the bill equally. “Aha!” I hear you say. At last a positive trait: that lauded Dutch penchant for equality. You’ll not be happy to hear, then, that in Egypt this is called Englizy – ‘English style’.

One for all and all for uni

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

There are certain bizarre-but-endearing things about the Netherlands that everyone knows about. Clogs, for example. But what I only learned when I moved here was that there are no – or at least, few – selection criteria for university admission. I can just picture the reaction back home: “But how do they keep the dumbasses out?”

The short answer, of course, is that they’ve already been filtered out. If you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed, you’ll have been relegated from a young age to a lower school stream, with little chance to gain direct university admission.

But German secondary schools do this as well, and they still have university admission criteria. As in other countries, if you want to study medicine or law, you’d better have been a boffin at school. In contrast, degree programmes in the Netherlands that are over-subscribed choose students by way of a lottery. This makes us foreigners nervous, because we tend to prefer our medical students nerdy, rather than mediocre with a lucky break

But the Dutch have an answer to this, too. Once you get admitted to a programme, you still need to pass it. Fail too many courses and you’re out. This is an admirable principle, because after all, school exams are just not everyone’s cup of tea, and some people are naturally late bloomers anyway. So to give every student an equal shot, Dutch legislation prohibits selection criteria.

Despite the government ban, however, universities seem to be doing all they can to introduce selection criteria through loopholes in the law, such as in special setups like university colleges and ‘selective’ master’s programmes. So why is UM so keen on selection criteria all of a sudden? For one thing, programmes that look ‘exclusive’ attract students. And high dropout rates are bad for our image, while high completion rates are, naturally, good.

Now, it’s not just about finishing the programme, but finishing it on time. Here, at least, the legislators and universities agree: faffing around for years at university then finally sticking a toe in the workforce in your mid- to late 20s isn’t doing much for the economy in the face of the ageing population. Hence the government’s new regulation on langstudeerders. Starting September 2012, those who spend more than one year extra on their degree will be hit with an extra €3000 in tuition fees.

This stricter enforcement of time limits and gradual move towards selection criteria are another step towards a ‘lean and mean’ university machine. They’ll make things more economical, no doubt. But somehow, and sadly, less ‘Dutch’, as well.