Louis van Gaal’s exemplary English

Observant, Maastricht

Louis van Gaal is a genius. Inspired. Visionary. And I don’t mean just as a football manager, although he seems to be quite good at that too. I mean in his use of English.

You might think I’m being sarcastic. I’m not. Linguists consistently find that, in interactions between native and non-native speakers, it is often the native speakers who cause breakdowns in communication. Non-native speakers then blame themselves for not understanding. Van Gaal, to his credit, simply refuses to play this game.

When Van Gaal moved to Manchester United, a Dutch journalist wrote an article for the British press: ‘10 rules for interviewing Louis van Gaal’. “It’s his language now, not yours … It is not Mr. Van Gaal who has trouble speaking English, it is you, for not going along with his obviously much better interpretation of it.”

To exemplify Van Gaal’s ‘trouble’ with English, the journalist linked to a video of Van Gaal telling a BBC reporter “that’s a stupid question”. Watch the whole film, though, and you see he had good reason.

“Do you know anything at all about Manchester United?” asks a reporter. “At all?” says Van Gaal. “I think I know everything.” As he turns to walk away, a second reporter arrives on the scene. “Sorry, just one question sir, BBC … Tell us about Manchester United, what do you know about them?” “That’s a stupid question”, replies Van Gaal. “The biggest club of the world, ‘what do you know about Manchester United?’ I’m sorry, but …”

At a recent press conference Van Gaal introduced his newest player, the Colombian striker Radamel Falcao. Behind the scenes Falcao must have expressed concern about his English, because in a show of support Van Gaal asks the press, “What do you think about his English? Because … I had the same situation in Spain. In my first year I spoke English. In my second year, Spanish.” He takes Falcao’s hand. “And he is coming here, and he is speaking English, for you”, he gestures at the press. You monolingual morons, he seems to imply.

Dutch English: Death or the gladioli

I’m giving a talk on 12 December in Leiden for Ingrid Tieken-boon van Ostade’s research group. ‘Death or the gladioli’ is a reference to Louis van Gaal’s English, which I think is marvellous (seriously … stay tuned for a column to that effect). Admittedly Der Tod oder die Gladiolen is one of his German coinages, but I have a solid month to come up with its relevance for (Dutch) English …

Dutch English: Death or the gladioli

With native speakers of English today in the minority of the world’s English speakers, scholars de-emphasise normativity vis-à-vis Standard English and trumpet the rise of ‘new’ Englishes from Asia and Africa. Why has Europe been overlooked? Existing theories in the field of World Englishes suggest that (de)colonisation produced a fertile breeding ground for the specific identity developments that spawned new English varieties. In this talk I suggest that postcolonial processes are just one possible trigger for the identity reconstructions that give rise to new varieties, and that the forces of globalisation are another. Can we see these identity developments in the Netherlands, suggesting the dawn of ‘Dutch English’?

Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe

A while back I translated Taaltoerisme, a most excellent popular language book by the journalist Gaston Dorren. It was picked up by Profile and the English version is out in the UK now: Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe. Obviously I’m biased, but obviously I recommend it!


Here’s the blurb:

Welcome to Europe as you’ve never known it before, seen through the peculiarities of its languages and dialects. Combining linguistics and cultural history, Gaston Dorren takes us on an intriguing tour of the continent, from Proto-Indo-European (the common ancestor of most European languages) to the rise and rise of English, via the complexities of Welsh plurals and Czech pronunciation. Along the way we learn why Esperanto will never catch on, how the language of William the Conqueror lives on in the Channel Islands and why Finnish is the easiest European language.

Surprising, witty and full of extraordinary facts, this book will change the way you think about the languages around you. Polyglot Gaston Dorren might even persuade you that English is like Chinese.

Who’s afraid of Dutch English? Update

I gave a talk for the Society of English Native Speaking Editors in the Netherlands in Utrecht last week. Julie Bytheway blogged about it here.

“Edwards started the red thread unrolling by identifying opposing roles on a continuum: prescriptive editors need rules whereas descriptive sociolinguists question rules! “What is a rule really?” Referring to Paikeday, Alison reminded us that native speakers of English are a minority and that native speaker norms are sometimes inappropriate. An editor’s moral quandary is to maintain standards while not trampling on writers’ content and style. However, what is (un)acceptable?”