Interview with Dr Julie McBrien: ‘I know of very few other foreign staff who teach in Dutch’

In this series I interview people about their views on and experiences with language(s) in Dutch higher education. Click here for more.

Dr Julie McBrien is a tenured assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and director of the research group Globalizing Culture and the Quest for Belonging.

I teach in both Dutch and English. ‘Cultures in the Making’ is an introductory master’s course in English, with many foreign students. ‘Theory and History of Anthropology’ is a second-year bachelor’s course. I teach that in Dutch, as all our undergraduates are Dutch speakers and it is a Dutch language BA program.

Do I ever mix the two languages? If it’s ‘officially’ an English language program I almost always speak English. It’s easy to do as Dutch-speaking students nearly always stick to English in the classroom given the international make-up of the student body. Occasionally students will switch to Dutch with me when we are speaking alone, but usually only if we have a prior history of speaking Dutch together (e.g. if they took an undergraduate course with me, or we have chatted in Dutch by the coffee machine).

I rarely speak English with my undergraduate students. We do throw English terms and phrases into our speech though. This happens frequently because all of our reading materials are in English and some phrases are hard to translate. Sometimes I struggle with a particular phrasing, so I just throw it in in English, and then continue with Dutch. But there have been occasions where I have worked hard to learn anthropological jargon in Dutch and knew some phrases my students didn’t. This is very rare though.

I’m actually not sure if my students prefer me using English or Dutch. I think it’s actually quite pleasant that we can go either way. It enables us to switch if one party in the conversation is tired, having a hard time expressing him/herself or whatever. But I think the biggest pattern is that once we have established a relationship in a given language, we tend to stick to it.

As for how fluent I am in Dutch … oh, I always find fluency questions hard! I suppose the answer is ‘fluent enough!’ I certainly do not feel as fluent lecturing in Dutch as I do in English and I feel more fluent in everyday Dutch than I do lecturing in Dutch. But the students understand me.

A colleague, the one who told me he thought I was capable of lecturing in Dutch, made an interesting point about my fluency. He said that of course I wasn’t as fluent lecturing in Dutch, but that with second-year students that might actually be better! The concepts and ideas are complicated to understand. When I lecture in English my vocabulary is large and I, like all professionals, tend toward jargon. In Dutch, I can’t do that as easily and I am forced to speak more simply and accessibly, which can be beneficial to BA students.

I remember that I completely wrote out the first couple lectures I gave in Dutch, something I never do in English. I was in the middle of the second, or was it the third, lecture of the year when a student asked a question. I spent a long time answering the question, which led to a big discussion which took up a lot of class time. It was great in terms of learning, but I had so much material left to cover and we’d used up a lot of time. I knew I could never get through it all so I left my prepared text and I improvised. That was the first time I lectured in Dutch without reading from my notes and it went well. That helped me become more comfortable and from then on I no longer wrote my lectures out completely.

Whether I prefer to teach in Dutch or English depends on the day. Am I tired? English! Do I feel like improving my language skills? Dutch! That’s why I tend to commit to a language for a certain situation (BA class in Dutch, committee meetings in Dutch, Dutch with Dutch colleagues but English in English language programs) and stick to it. Learning to speak Dutch, and certainly at this level, was hard. It continues to be hard. But if I switch to English just because its hard, uncomfortable, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing, I would have never made it this far. Sometimes I wish I could switch to Dutch only, no English even at home, for six months or a year just to make a final jump. I have this idea that then I would finally be totally fluent. But I suppose that is an illusion.

A recent funny mistake came when I was discussing a particular idea with students and I was listing example after example. I meant to say “And what could be more Dutch than stamppot, yet the potato is in fact native to South America”. The students laughed a bit and I thought it was because of my wit. Afterwards, a student came up to me and very sweetly explained that it was because my pronunciation was off and the word came out ‘stom pot’ – stupid pot! Haha! But it was great that she felt comfortable enough to tell me, which gave me confidence that they would let me know if I was ever unclear.

I have really mixed feelings about Dutch students studying in English. It’s a lot to ask of students, to leave behind their native language and study in a foreign one while still at home. Plus, it means they don’t get to develop their Dutch communication skills as much, which the majority will need for future careers. And those who go on to careers in journalism, politics, those who might write novels or poetry, or those who would become public intellectuals, just to name a few, need excellent Dutch language skills.

Yet many students will move on to study and work abroad and will need strong English skills. Plus the staff of Dutch universities is increasingly international and most staff has already learned English as a second language for their careers. Asking them to master Dutch, while meeting the teaching and publishing demands of current academic life, is nearly impossible.

I know of very few other foreign staff who teach in Dutch. Not speaking Dutch does not seem to have inhibited the careers of those I know. All the non-Dutch speaking foreigners I know who have done well in their teaching and research capacities have been just fine career wise. But it is technically a condition of our tenure, being able to lecture in Dutch. Right now the tenure review happens after three years of employment. I think that is very very unrealistic, especially given the publishing demands, and the difficulty of moving to a foreign country.  I already spoke Dutch when I got my position. I couldn’t lecture in Dutch and I couldn’t discuss my research in Dutch, but I could follow meetings and communicate fairly well. I led some tutorial groups in Dutch almost immediately but I wasn’t able to lecture in Dutch until some years later.

As for the language situation at Dutch universities in fifty years: given the fact that most academic publications are in English, and given the current trends in the university, I suppose that the majority of programs in the social sciences at least will be in English.

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