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I’m no longer updating this old site as of 2017, but I’ll keep it up as an archive.



On being an indy scholar

Now and then people ask me, ‘Do you miss academia?’

The question always surprises me, because to my mind, I never left.

I’m not affiliated with a university; not since I left Cambridge two years ago. But I never stopped doing and publishing research.

I call myself an independent scholar. When I tell people this, they look at me as though I’ve said I’m a Christmas elf or a teapot.

‘Is that even a thing?’ they want to know. The next question, invariably, is ‘How do you fund that?’

The answers are yes, and surprisingly easily.

Before I started my PhD I freelanced as a translator and editor and, like anyone who’s built up a client list, I couldn’t bear to let it go. So I didn’t.

Only later did I realise my part-time business was more than just a sideline. It was a way to buy my freedom – to be an academic without being at the mercy of the academy.

Towards the end of my PhD, I grew increasingly bothered by the dodgy incentives in academia. Having to game the system in order to land grants (‘just’ doing high-quality research is not enough). The emphasis on output at any cost (fraud is a systemic problem, it’s not just a few bad apples).

In my case – less sinister but equally disheartening – I found myself spending all my time writing grant applications about projects I wanted to do, instead of actually doing them.

I got interested in the idea of a more humane academia; in networks for ‘rogue’ academics like the National Coalition of Independent Scholars in the US. Gradually I came to realise there was another way.

While most researchers teach in order to ‘buy’ their research time, I translate. Two to three days a week is plenty, income-wise, and this frees me up to spend the rest of my time doing research, presenting it at conferences and publishing it.

The downside is the vanity thing. ‘I’m an independent scholar’ doesn’t have quite the same ring as a casual ‘I’m at Cambridge, maybe you’ve heard of it?’

Other than that, it’s all upside. Choosing projects because they interest me, not because they look good. Feeling the pressure to publish, but as a personal compulsion rather than a necessity. Knowing my boss (me) can be a jerk sometimes, but at least she’ll never make me cover her course for 150 undergraduates on Romanian transvestites in the textile industry.

Ultimately, it’s a way of cherrypicking the best bits of academia – and that without having to get dressed.


Heads up!

I was lining my pencils up in preparation for sharpening when the phone rang.

It was Pauw, from the talk show. That morning the NRC had run a small piece on my research. Would I be willing to come on the show and discuss it?

‘I could, I suppose’, I said. I’ve always been underwhelmed by Pauw’s hair, and besides, the last time I went on TV to talk about my research the segment was presented by a man in a snakeskin suit and I was made to comment on unwitting sexual innuendo in the use of English by ageing Dutch footballers.

In fact it wasn’t Pauw himself on the phone, but one of his minions. The content for that night wasn’t yet set in stone, but I was on the shortlist and they’d call back soon to confirm.

I hung up and passed the afternoon pacing up and down, praying I might be ditched for a segment on pandas, or maybe a piece on the long-lost Rembrandt that had materialised that morning in an auction in New Jersey. By mid-afternoon I’d forced Rutger-Jan to cancel all his appointments in order to coach me. ‘Just don’t get side-tracked when they bring up Louis van Gaal’, he counselled.

At last the phone rang.

‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news’, said the voice. ‘We’re replacing you with a head.’

‘Just a head?’, I said. ‘But I’ve got a whole body.’

Earlier that day a severed head had turned up on the street in Amsterdam, its owner the victim of an ongoing turf war between rival gangs. The head, which apparently belonged to a body found in a burning car on the other side of the city, had been placed in a bucket and positioned to peer into Fayrouz, a shisha lounge on the Amstelveenseweg. It was this grizzly touch that seemed to get the story over the line for the producers at Pauw.

‘Compared to a segment on … language … it’s just a lot, you know … sexier.’


Go on: give Dutch English a big hug

Here is an article about my research in yesterday’s NRC:

Nederlands Engels wordt een taal apart

Engelse taal Nederlanders schamen zich vaak voor het Engels van hun landgenoten, terwijl Engelssprekenden er juist bewondering voor hebben.

Maarten Huygen

9 maart 2016

Nederlanders maken elkaar nogal eens belachelijk om hun Engels. Dat ze het niet goed spreken, dat ze een accent hebben, dat ze uitdrukkingen al te rechtstreeks vertalen. Dat ze dénken dat ze goed Engels spreken.

Alison Edwards, afkomstig uit Australië, denkt daar anders over. Zij vindt dat Nederlanders juist heel goed Engels spreken. Volgens haar ontstaat hier een nieuw soort Engels – afwijkend van het Brits of Amerikaans, maar toch duidelijk. Zij promoveerde in 2014 op dat ‘Nederlandse Engels’ aan de universiteit van Cambridge.

Click here for the full article.


UniSIG: English in Dutch higher education

The philosopher Ad Verbrugge recently published a big spread in the NRC on the problems English is causing at Dutch universities. This could have been interesting, except that none of the problems he mentioned can really be attributed to English. Straw man number 1 is the issue of poor literacy in Dutch. If kids these days really do have dodgy Dutch, then that’s a problem with the way Dutch, not English, is being taught.

Anywho. I took the opportunity to have a little rant about this in eSense in my report following the inaugural meeting on 17 June of the SENSE UniSIG, a group for editors, translators and other language professionals involved with academia and academic English in the Netherlands. I gave a talk, or at least tried to; I made a point of encouraging audience interaction and as a result could barely get a word in edgewise.

Here we go:

eSENSE report UniSIG talk

Attitudes to English in Germany

Germans! Do you love English, hate English, use it all the time, next to never use it – no matter, bitte hilf mit und füll diesen Fragebogen aus!

Together with Robert Fuchs from the University of Münster and his student Elisa Rossmann, I’m conducting a survey on attitudes towards English in Germany.

This is an extension of the attitudinal study I conducted in the Netherlands as part of my PhD. Very imaginatively entitled ‘English in the Netherlands: Uses and attitudes’, it was a large-scale survey with almost 2000 respondents (thank you, all of you!), with questions falling into five themes: learning English, using English, perceived competence, models and varieties of English, and the respective status of English and Dutch.

The German version went live a few weeks ago and we already have over 500 responses. Happy days! But of course, we’d like a lot more. So please, alsjeblieft, bitte, go ahead and forward this link to any Germans you know!

Ertrinken wir in Anglizismen? Oder kann kaum einer in Deutschland richtig Englisch und wir verpassen den Anschluss an die “Weltsprache”? Wir wollen wissen, wann du die englische Sprache wozu benutzt (oder auch nicht) und was du darüber denkst. Bitte hilf mit und teile diese Nachricht!


‘It ís good’: Call to embrace Dutch English

My article ‘It ís good’: Pleidooi voor het omarmen voor Nederlands-Engels will appear in the July/August issue of Onze Taal. Here’s an English version.

‘It ís good’: Call to embrace Dutch English

The English spoken in the Netherlands is developing much like it has in countries like India and Singapore. Yet the Netherlands is trailing these countries in one important aspect.

In the 1970s a radical new discipline emerged in linguistics: World Englishes. Its pioneers called for the democratisation of English: the recognition that the language was no longer only at home in Britain and America, but that varieties such as Indian, Nigerian and Singapore English had sprung up.

Today, English has become firmly rooted in Dutch soil too, albeit through globalisation rather than colonisation. I wondered whether the Netherlands will follow the same path as postcolonial societies: will it develop and embrace its own, Dutch-flavoured form of English? I will defend my PhD research on this question at the University of Cambridge on 16 July.

British plus

My research makes use of the linguist Edgar Schneider’s model of the evolution of postcolonial Englishes. This model distinguishes between several phases:

  • Phase 1: English is introduced in a society through colonial expansion and trade.
  • Phase 2: English becomes a fixture in domains such as education, where it remains firmly British oriented.
  • Phase 3: English is now entrenched in its new environment, and it becomes ever more apparent that it is not exactly British English. Consciously or otherwise, the locals shape and mould it into a sort of ‘British-plus’: based on standard English, but with a local twist in accent, vocabulary and grammar.
  • Phase 4: speakers accept and even take pride in their new variety (as in Singapore, for example).

Although Schneider’s model was designed with former colonies in mind, my research reveals linguistic parallels with the Dutch situation. The obvious question, then, is what phase is the Netherlands in now?

Nose in the butter

The Netherlands has clearly come through phase 1. British soldiers were present in the Low Countries as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fighting alongside the Dutch against Spain. Religious Britons also abounded, seeking shelter from persecution in England. In the early 1900s a form of pidgin arose to facilitate trade; the term Steenkolen-Engels derives from the simple English used by Dutch port workers with British coal ships. English began to play a major role in the Netherlands in the second half of the twentieth century, when rapid globalisation saw English take on the role of international lingua franca.

The parallels continue into phase 2 of Schneider’s model. This can be dated in the Netherlands to the decades following World War II, when English established itself as the dominant foreign language in Dutch education (with British English as the target model, of course). English competence spread, laying the groundwork for the next, crucial phase: phase 3, in which English is given a local ‘flavour’. This, too, has happened: you can spot a Dutch person speaking English a mile away.

This is partly thanks to the accent. Consider the pronunciation of the or those rolled r’s, which lead some Dutch people to pronounce three as ‘tree’. The vocabulary and grammar, too, can show traces of Dutch influence. We’ve all seen signs like ‘price not includes saus’, and the overly literal translations in books like I always get my sin by Maarten Rijkens: He fell with his nose in the butter, I work myself the blubbers and so on. This improvised English is not always easy to understand for those not fluent in Dutch.

Plenty of Dutch people, however, speak a brand of English that is perfectly intelligible in international company. In some cases they know full well what a native speaker might say, but deliberately deviate from it. I know Dutch people who’ll ask of a party Who are going? instead of the conventional Who is going? – because unless it’s a very sad party, then the plural form is ‘surely more logical’. Other Dutch people give accents to English letters to indicate emphasis, as in the sentence It ís good, even when they know this is not customary in English-speaking countries. In this way, they are purposefully filling a perceived gap in native English.

Mark Rutte

Phase 3, according to Schneider, also sees the emergence of a ‘complaint tradition’: the common refrain by purists that British English is the ‘real thing’ and the emergent local variety little more than a bastard. The recent ruckus over Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s – perfectly good – English shows how far the Netherlands has already progressed down this path.

In this phase a collective ‘English-knowing’ identity also arises. Put simply: virtually all Dutch people feel that they speak good English. Here, in fact, the Netherlands really takes the cake. Think about the last time someone with an English accent addressed you in Dutch. Did you switch to English immediately? Chances are that you did. After all, everyone knows that an English speaker could never speak better Dutch than a Dutch speaker can speak English. This dovetails with the oft-cited overestimation by Dutch people of their own mastery of English.

‘Bad English’

Where the Netherlands stalls is in the transition to phase 4, when a new English variety is recognised as such. I questioned close to two thousand Dutch people on their views of ‘Dunglish’, and found that seven in ten consider it merely ‘bad English’. But give the phenomenon a milder label and suddenly people are much more accepting: the same proportion, seven in ten, have no issue with ‘English with a bit of Dutch flavour’.

This strikes me as quite sensible. Dutch people’s proficiency in English ranges along a continuum from a sometimes comical mish-mash (‘with his nose in the butter’) to idiosyncratic phrases like ‘Who are going?’ But for almost all of them, British English is unattainable. So why keep on chasing it? How useful is it, for instance, to force children endlessly to practice saying the when in practice de never harms communication? It may be better to aim for the highest possible level that is within reach.

My findings also give rise to the suspicion that the label we stick on the tin might make all the difference. No one wants to speak steenkolen-Engels, or even Dunglish; these days, few Dutch people spend their time shovelling coal from British ships, and it must be conceded that ‘Dunglish’ sounds a bit lowly.

But what if we were to use the term ‘Dutch English’ to refer to that good, internationally intelligible English with a touch of Dutch? Sounds a bit more appealing, doesn’t it? It has more status than the Dunglish of ‘I work myself the blubbers’, is more attainable than the ‘Queen’s English’, and is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.