I notice that I’d rather you didn’t

Observant, Maastricht

I was watching TV with my husband when he turned to me and said, ‘Actually, it wouldn’t be all that easy to kill you.’


It was the word actually that struck me. As though it was a rejoinder to a conversation about the difficulty or otherwise of doing me in that had been going on for some time. In his head, perhaps.

This is the kind of thing you pick up on when you’ve just finished reading Taal is zeg maar echt mijn ding (Language is like totally my thing) by Paulien Cornelisse.

It was a very instructive book. I learnt a lot about Dutch, and the language attitudes of the Dutch; for instance: ‘the word fucking is an enrichment and we should be thankful for that’. But also things that hold for language in general. Bound to come in handy is the revelation that you can get away with saying the ghastliest things, just as long as you preface them with ‘I notice that …’ (ik merk van mezelf dat …).

Come out with ‘You know, I really like Rita Verdonk’ and you’re opening yourself up for a verbal bashing, in certain crowds at least (Rita Verdonk being a former conservative immigration minister; not quite Geert Wilders, not exactly a rainbow hugger either). But formulate it as ‘Actually, I notice that I really like Rita Verdonk’ and suddenly it comes off as a detached observation of things beyond your control. In response, you get something approaching pity – ‘How awful for you!’ – or even sneaking solidarity – ‘You know what … I kind of do too!’

Cornelisse also writes about the trials and tribulations of the comedy circuit. After performances, people will come up to her and say ‘I really like what you did there … say, are you also open to criticism?’ (Staat u ook open voor kritiek?) It’s one of those questions that’s not really a question, she writes, because you can’t do much but reply ‘Uhhh … sure, of course … I mean, I guess …’

This is where she and I differ. I, for one, am perfectly fine with ‘Actually, I can’t help but notice that no, frankly, I’m not.’


English for the 21st century

Just back from visiting the wonderful Mikko Laitinen and colleagues at Linnaeus University, Sweden, where I gave this talk:

English for the 21st century
Putting Continental Europe on the map of World Englishes

Since the latter decades of the 20th century, the field of World Englishes (WEs) has succeeded in drawing attention to the emergence of new varieties of English around the world. The focus is typically on Asian and African Englishes that have arisen in postcolonial societies such as India, Singapore and Kenya. Why has Continental Europe largely been ignored? In view of the vastly increased roles and uses of English in regions such as Scandinavia, I discuss the notion of European Englishes in the WEs paradigm. Drawing on research on the case of the Netherlands, I show how Continental Europeans, too, can be agentive shapers of English who reconstruct the language for their own ends. In addition, I shed light on how new methodological tools can facilitate investigation of such Englishes and thus complement our existing picture of English around the world.

Appointment angst


Observant, Maastricht

It’s that time of year when universities around the country are swamped with kids trying to figure out where to go study. I say kids, but many of them are not much younger than I was when I started teaching in Maastricht, almost ten years ago.

I don’t say that to show off. In fact, at 23, I was a relatively old graduate by Australian standards. Start a degree right out of school and you’ll be done by 21. In the Netherlands, students are often just warming up at that age. The bachelor-master system may have been partly introduced to discourage students from loitering around for the better part of a decade, but the old system died a slow death, at least in people’s minds. Since the old degree amounted, in today’s terms, to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, a bachelor’s alone counts in the Dutch collective psyche as just over half a degree.

I was an unhappy teacher, and not only because I was monumentally unqualified. There were two problems. First, teaching involves a considerable amount of interaction with the other human beings. Second, it is unpleasantly dependent on both students and teacher showing up in the same place at the same time. It didn’t bother me if the students wanted to congregate somewhere; the fact that I had to be there too was the real thorn in my side.

Don’t get me wrong: I love work. Adore it. My problem is with things being locked in: dentist appointments, meetings, events of any kind. The fact that I must make myself respectable and enter the world is only part of it. It’s the psychological aspect of obligation that bothers me; the prospect of a fixed agenda item looming on the horizon, no matter how innocent. Friday afternoon coffee with a friend, say. ‘I literally can’t breathe’, I’ll tell Rutger-Jan, waving my diary in his face. ‘I can’t even.’ Even a Sunday afternoon Skype date to watch my one-year-old nephew rub peas on his face is enough to give me heart palpitations – although at least I don’t have to get out of my pyjamas for that.




A wonderful career choice

Observant, Maastricht

So Karl Andree, the Briton sentenced to public flogging in Saudi Arabia for alcohol possession, has been released. I’m reminded of lecture I attended years back in Sydney, by a journalist who’d likewise just been released from a Saudi jail. It was the only lecture I enjoyed of my entire journalism degree.

Looking back, my choice for journalism was a touch naïve: Hey, I like writing! I’d have preferred the creative writing major, but back then I still imagined I’d like to get a job some day.

I hated the programme from day one. It turned out that all those journalism students actually wanted to be journalists. Me, I wasn’t cut from the right cloth to ask a grieving woman, ‘Mrs Johnson, a comment? How does it feel to mow down your own son in an SUV?’ For an investigative piece on the theme of ‘hardship’ I interviewed a friend who lived on a farm. A photojournalism piece on urban spaces became a montage of walls in the city. Some had fanciful curls of ivy or interesting graffiti, but mostly they were just bricks or wood. I would zoom in artistically on the knots. ‘That’s your character right there,’ I told the lecturer.

The journalist who came to talk to us had been arrested for showing an ankle in public, or maybe it was eating babies – I don’t recall the details. For punishment, she was driven out into the desert and tied to a stake. They meant to stone her or lash her, one of the two.

At the thought of her husband and children back home, the journalist went mental. She started hollering and thrashing about and lifting up her burka, shrieking, ‘Look at this! Look at it! What is oh so fucking evil about this?’

‘Well,’ said the journalist, adjusting her seat on the stage of the lecture theatre. ‘After this performance they took me to be quite insane. They bundled me back in the car, drove to the consulate and couldn’t kick me out fast enough.

‘Journalism, though,’ she continued, turning from the moderator to face us, ‘really is a wonderful career choice.’

The simple things

Observant, Maastricht

What is it that binds people all around the world? Is it some shared value? A global sense of humanity? Or even Chomsky’s universal grammar?

Clearly not. The answer is tea.

We all have our different ways of drinking it. Different flavours, different things we put in it, different things we drink it out of. But at the end of the cup, it’s all tea.

Even the way the English drink it, at a stretch. Growing up in England – or far from it, but with English parents, as I did – white tea is the most normal thing in the world. Being, of course, black tea with milk. Until I was 20 I figured everyone drank it that way. Since then I’ve lived abroad, and come to understand how odd that is to everyone else.

“How would you like it?”, a Turkish flight attendant asked me last week, somewhere between Schiphol and Istanbul. “Some sugar, perhaps?”

“Milk, please”, I said.

“Tea and milk”, she said, eyebrows raised. “You’re thirsty.” She plucked a second cup from her trolley and started to pour me a cup of milk as well.

In the tea”, I said.

There was an awkward pause.

In the tea?”

In the tea.”

Thus stumped her. She mimed pouring milk into my teacup, the look on her face somewhere between incredulity and disgust.

“Oh, miss”, she sighed. “You’re different.”

I like to inform my husband periodically that I’m a simple girl; all it takes is a steaming cup of tea on a cold day to make me happy. “That,” he agrees, “and for everything else in your life to be otherwise perfect.” This he says as I snuggle under a blanket in front of the 7 pm news, watching the refugees struggling their way into Europe or polar bears starving to death as the ice caps melt. Contemplating my utterly pampered and selfish existence, I think, I hate myself.

In that state, there’s only one thing for it. “Schatje?” I call out to Rutger-Jan in the kitchen. “You’d better put the kettle on!”

Expanding Circle Englishes + Istanbul is lovely, I’m sure

Just back from the annual conference of the International Association of World Englishes (IAWE) in Istanbul. I would like to say I saw something of Istanbul. I did not. But I saw a lot of the truly lovely Boğaziçi University campus. My paper was part of a colloquium dedicated to English in the Expanding Circle organised by Prof. Suzanne Hilgendorf, together with Sarah Buschfeld, Sofia Ruediger and Bouchra Kachoub.

Agency and resistance in the Expanding Circle

English in the Netherlands

This contribution addresses the implications of recent research on English in the Netherlands. It shows that the existing models and assumptions in World Englishes studies do not do justice to the agency of English users in the Expanding Circle.

First, I show that a categorical approach seeking to distinguish neatly between English as a second-language (ESL) or learner (EFL) variety is insufficient. Findings indicate that functionally, English serves as a second language in Dutch society, yet ‘Dutch English’ is not seen as a target model. This makes it difficult to unequivocally label English in the Netherlands as either EFL or ESL.

Next, I consider a developmental, cyclical model: Schneider’s (2003, 2007) Dynamic Model of the Evolution of Postcolonial Englishes. Although the historical foundations of English in the Netherlands were different, parallels with the developmental trajectory of postcolonial Englishes can be found in sociolinguistic aspects, such as the emergence of an English-knowing identity.

These identity restructurings and other sociolinguistic developments therefore seem to be a common factor in the dynamics across the Outer Circle and certain Expanding Circle settings. And these developments can be trigged by postcolonial processes, but also by other processes, specifically the forces of globalisation.

In the Netherlands, this is resulting in a situation where speakers at times opt consciously for ‘Dutch’ pronunciation of English so as not to sound ‘affected’, insist on nonstandard usages that they feel better suit the local setting, and actively resist interventions by English-language gatekeepers.

This signals an emerging pattern of linguistic disruption; a way of reasserting the user’s own linguistic power and identity and subverting the dominance of English. It seems that in the Expanding Circle, too, people are willing to agentively adapt English to suit their own voices and context.

At home

Observant, Maastricht

I was less than enthusiastic about spending my summer in Australia. True, I’d get to see family – that’s a plus. But summer here means winter there. My parents figured it’d still be warm enough to go on a whale-watching cruise near my hometown. While my husband saw a humpback whale and a pod of dolphins, I became closely acquainted with the inside of a sick bag. Boats don’t agree with me, it turns out.

My sister, meanwhile, lives in Canberra. Like Pretoria and Wellington, Canberra is one of those unsung world capitals, the kind of place that, when you tell people you plan on visiting, they tend to respond, ‘What for?’ I have a nine-month-old nephew I’d never met, which seemed like as good a reason as any. Until he sneezed right in my mouth, that is, and I came down with something closely resembling Ebola.

Meanwhile, an immunologist friend from Cambridge was busy in Sierra Leone, battling both the real Ebola and a variety of unidentifiable wildlife that had made her tent home. In Australia, disappointingly, the most dangerous creature we came across was said nephew. Despite my previous lack of experience with the species, he turned out to be almost cute enough – almost – for me to revise my long-held opinion that having a baby is, short of voluntarily working with infectious diseases, the worst idea a person could entertain.

Still, we were keen to come back to the Netherlands to see how our own ‘baby’ was getting along. That is, a one-metre-square patch of dirt that serves as our garden. My standards on what constitutes a garden have fallen drastically in the decade since I left Australia, where everyone has a lawn the size of a football pitch. Before leaving, we’d sown a few thousand seeds’ worth of Wunder-Rasen (thank you, amazon.de). It lived up to its name: we came home to a blooming, thick swathe of green.

I think of myself as a lot like that grass. Not green, you understand – unless I’m on a boat – but I came via Germany to be rooted in Dutch soil. So bring me some stroopwafels and put the Journaal on – it’s good to be home!

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!