Tint 2019 A. de Groot summary

Abundant English in Higher Education: The Bitter Harvest.

Annette de Groot, TiNT Leiden, November 29, 2019 (summary)

One of the articles in the Dutch Higher Education Law (WHW) states that instruction and examinations should be in Dutch, subject to a few exemptions. A second article dictates that the institutions of higher education advance the students’ expression skills in Dutch. But contrary to the unmistakable intention of the WHW that the position of Dutch in higher education is safeguarded and that the Dutch language proficiency of the students is furthered during their studies, English has quickly become the dominant language of instruction at our universities. At present, 58 percent of all university degree programs are taught entirely in English. Broken down by type of degree program, it concerns 29 percent of the bachelor programs and 76 percent of the master programs.

Considering the Dutch-friendly spirit of the law, these figures are downright stunning, and even more so because the predominance of all-English programs involves many risks and disadvantages. Profuse anglicization of higher education may: increase the already predominant orientation towards Anglo-Saxon scientific practice at the expense of other scientific traditions; hamper the accessibility of higher education for specific groups of youngsters; impede the integration of foreign students, teachers and researchers; increase the gap between higher education and the rest of society, and have adverse employment consequences for university staff with an insufficient command of English. Furthermore, it is inconsistent with the language policy of the European Union (which fosters multilingualism) and with the language policy regarding immigrants (who are encouraged to learn Dutch as quickly as possible).

But in view of the goals of TiNT, the most notable consequences of the prevalence of all-English university degree programs concern its risks and consequences for language use and for the vitality of Dutch. Because the vast majority of university staff and students are unbalanced Dutch-English bilinguals with second-language English clearly the weaker language of the two, the use of English as the sole language of instruction constrains native-Dutch lecturers’ and students’ comprehension ability and their ability to express themselves. Due to the interconnectedness of language and thought, it also obstructs their thought processes during teaching and learning. In addition, in all-English degree programs the students’ proficiency in Dutch is unlikely to develop any further during their studies; worse still, it may deteriorate, and they are unlikely to develop a general academic vocabulary and a vocabulary specific to their field of study in Dutch. This, in turn, jeopardizes the status of Dutch as a scientific language. The status of other foreign languages is similarly endangered by the exclusive orientation towards English. Finally, all-English programs may frustrate a development of unbalanced Dutch-English bilinguals towards balanced bilingualism, which brings along clear advantages, both practical and cognitive.

That proficiency in a second language (L2), also when by all standards it is relatively well developed for a second language, is inferior to native-language (L1) proficiency, shows from countless studies worldwide. Here follow a couple of robust findings emerging from these studies:

  • Word recognition, word production, and grammatical analysis are less automatized and, therefore, slower in L2 than in L1. To illustrate, reading a text in L2-English can take up to 20 percent more time than reading a similar text in L1-Dutch.

  • Due to the lower efficiency of language processing in L2, the mental load while using the L2 is higher than while using L1. In other words, using L2 is more tiring than using L1.

  • The ability to express emotions and to use humor, irony, and metaphors is reduced in L2.

  • The speech accent that characterizes most L2 speakers hampers communication and has been shown to affect the credibility of the speaker.

But the most salient difference between mastery of L1 and L2 by a typical bilingual (the unbalanced bilingual) concerns the vocabulary in each language, both its breath and its depth. Well-educated adult native speakers know around 19-to-20 thousand word families, whereas equally well educated L2-speakers only know about 8-to-11 thousand. Furthermore, the L2 words that are known are known more superficially than the analogous L1 words, and the L2-user has a command of far fewer multi-word constructions and idiomatic expressions than the L1-user.

These shortcomings of L2-use impede the transfer of knowledge and skills by teachers and knowledge acquisition and academic development in students, thus causing loss of education quality.

Considering the many adverse effects of all-English degree programs, why are they offered at all and on this scale? Various reasons have been given, among them the alleged advantages of the international classroom enabled by all-English instruction. But the main motive probably is that the way in which Dutch universities are funded forces them to compete with each other in recruiting students. Anglicizing programs increases the pool of candidate students, because these programs are also within reach of foreign students. After all, to be admitted they no longer need to learn Dutch. Anglicization as a student recruitment strategy has been enormously successful, with the effect that university administrators now advocate a cap on enrollment in some of the all-English programs in order to secure educational quality.

The language articles in the Dutch Higher Education Law have recently been modified in an attempt to better protect Dutch as major language of instruction in Dutch higher education. In addition, a committee set up by the Minister of Education has recommended a change in the funding of institutions of higher education that is meant to diminish their competition in student recruitment. Hopefully these measures will have the desired effect of safeguarding Dutch as a major language of instruction in Dutch higher education.