A smart solution to the language debate

| Nienke Nijenhuis-Broersma

The use of English at Dutch universities is a hot topic. Nienke Nijenhuis-Broersma, communication advisor at M&C, makes her contribution to the discussion. ‘I advise to support all employees in continuous language training, because it keeps your brain in good shape.’

There is a lively public debate in The Netherlands on the use of language at Dutch government-funded universities. The discussion focusses mostly on English-taught bachelor’s programmes. The increase of English-taught programmes has also implications for our daily routines as supporting staff. When it comes to the discussion at our university, I sometimes meet people who are very opposed to the idea of having English as a working language. This is not because a lack of competence, for them it is a matter of principle.

I find this a very interesting discussion to listen to, to hear the pros and cons and to observe people’s emotions when it comes to language and mother tongue. As a communication professional, I listen and try to get an overview of what’s at stake.

My own experience

When it comes to my personal opinion, I am deeply convinced people should learn more than two languages in their lives. Because it adds to the quality of thinking. It adds to imagination and reasoning. My personal experience shows how you can grow as a professional.

Almost a year ago, I have picked up Swedish language lessons. It had been 13 years since I lived in Stockholm, but I felt very much drawn to the language again. The learning experience this time is much different from the learning experience when I lived in Stockholm. Back then I was learning the language just to deal with simple day-to-day situations like doing groceries. This time, I spend much more time on grammar.

I was surprised to find out that the experience of time and the language used to describe the ‘then-now-future’ is quite different in the Dutch language and the Swedish language. I was told that when something occurred in the past and ended in the past, the Swedish language uses the past tense. Whereas in the Dutch language we use the present perfect. This leads to misunderstandings when you translate literally. You might argue I have been sleeping in secondary school, since this also goes for the English language. It was an eye-opener all the same.


What inspires me is the moment that I realize the dynamics of our thinking being shaped by the use of language and how our thinking shapes language.

When this notion sunk in, I started to realize I’ll sometimes have to ask different questions. This brings me exactly at my point: next to listening, another important skill is asking questions and finding out whether you truly understand each other.

The smart solution: continue learning

I recommend an organisation that is considering changing the working language to spend time listening to pros and cons of all employees and to discuss them thoroughly. Pay attention to the emotions it evokes. I advise to support all employees in continuous language training, because it keeps your brain in good shape. Let’s also promote the daily use of high quality online dictionaries, even to keep native tongue language skills in good shape.

Until Google Translate has reached a high quality in instant translations!

Nienke Nijenhuis-Broersma, communication advisor at Marketing & Communications