Language choice in higher education demands custom approach

11 July 2017

The decision to provide instruction in either Dutch or English in higher education requires great care. The choice must be made for each study programme separately, based on arguments relating to the programme’s subject matter and learning objectives.

In addition, solid support is needed, for example to train lecturers to teach in English and to ensure effective integration of foreign and Dutch students and teaching staff in the international classroom. It is also important to maintain Dutch students’ proficiency in their own language. These are the conclusions of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in its report Nederlands en/of Engels? Taalkeuze met beleid in het Nederlands Hoger Onderwijs [Dutch and/or English? A consideration of language choice in Dutch higher education], published today, 11 July 2017.

English is on the rise in Dutch higher education, with instruction in a growing number of study programmes being provided, either wholly or partially, in English. This trend has sparked much debate. The Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science asked the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to examine how research universities and universities of applied sciences choose the language of instruction and determine their language policy. The main questions are: what arguments are put forward to support instruction in Dutch and/or English; what impact does language choice have on instruction; and what do we need to ensure the quality of higher education, regardless of the language of instruction?

Language choice

Dutch research universities and universities of applied science operate in a highly international environment and train their students to become world citizens. The internationalisation of higher education adds to its diversity and allows students to compete in the international job market. The Academy acknowledges the enormous importance of internationalisation; at the same time, it is not always necessary to provide instruction in English to achieve its aims.

There are also major differences between study programmes in higher education. Each programme has its own objectives in terms of subject matter, preparing students for their careers, or professional or practice-based training, and their Dutch or English proficiency requirements may therefore also differ. Some subjects require students to produce well-written texts in English or Dutch, whereas others emphasise oral proficiency.

In the Academy’s view, then, the best language of instruction for a study programme is never a foregone conclusion. It is important to think carefully about the language choice and to have good arguments based on the specific objectives and subject matter of the study programme. The Academy further points out that it is not always necessary to provide instruction entirely in English or entirely in Dutch; all sorts of combinations are possible.

Language policy

The decision to provide instruction in a certain language should be backed up by sound policy. That means, for example, considering the pedagogical aspects of providing instruction in a foreign language. It is not enough for institutions to merely offer students and lecturers a language course; they must also help them master intercultural skills that allow them to benefit fully from an international classroom. Institutions must also consider the various language skills that students enrolled in a specific study programme should master, such as oral or written proficiency. Even students enrolled in an English-language study programme would do well to maintain their Dutch language skills.

Foresight study

The foresight study Nederlands en/of Engels? Taalkeuze met beleid in het Nederlands Hoger Onderwijs [Dutch and/or English? A consideration of language choice in Dutch higher education] was written by a committee chaired by Janneke Gerards, Professor of Fundamental Rights Law at Utrecht University. The report may be ordered free of charge or downloaded.