Doing away with the intruder’s languages: The Netherlands towards monolingualism

Two freshly released reports respectively from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom present alarming conclusions about the study of languages and cultures in both European countries on their way towards a single language and a single culture.

By Patricia Schor, scholar and cultural critic. [Original Article]

Benedict Anderson posed in his influential Imagined Communities that nationalism, despite its philosophical poverty and incoherence has a strong political power. Nationality, nation-ness, as well as nationalism are cultural artefacts of a particular kind that command profound emotional legitimacy arousing deep attachments. Language is one such emotional attachment of nationality.

The Netherlands was once a place of crossing cultures and the Dutch were renowned for their proficiency in foreign languages. But this is something of the past, when the country was neither modern nor efficient. In a rapid move toward a future that is more Orange, Dutch universities are boldly demolishing the country’s cosmopolitan and multilinguistic tradition—because the government said they had to. Or is there something else going on?

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences just published a critical evaluation of The Effects of the University Profiling and the Top Sector Policy on the Sciences in the Netherlands. According to the report the study of cultures and languages in the Netherlands has been in troubled waters for some time. And one of its outstanding conclusions is that the Modern languages may turn out to be the biggest victims of trends ignited by recent government policy.

The evaluation identifies the emergence of blank spots in the Dutch research portfolio, by which it means that disciplines or research areas [will] disappear or be weakened in a way that is undesirable from a national or international perspective. And so, for efficiency reasons, educational programmes that do not attract an adequate number of students are being closed in many places. The programmes affected the most by this trend are the Modern languages. That is, the study of some languages and cultures will be ejected from the Dutch academic landscape—both small languages and modern European languages.

According to the Royal Academy, this process, which is already underway, is being carried out without national coordination or the international evaluation of the disciplines affected. As a consequence, such disciplines have become the object of local interests and petit disputes.

These findings coincide with the conclusions of the report Languages: The State of the Nation by the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which was released almost simultaneously with the Dutch evaluation. According to the Times Higher Education writing on the report, Foreign tongues aren’t wagging:

The British Academy has warned of a “vicious circle of monolingualism” in the UK after applications for undergraduate language courses fell for the second year in a row. […] Nigel Vincent, vice-president for research and higher education policy at the British Academy said that if universities “back off” from teaching languages because of dwindling demand, “our national ability to have a language base disappears”. Universities needed to come up with a joint plan to keep a broad range of language departments open rather than looking at their own “short-term interest”, which might be to close them, he added. […] The report explains that because language skills are lacking in the UK labour market, companies tend to train existing staff or hire foreign workers, pushing down demand for British multilinguists and creating a “vicious circle of monolingualism”.

Whereas criticism by the British Academy seems to foreground the economic importance of multilingualism, the Dutch Academy questions the correlation between utility and value, which informs policy on Higher Education.

The Dutch evaluation points out the very little scope for unbound fundamental research outside of [what has been defined as] the economic top sectors. This is a trend that has been negatively affecting Humanities research in the Netherlands and it is now targeting in the same vein other disciplines with no direct social relevance or economic utility. However, as the Royal Academy argues, not all research that is vital to society can be described in terms of economic utility.

And this is what the Royal Academy has to say about social relevance or applicability:

It is at least as important for research to derive its value and meaning from more than its direct relevance to society. A high-value knowledge society requires high-value, broadly educated people who are capable of acting independently and creatively when tackling new challenges. Any random academic programme might contribute to meeting that general aim, and it is impossible to predict in advance which discipline will suddenly become important for theoretical and practical innovation.

The evaluation concludes that the rapid move to close down, merge or reform the disciplines of languages and cultures relates to their nationwide lack of popularity. As striking as it may be, the unpopular status these disciplines enjoy at home is unrelated to their performance and international recognition.

Traditionally the Netherlands has all the reasons to be proud of research on languages and cultures. It stands out in comparison to other countries. Hereby the Netherlands responds to the goals established by Horizon 2020 [of the European Commission], namely where it deals with a ‘inclusive society’ in Europe, which can only work out with high quality knowledge about different languages and cultures.

Yet further about disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences:

The universities’ plans confirm the image that attention to the Humanities and Social Sciences is generally minimal in comparison to other fields. […] Still the faculties of Humanities together with the faculties of Social [Sciences] […] are considered internationally as highly successful in the field of research, what is shown for instance in the recent QS [world university] rankings. The cleavage between local visibility and international success is, to put it mildly, curious. The Netherlands Humanities research and education has an important position in Europe and internationally, which seems to be threatened by its image at national level.

So, Dutch universities are rolling back the study of languages and cultures because the government said so and because they can. These measures are illustrative of a widespread disdain for knowledge that is considered not useful or relevant. This is in line with a neo-liberal agenda that normalises and hides its ideology under the rhetoric of efficiency and pragmatism.

In addition, the study of languages and cultures has an outstanding particularity, which facilitated its relegation to the row of the undesirables. These studies personify the element of foreignness in our ranks. And not only do we deem foreign-ness/the foreign-ner useless and irrelevant, s/he threatens our very nationality and must, therefore, go back to her/his own country.

This collective fear and the discourses and policies it instigates are overwhelmingly present in Europe today. In the article In the Name of Europe Sandra Ponzanesi and Bollette Blaagaard called attention to what Philomena Essed termed Europism. According to Philomena Essed and Sandra Trienekens in ‘Who Wants to Feel White?’ Race, Dutch Culture and Contested Identities:

Europism means Europe’s turn to a defensive and inward looking stance, caught in unresolved tensions between secularism and the legacies of the Christian religion, ridden by conflicts over the financial burden of aging societies when the national borders are closed for immigrants, the emancipation of (native European) women unfinished and the perceived threat of super sexist men from ‘other cultures’ taken as an invasion.

This is a Europe-wide trend towards insularity associated with the desire for a homogeneous and pure Europe cleansed of foreign and uncivilized elements. Ponzanesi and Blaagaard point out that this trend has become even more strident after 9/11. Further, this trend reinforces closure within narrowly defined nationalities against any possible community of diverse subjects equally bestowed of citizenship.

Europism characterizes too the fight over national and regional identities in the process of so-called European unification; the boldness of the extreme right emerging from the fading memories of the Holocaust, as well as a host of other issues around assimilation and anti-immigrant sentiments.

These anxieties populate the Dutch public space where loud and whispered calls for the expulsion of the foreigner and the demise of foreignness have become commonplace and seem to turn into prerequisites for acceptance in the narrow national community. If such inward-looking Europist racist and xenophobic trend became more strident after 9/11, it is gaining yet more traction during the current economic crisis. The University is opting to shape citizens who will be inept to relate to a pluralistic world—whether inside the Dutch borders, or beyond them. The University should cherish and teach difference and, for that matter, what is foreign, for making a true dynamic and lively cultural life. Hereby it would equip citizens for community, today and tomorrow. Instead, we prefer a single culture and a single language in the comfort of our prison house.

To quote Etienne Balibar’s Europe as Borderland:

We know that individuals and groups who are using and mastering several languages are also able to make use of their “mother-tongue” in the most elaborate manner. And conversely, individuals and groups who are culturally and socially barred from the complex use of their “own” language (although this situation has to be discussed with a very critical eye, it is in part a class stereotype projected onto the “poor” or the “subalterns” by the dominant groups, whose linguistic habits are legitimized at the expense of others, as Bourdieu and others have shown) tend to reject the possibility of becoming “polyglots”, viewing it as it were as a forbidden or unacceptable privilege. As a consequence, they are not merely rooted or embedded in specific (limited) linguistic territories, but actually enclosed as if in a “prison house”, prevented from “traveling” beyond its limits. Which paradoxically, in a world of transnational communications, increasingly works as a form of exile, an “interior” exile from the contemporary World, producing the same anxieties and feelings of powerlessness.

At the current historical juncture it is the Dutch academic institution that desires monolingualism and relegates the subjects of the nation to interior exile.

Years ago, at the World Social Forum, in Brazil, Boaventura de Sousa Santos voiced the imagination of a future after such progress, wisely offering a warning: When we become modern we will have to struggle to recover what we had when we were backward.

But then, I am afraid, we won’t have what it takes.