It’s High Time We Realised That Dutch Is A World Language

It’s High Time We Realised That Dutch Is A World Language

Next week, 250 teachers and researchers from Dutch Studies departments all over the world will gather for the three-yearly Colloquium Neerlandicum. This year it will take place in Leuven, and the theme will be Dutch on the Move. The five-day conference is a collaboration between the KU Leuven and the International Association for Dutch Studies (IVN), with financial support from the Taalunie (Dutch Language Union). So, what is going on in the field of international Dutch Studies in 2018? What are the successes and the threats? According to IVN president Henriette Louwerse, we need more involvement and cooperation. Dutch is only a small language for those who think small.


It is a frequent source of amazement that more students outside the Netherlands and Flanders include Dutch in their undergraduate study programme than students within the Dutch language area. Nor are many aware of the innovative and exciting research in Dutch Studies carried out beyond the language borders; or that collaboration between international and local Dutch language and culture specialists flourishes; and that this global network of representatives of the Low Countries serves demonstrable economic and diplomatic interests. After all, why should more than 13,000 students in 45 countries worldwide choose to study Dutch?

That was exactly the question Professor Theo Janssen put to a number of colleagues who worked abroad for a contribution he wrote for the Dutch language journal Onze Taal in 1992. His conclusion was that the motives varied enormously, from “pure interest in the language and culture” to curiosity aroused by literature or the visual arts, to family links or love. Yet Janssen does see a common theme: “Anything in which the Netherlands or Flanders excels or is avantgarde attracts attention globally.” He cites the Flemish Primitives and Van Gogh as examples, but also the Provo movement and the – at that time – tolerant drugs policy. That students choose Dutch for economic motives is only mentioned indirectly: “sometimes a social purpose plays a role.” (1)

Some twenty-five years later the story is quite different. In an informal contribution to the Dutch Language Union’s digital magazine Taalunie: Bericht, Jan Willem Bloemen posits that Dutch is “booming business” abroad. And why do students opt for Dutch? According to Bloemen, business is the number one reason. Studying Dutch is an investment in a future with an international bank or some other sort of company with links to the Netherlands or Flanders. (2)

This is confirmed by an extensive field study of the position of Dutch in the world, called De staat van het Nederlands in de wereld, which was carried out in 2017 by the International Association for Dutch Studies. Business is the big winner. That is where most of the students end up. (3)

Recent studies confirm that language and culture skills make money. In the United Kingdom, for example, researchers concluded, in a recent report for the Department for International Trade, that inadequate knowledge of languages and a lack of intercultural skills cost the British economy 3.5 percent of gross national product annually. That is equivalent to more than 54 billion euro. (4)

Likewise, Talen voor Nederland, a report published in January 2018 by KNAW, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, emphasises that linguistic knowledge and intercultural skills are crucial for anyone who wants to operate globally. Dutch trade is very likely missing opportunities through a lack of language skills or, to quote the study, because the government fails to tap into the potential linguistic and cultural knowledge that exists in the Netherlands. “The wealth of knowledge possessed by Dutch people who speak English, German, Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, Chinese and many other languages, [could] be better utilised, both within and beyond our borders.” (5)


This sounds like good news for international Dutch Studies. After all, “beyond our borders” there is an extensive network of students and university lecturers who have a good knowledge both of Dutch and of their local situation. There is a “wealth of knowledge” that can be tapped to generate cultural, political and, above all, economic gain for the Netherlands and Flanders. Then there are the final sentences of the KNAW report: “The education and language sector should be fed by an active, outward-looking university language community. The presence of speakers of all sorts of different languages [...] constitutes an added value for our knowledge economy and a source of cultural, social and economic development.” (6)

The KNAW’s conclusions and recommendations reflect the findings of the 2017 IVN field study on the state of Dutch in the world (De Staat van het Nederlands in de Wereld). For the study, the IVN surveyed its over six hundred members and supplemented the data with testimonies from nearly forty alumni and twelve representatives of the regions round the world where Dutch is taught. An important finding is that, as a discipline, Dutch Studies is on the move internationally, both in terms of subject matter and in reaction to the local university, political and economic situation. We cannot generalise about international Dutch Studies. (7) Circumstances in Germany cannot be compared with those in South Africa, Indonesia or Italy. Moreover, there are considerable differences within each region. Yet there are trends that go beyond just one institute or a specific region. One of these is that in 2018 language and cultural knowledge are increasingly referred to in economic terms.

The IVN report concludes that students who study Dutch outside the Dutch language area are a source of cultural, political and economic benefit for the Netherlands and Flanders. A recent study of the Central European region equally confirms that nearly 80 percent of the respondents used Dutch at work after they finished their studies. More than 35 percent work for a Dutch or Flemish company or organisation active in their own country, and another 8.4 percent moves to work in the Netherlands or Flanders. There are more students of Dutch in Germany alone than in the Netherlands and Flanders and, in the German border areas especially, 90 percent of Dutch graduates go to work in primary or secondary education, where they teach amongst other subjects Dutch. (8) In Southern Europe it is the Italians, in particular, who study Dutch before going to do a Master’s in Flanders or the Netherlands.

In short, the “active, outward-looking university language community” foreseen by the KNAW has plenty to tap into. Or that is what you would expect, at least.

Unfortunately, it is not so simple. Within the Netherlands and Flanders there is little interest in what is going on outside the language borders. The KNAW report is sadly no exception in that respect. In the report there is no mention of “international Dutch Studies”. There is an appendix entitled “Education in Dutch in the Netherlands and other countries”, which mentions the Language Union’s figures: 15,000 students at 175 universities, in 45 countries. The appendix speaks briefly of foreign students’ motivation, too. All in all, however, it makes a rather perfunctory impression, to put it mildly. The content is not anchored in the body of the text and the location of the information (on the next to last page) suggests a lack of concern. “The presence of speakers of various languages” besides Dutch outside the linguistic area seems to have been overlooked. The international network of students, lecturers, researchers and translators are not considered to be an “asset”. They are not included in the call to make better use of talents, are not clearly visible on the political or policymakers’ radar.

Yet the figures do not lie. Considerably more young people embark on the study of Dutch abroad than within the language region itself. With a good 13,000 university-level students of Dutch worldwide we can conclude – even if we take a large margin of incomparability – that, in an absolute sense, students abroad opt for Dutch as part of a university programme far more frequently than students in the Netherlands or Flanders. The number of first-year students of Dutch in the Netherlands and Flanders has been declining for several years. Talen voor Nederland gives the figures for the Netherlands for the period 2008-2014. They show that in that particular period enrolments for Dutch Language and Literature degree courses in the Netherlands fell by around 43 percent (from 473 to 271). There are indications that students do want to study Dutch, but preferably in combination with “something else”, other languages, for example, or subjects such as those taught as part of European Studies, Literature and Culture, or the liberal arts combinations offered at so-called University Colleges. (9)


The shift from specialist to broader transnational or transdisciplinary programmes is a widespread trend. We signal that in various places, particularly in Europe, (institutional) interest in traditional language degrees is in decline and that Dutch departments increasingly work within interdisciplinary, transnational programmes. Besides a changed research agenda that emphasises interdisciplinarity, transnational approaches and multilingualism, these shifts are also often a consequence of cutbacks, due sometimes to declining student. The “crisis” in the humanities contributes to departments being amalgamated or absorbed by larger structures in an effort to maximise the efficiency of education delivery.

In a certain sense international Dutch Studies has an advantage. We are already used to a multilingual and transcultural reality. We always approach the object of our research from an outsider’s position. Clearly, the interest in multilingualism and generic, intercultural education has many positive aspects and the transnational agenda, whereby Dutch is not confined to national and linguistically defined traditions, offers new areas and opportunities for the subject. Yet this development also constitutes a potential threat, particularly for “smaller” languages like Dutch, in an international context. University teachers are constantly looking to strike a balance between cross-linguistic and cross-disciplinary initiatives – two Flemish films in a course on European Cinema, one novel by Couperus in a course on colonial literature - and the protection of their subject’s own identity and specificity. After all, if the object is generic (linguistic and intercultural competence, why should these be in Dutch specifically?

In addition to the broadening of the curriculum we see a second important development. The IVN study shows that globally the number of students who choose Dutch has remained more or less constant. What the figures do not show is a shift away from the study of language and culture as a pursuit in its own right to regarding linguistic knowledge predominantly as an additional skill to be studied in combination, for example, with a technical course, Law or Business Studies. Clearly we applaud that the study of languages is increasingly recognised for the important social, cultural, economic, and political value it provides.

However, in practice, the separation of language learning from its traditional pillars (literature, linguistics and the culture of the language area) constitutes a potential threat. The new style language courses are generally offered by university Language Centres (often as part of so-called Institution-Wide Language Programmes) and are therefore no longer embedded within a (traditional) language department with a distinct research environment. Tutors are not tasked with research and are often employed on an hourly basis. The lack of a research component, in particular, makes these places vulnerable. Only Dutch Studies programmes built around research-active academics are able to anchor themselves on a lasting basis. After all teaching and research are inextricably linked in the academic world. (10)


Collaboration with colleagues in one’s own institute or region, as well as in the Netherlands and Flanders, is of the greatest importance in this respect. All the respondents in the IVN study indicated that they felt a need for more contact with colleagues in other locations and in the Low Countries. And therein lie great opportunities. A strong international Dutch Studies network, where lecturers and researchers outside the language area collaborate intensively to form an even more dynamic global field of Dutch Studies, makes the subject more attractive for internationally oriented home students. Dutch is then not limited to the Low Countries; it offers opportunities all over the world, study places, cultural exchanges and international commonalities. This Dutch Studies is a discipline that is not afraid to explore new areas or forge new links.

That is why the IVN is calling for an intensification of the collaboration between internationally-based Dutch Studies and the discipline within the Dutch-language area. We need each other to be able to position Dutch Studies as both specific and transnational. We can find ways of dealing with institutional pressures to join in with broad, cross-disciplinary themes without becoming unrecognisable and therefore interchangeable. Together we can find a structure within which, as lecturers and researchers, we can operate in a way that is flexible, interdisciplinary and transnational, without endangering the subject itself because we no longer dare to focus on what is specific or even unique in Dutch language and culture. Together we must present an open and self-confident story.

Central to that story are the language and culture of the Low Countries, we should not dispense with what is specific to Dutch Studies, but we must dare to open the windows and recognise that we live in a world with a multiplicity of languages and cultures. Not cling to the traditional rejection of everything that does not come directly to us in the original language or what does not traditionally belong to the field of Dutch Studies. Of course you can teach Dutch Studies in Polish or English. That is precisely the strength of this international network, that it has a knowledge of Dutch as well as Czech, Spanish, Swedish, Indonesian, Russian, Portuguese and so on. The obvious multilingualism and transnational practise of international Dutch Studies must utilised better to increase the reach and impact of the Dutch language.


Besides disbelief and concern about the lack of ambition demonstrated by Dutch and Flemish policy makers, the IVN report on the state of Dutch Studies worldwide gives an impression of optimism and verve. The study makes it abundantly clear that there is a large and committed network of lecturers, researchers, translators and students, devoted - besides their everyday work - to organising lectures, book presentations, academic gatherings, translations and publications for a broader public.

Internationally, Dutch Studies plays a role in cultural productions, but also in public services and economic activities. In many countries university teachers work closely with the Flemish representation or the Dutch Embassy because they have a knowledge both of the national and the local situation and of the Dutch language and Dutch-speaking cultures. The centre of gravity is very clearly in Europe, but the first departments of Dutch are also being created in China, India and Brazil. There are opportunities here to reach a new public through the language and culture, which could increase the cultural and economic impact of Flanders and the Netherlands.

Dutch is only a small language for those who think small; for those who see large and small in terms of the numbers of native speakers. Those who recognise the potential of the international network and the globally shared love and knowledge of Dutch get a completely different picture. They see that Dutch is a global language, with a worldwide network. They see the recent cutbacks in the Language Union’s budget and the paltry two million euros that the Dutch and Flemish governments collectively reserve for international Dutch Studies as short-sighted.(11)

How is it possible that our neighbouring countries, Germany, France and Great Britain not only maintain a network of institutes to promote their language and culture, but recruit and support university-level language teachers worldwide? Even a relatively small country like Austria maintains a network of 115 Austrian university-level language teachers both in and outside of Europe. Austria invests more than three times as much in representation in higher education as the Netherlands and Flanders together. (12) The big question is not why students opt for Dutch, but why the Low Countries take so little interest in the Dutch language and culture in an international context.

Obviously, we have no influence on decisions that are taken locally. But we can be visible and actively give support by offering university teachers and students opportunities; by organising refresher courses for university teachers and summer courses for students; creating and financing digital teaching materials; offering grants for local initiatives, collaboration, research, cultural activities, translation and subtitling. That also includes being prepared to provide reasonable salary supplements when the local salary is too low to attract native speakers.


I will return briefly to Theo Janssen and his contribution to Onze Taal, in 1992. Janssen comes to a surprisingly sharp conclusion. After speculating about the reasons why students choose Dutch, he says:

Whatever the reason, it is certainly not because the cultural policies in the Netherlands and Flanders are carefully considered and most definitely not because they are generous [...] Yet what could be more obvious than to fill Dutch courses in other countries with our cultural products? Could there be any more effective source of cultural influence? (13)

Twenty-five years later, little has changed be it that the need for effective cultural influence is more important than ever. At a time when multilingualism is one of the policy areas of the EU, we must ensure the importance of Dutch is visible among all the other important languages at home and abroad. Could we have a more effective cultural influence than that of integrated international Dutch Studies courses at universities in forty-five countries? Via the network of students and university teachers and researchers who make Dutch a world language? Policymakers, it is over to you.


(1) Theo A.J.M. Janssen, 'Waarom zouden we Nederlands studeren in het buitenland?', Onze Taal 61, 1992, pp. 121-122.

(2) Jan Willem Bloemen, 'Top tien: waarom buitenlanders Nederlands willen leren', in Taalunie: Bericht, March 2016.

(3) International Association for Dutch Studies (IVN), De staat van het Nederlands in de wereld (The State of Dutch in the World),   Utrecht, IVN, 2018, p. 13. The report can be found (in Dutch) at

(4) James Foreman-Peck and Yi Wang (2014), The Costs to the UK of Language Deficiencies as a Barrier to UK Engagement in Exporting: A Report to UK Trade & Investment, Cardiff Business School, 2014, p. 1.

(5) Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (KNAW), Talen voor Nederland, Amsterdam, KNAW, 2018, p. 8.

(6) Ibid., pp. 67-68.

(7) Ralf Grüttemeier, 'De staat van het Nederlands in de wereld moet genuanceerder', in Neerlandistiek. Online tijdschrift voor taal- en letterkundig onderzoek, 7 December 2017. In this reaction to the IVN report Grüttemeier rightly points out that there are big differences in the situation of international Dutch Studies. He demonstrates that there has been a gradual growth in the number of professors in Germany since 1982. In Sweden (Stockholm), too, Dutch Studies is doing well as a discipline. It is no coincidence that these are places where academic research is an important part of the job description.

(8) That means that a German pupil learning Dutch has a greater chance of finding that the teacher giving the course is university trained than a Dutch pupil has. De staat van het Nederlands in de wereld, p. 15.

(9) Appendix 4 of Talenstudies in Nederland contains a summary of the intake per educational establishment in the Netherlands. KNAW, p. 85. It is striking that only the BA programmes in English shows a 20 percent increase. I was unable to find comparable figures for Flanders, mainly because the generic numbers of undergraduates  studying a Language Degree give no insight into which language or languages the students opted for.

(10) For a recent example that underlines this shift, see the study commissioned by the Association for Low Countries Studies: The State of Dutch Studies in the UK and Ireland available on

(11) In 2010 the total budget of the Language Union came to  €12,143,024. In 2017 it was €9,981,762. That means a decrease of about 18 percent. De staat van het Nederlands, p. 19

(12) Österreichischer Austauschdienst, Bericht über die Prüfung des Jahresabschlusses zum 31.  December 2016 Graz, 2016, Appendix 1/6. A good 0.5 million euros are reserved for the OeAD’s ‘Lektoratsprogramm’. In comparison, in 2016 the Dutch and Flemish government reserved €170,000 for ‘input native speakers’. Taalunie, Jaarrekening 2016 Nederlandse (Annual accounts 2016 Taalunie Dutch Language Union), The Hague, 2016, p. 23.

(13) Onze Taal, p. 122.

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