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Van Hoorde - English


Loss of functionality in Dutch

In this article I will try to describe the issue of loss of functionality and functional domains from the

point of view of Dutch. Although there are functional domains where the Dutch language is loosing

ground, still there is no need for alarmism: Dutch is in a good, healthy shape and is certainly not in


When we speak about loss of functional domains, we refer to a situation in which Dutch is in

competition with another language, which is dominant in relation to Dutch. This dominant language is

of course English. In this context of competition we have to distinguish between functions that Dutch

has always had and other functions it never had. This distinction will lead us to the conclusion that the

ongoing competition with English is only a ‘partial’ one: it does not include all functional domains.

Another important preliminary remark concerns the problem of the legitimacy of possible policy

interventions. The changes – losses or gains –of functionality in the context of contact and competition

between various languages are to a very large extent the result of spontaneous processes. In fact,

they are symptoms on the language level of wider social and geopolitical changes. The issue of the

legitimacy of policy interventions is a fundamental one and cannot be dealt with by looking exclusively

at the supposed interests of the language, seen as a cultural and historical entity in its own right. The

interests of the citizens are the real point of reference for the legitimacy issue, i.e. the communicative

needs of the language users in the modern, global society. In this article, the reader will find the

answers which thus far the Nederlandse Taalunie has formulated in this respect. An important

conclusion will be that any national language policy is necessarily incomplete without an international

dimension. This offers interesting opportunities for actions and projects to our Federation!

Some more optimism please!

Let’s return to the present situation of Dutch. Like in many other countries, the issue of the ‘health’ of

our national language is frequently discussed on the public forum in the Netherlands and Flanders.

From what we read in newspapers, we could draw the conclusion that Dutch is inevitably in the loser’s

position in comparison with English. Lots of people think that Dutch is inevitably on its way to

becoming a language ‘for the house, the garden and the kitchen’ like they say in the Netherlands, i.e.

a language which will only be used within the most informal and intimate registers, and no more in the

more formal ones, on the public scene.

This attitude of pessimism is not warranted by empirical or objective data and can in no way be

justified. On the contrary: if we look at the language situation in a more detached way and from a wider

historical perspective, we have to draw the conclusion that Dutch is indeed a very healthy language.

During the last 50 years or so Dutch has been the object of a huge expansion, thanks to phenomena

such as the spreading of education, the democratisation of society and the ascent of modern media.

Only fifty years ago the majority of the population, especially in Flanders, was not able to speak or

write in standard Dutch. Nowadays standard Dutch is by far the most widely used variety in both

Flanders and the Netherlands. Never before Dutch is being used by so many people, in order to speak

and write about so many different subjects, in such a variety of situations and contexts!

A careful analysis of important indicators of language ‘health’ confirms this positive outlook. In the first

place there is the unquestioned position of Dutch as the official language within our communities, be it

imposed by law like in Belgium, be it de facto as is the case in the Netherlands. This position is

undisputed and is in no way subject to competition. Dutch is the only language within political life, in

legislation, justice and it is the indisputable language of instruction within the primary and secondary

schools. It is also the only language of the national press and the media, the public as well as the

commercial ones.

A second important indicator is that there are absolutely no serious signs of generational loss of

language, i.e. in handing it on from one generation to another. Dutch-speaking parents who decide to

raise their children exclusively in English are very uncommon indeed. Moreover their environment

considers them as examples of arrogance, rather then as examples worth to be followed. In this

context, a comparison with the situation of our dialects is very revealing. The dialects are rapidly dying

out almost everywhere. Their inevitable decline is strictly related to generational loss. Indeed, during

the last decades more and more parents decided that the language variety they had always spoken

themselves was no longer suited to be handed on to their children and hence, that it had to be

replaced by the standard language. In this way, in only one generation, dialect has become the variety

of a minority, especially amongst youngsters, instead of the most widely spread variety in day to day

communication, a position held until just a few decades ago. As already stated, there are no signs

whatsoever that something comparable is happening to standard Dutch.

The language attitude of migrant youngsters constitutes our third indicator. They adopt Dutch – and no

other language – as the instrument of interaction with their environment, at least for the

communication outside their community of origin. These youngsters often have deficiencies at school

as a result of bad mastery of Dutch. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that they adopt Dutch as their

instrument for communication. Research among descendants of earlier migrations, e.g. among

descendants of the Italian migration which took place immediately after the Second World War, show

that the original language is being lost rapidly and that there is an almost complete language

assimilation within only few generations.

The last important indicator I want to mention regards the strong position of Dutch in applications

which involve new technologies. Information technology and other modern applications become

available in Dutch almost automatically and indisputably. If there are problems, these are not due to

lack of goodwill towards Dutch, but to the fact that not always the necessary linguistic data are

available. For this reason, the availability of all necessary descriptive data of Dutch in the appropriate

formats for usage by language and speech industry has been one of the most important challenges for

the Nederlandse Taalunie during the last ten years.

The rather optimistic situation as described above must in our view be the background for all

discussions about the full-scale functionality of our language and must protect us against too much


Protecting functions Dutch never had?

Dutch has never been an international language, i.e. a language which is also used between nonnative

speakers. As a matter of fact, Dutch has never even been an official language of international

organisations. The European Union is the only exception, and here its use as real working language is

limited to the plenary sessions of the European Parliament and the official meetings of the European


Thus, whenever native speakers of Dutch find themselves in international situations, they have to use

another language. In the past this language could be French, German, English and – some centuries

ago – Latin. The actual language choice depended on a number of factors, such as the public, the

subject of communication and so on. Nowadays the vehicular language is almost always English.

Nevertheless, as far as international communication is concerned, English is by no means a threat to

the functionality of Dutch, since our mother tongue simply never had this international function. When

we speak about competition between Dutch and English, we don’t point to the international context.

For this reason, we stated that the competition between both languages is only a partial one and does

not comprise all functions and domains. One can only speak about competition if and only if English

enters into a domain which traditionally belongs to Dutch.

In this respect there is an important difference between Dutch and languages such as French and

German, which also have a tradition as international languages, as they have also been used by nonnative

speakers as an instrument of communication between them. This usage of French and German

is undoubtedly in decline, certainly amongst native speakers of Dutch. This decline is due to

geopolitical changes, especially the dominant position of the United States on the international political

scene, in the field of economy and commerce, and in technology and scientific research. Frankly we

don’t see how the other European languages which have an international tradition could resist and

aspire to diminish the dominance of English.

At this point there is another important clarification to be made. If I stated that English as being used in

international contexts – also by native speakers of Dutch – can be no means be considered as a

threat to Dutch, I refer exclusively to its use as instrument of sectorial communication. This type of

usage does not imply a full-scale language competence of English in all possible domains and in all

registers. Such a full-scale competence would lead to an almost complete interchangeability between

English and Dutch. In other words, it would mean that English could substitute Dutch in all imaginable

social situations, according to the free choice of the user. An interchangeability of this type could really

constitute a menace to Dutch, since it could be the cause of language loss from one generation to


Beside the ever increasing prestige of English during the last few decades, there is another important

change that has to be mentioned. Until only a few decades ago, international communication was the

exclusive domain, even the privilege, of a small elite, for instance of the world of diplomacy and of

international commerce. Nowadays it is a necessity of an ever increasing number of citizens. As a

result more and more citizens feel the need of an international language and – given the

circumstances described above – this instrument can only be English. Important social changes, such

as the increased mobility of people and the availability of very powerful means of communication on a

global scale, are causing profound changes in people’s language needs.

For this reason we cannot claim to have the right of keeping our citizens locked up in a monolingual

habitus, for the only reason that we want to defend the glory of our national language, and its old,

outdated position of dominant variety within our language community.

What about the functions of Dutch?

Hence, all at best in the best of worlds? By no means, since there are important domains which

traditionally belong to Dutch, in which English has entered. Within these domains, our language seems

to loose more and more ground.

Among the domains in which there is an erosion of Dutch, the world of science is undoubtedly the

most important one. Scientific publications within our community nowadays have almost become the

exclusive territory of English, even within the humane sciences. Even a scholar who publishes the

results of his research about for instance the use of the articles in Dutch, does so in English, even if

his colleagues all speak Dutch, if not as native language then certainly as second or foreign language.

Moreover, Dutch is also on its way back as language of instruction in higher education. This evolution

at the expense of Dutch, are being reinforced by the reforms of higher education which are still in

course as a consequence of the so-called declaration of Bologna. As far as the Netherlands are

concerned, even in secondary schools English is used more and more beside Dutch as the language

of instruction for subjects such as history, mathematics and so on.

Another important domain of functional loss for Dutch is the field of business. In order to stress their

presumed international vocation, an increasing number of business firms, even small companies,

impose English as a corporate language to their employees, even in cases in which these employees

are only in touch with other native speakers of Dutch.

As a last example of domains which are subject of functional loss for Dutch, we mention the cultural

sector. Some of its subsectors seem to be entirely dominated by English, for instance pop music, the

popular sector of video and computer games and youth culture in general. Film industry and mass

media have also to be mentioned in this list of examples. A person who in prime time sits in front of his

television set and zaps from one channel to another, could just as well believe that his is in Texas or

New York. As a matter of fact, only the Dutch subtitles will remind him of the fact that he is watching

television in the Netherlands or in Flanders!

These examples lead us to the conclusion that, although the general outlook does not justify an

attitude of pessimism, still the Dutch language community has to be alert. Indeed, our language needs

to be object of care and support. A non-interventionist attitude of ‘laisser aller, laisser passer’ could be

very harmful to the plain functionality of our language.

Should language policy intervene?

With this conclusion we have only stated our conviction that it is desirable that language policy

intervenes in these processes. However, we have to ask ourselves whether such an intervention is

also legitimate, since we are dealing with changes that are spontaneous anyhow and are related to

enlargements of the forums on which communication and interaction between people take place. If our

fellow citizens in sectors such as the ones mentioned above, feel the need to substitute one language

(Dutch) by another (English), they will undoubtedly have their reasons for this shift! So what?

According to the Taalunie, there are other aspects which have to be taken into account. In our view

the intervention of language policy is not only desirable but also legitimate, not so much for the sake of

the language as cultural entity in its own right, that deserves preservation, but especially for the users’

sake, for the native speakers of Dutch. The ‘national languages’ of Europe are without any doubt the

ones that are most widely spread amongst the population as a whole. For this reason they can

guarantee the largest possible access to information, to all sources of human knowledge and

experience. A possible loss of functionality of these languages would inevitably lead to the exclusion

of the weakest, less powerful classes from information resources. In other words, it would lead to a

more outspoken division of people in first class and second class citizens.

During the Mannheim conference, which was at the origin of our Federation, A. Christidis form the

Centre for Greek Language

, asserted that in language policy there is a need for a shift from a culturalWhat is needed is acultural (or multicultural) conception of language to a social conception. Under such aThe Taalunie fully

status planning, the planning regarding the position and (official) status of the language;

corpus planning, the part of planning that concerns the corpus of the language, i.e. the the

acquisition planning, the planning which has to do with language teaching and language learning.

The language policy of the Taalunie: aspects regarding the position of Dutch

The domain which at this moment seems most at risk for Dutch is undoubtedly higher education and

scientific research. This will perhaps be the case for most other national languages in Europe. How

can we protect and strengthen the position of Dutch in this sector? And how can we be effective in this

policy, i.e. contribute to a real and measurable reinforcement of Dutch?

The first and foremost challenge in this respect is to see that Dutch can remain language of instruction

within higher education. According to the Taalunie it is not sufficient to impose Dutch, for instance by

law, as obligatory language of instruction or to prohibit the use of other languages. Our scientific

institutes and research centres are being confronted with international competition and feel the need

to attract students, professors and researchers in other countries. Hence, a language regulation that

would be too severe would probably be considered as an obstacle to scientific excellence. Most

probably the scientific institutions would not even be prepared to comply with it. For this reason the

advisory council of the Taalunie proposed to make a distinction between the masters’ and the

bachelors’ levels. The council proposed that the bachelors’ level would remain in principle almost

exclusively the territory of Dutch, with only a few, well defined, exceptions. As far as the masters is

concerned, the council agrees with a system that would give the institutions more freedom to choose

for themselves, according to specific circumstances and needs of these institutions and especially of

the student population. Moreover, the council’s proposal also includes that students should always

have the right to do the exams in their own mother tongue.

The Taalunie also tries in many ways to encourage the use of Dutch in scientific publications, if not

those who are meant for a public of specialists, at any case for publications in the field of

popularisation of scientific insights. A recent initiative in this field is the assignment of a price for the

best student’s dissertation or thesis.

These are only a few examples of interventions regarding the status and position of Dutch. One will

notice that these policy interventions are always meant to facilitate the use of Dutch and to back up the

language rights of its users. The idea behind it is not so much to try and prohibit the use of English or

of other languages, but to guarantee that Dutch can also be used in the same situations and with

equal efficiency and ease.

The Taalunie and aspects of corpus planning

The same philosophy is behind our actions which concern the so-called corpus of the language, in the

first place those actions which regard the availability of the fundamental descriptive data of Dutch.

These data constitute an indispensable condition for the development of language tools, traditional as

well as modern ones, which imply the use of new technologies, e.g. dictionaries, grammars, systems

for speech recognition, translation machines etcetera. Examples of language resources which have

been realised with an important contribution of the Taalunie are the text corpuses of the Dutch

lexicography institute (Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie, INL), a huge corpus of spoken Dutch

and a general grammar of Dutch (Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst, ANS). As we already stated at

the beginning of this article, there is no lack of goodwill of language and speech industry to include

Dutch in new technological systems and applications. However, quite often there is a lack of

necessary resources and linguistic data and – given the fact that the Dutch-speaking market is a

rather limited one – of financial means to collect them. For this reason, in a language community such

as ours, the public sector has to play an important and active role in this field. And that is exactly what

the Taalunie is doing!

As already stated, the linguistic resources can be considered as the raw material for the development

of market products. As far as market products for end consumers are concerned, the policy of the

Taalunie is a rather prudent one. As a principle the Taalunie does not want to interfere in market

relations. Still, the Taalunie is convinced that even in this field it has at least a complementary role. If

one sees that certain categories of users feel a need for certain products and that such products are

not being made available by market parties themselves, the Taalunie can try and stimulate these

market parties or can even decide to develop the products by itself. During the last few years the

Taalunie contributed in a decisive way in realisations such as:

various bilingual dictionaries of high quality between Dutch and


some relatively ‘lesser’ used European languages (Italian, Swedish, Danish and Finnish);


languages of cultural minorities within our community (Arabic, Turkish);

NL-Translex, a system for automatic translation involving language pairs between Dutch on the

comparative grammars for native speakers of German and French.

The Taalunie and language learning

Last but not least we have to speak about our policy concerning the teaching and learning of Dutch. In

this field, the Taalunie’s policy is less autonomous as compared to the categories described above. As

a matter of fact, language learning and teaching are and remain responsibilities of the ministries of

education of both member states of the Taalunie. The actions of the Taalunie in this field are

complementary to the national policies.

Our main objective is to create flexible opportunities for all those who have to or want to learn our

language, non only within the regular school curriculum, but in all possible ways, formal as well as

informal, at all levels, for all those who want or need to learn Dutch. Among these, the adult learners

are an important category, for instance in the framework of professional training, in company training

and the like. During the last few years we have paid much attention to new methods of distance

learning, the so-called e-learning, and to didactic tools and materials which are suited for these


Moreover, the Taalunie played an important part in defining and carrying out a so-called ‘social

language policy’. The major part of the actions which belong to this policy can be situated in the

domain of the integration of cultural minorities. In fact, they constitute the language component of this

integration policy. It goes without saying that such actions reinforce the position of Dutch as an

indispensable instrument for the full integration and social functioning of all citizens of whatever

cultural background. In doing this, they reinforce the status of Dutch as our national language, even in

the sense of constituent that helps to build the nation.

The international dimension and the Federation

The description we gave thus far, leads us to the conclusion that language communities can do a lot of

things in order to protect the full-scale functionality of their language. However, in the course of the last

decade the Taalunie has experienced that a national language policy

1 cannot do all the work. CertainEuropean Federation of National Institutions for Language (EFNIL). I want to conclude this article


I also use this term to refer to the policy of the Taalunie for the Dutch-speaking community as a


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Linguaggio e contesto sociale. Bologna: Il Mulino.Institutional Status and Use of(pp. 219-226). Sankt Augustin: Asgard Verlag.Historical Linguistics. A Survey. London: Routlege

Europäische Hochsprachen und mehrsprachiges Europa

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