The language question is solved in a Dutch birthday circle

Last week, I joined a small Dutch birthday celebration. As is tradition, we gathered at the birthday boy’s home, with chairs arranged in a circle and cubes of cheese on the table. After congratulating him, everyone started casually chatting. 

The chatter was in Dutch, and as happens frequently, I was the only international in the circle. At first, I felt awkward responding only in English and justified myself with my rusty level of Dutch, thinking I would be thought of as one of those lazy internationals who didn’t bother to learn the language properly.

Yet, even though the conversation proceeded mainly in Dutch, everyone made an effort to address me in English and joked about their English being perhaps even worse than my Dutch. 

The next day, I was at a big birthday party. This time there were more internationals, but we were still spread thin. The main language there was also Dutch, but all the internationals fully integrated into the conversations in English. And despite the occasional misunderstandings, the lively chatter was still going strong. 

Outside of the uni, people have much fewer debates about the problems with English

While the government and the university are actively discussing the ‘international dilemma’ and the problems of English as the university’s language, people outside of it have much fewer debates about it.

Both sides I spoke to agree that if you come to a country, it is good to know some of the language, traditions, and social rules. As for the welcoming country, it is good to be understanding, patient, and not judge harshly. For both sides, it is important to maintain the differences, languages, and traditions that make up your identity. And in this variation of cultures and languages, English can be used as a convenient communication tool to share them. 

But if both sides agree, why is the reality different? I haven’t found an answer to this question yet. Perhaps it is once again a matter of miscommunication. The two sides do not encounter each other often and fill in the gaps with unjustified assumptions. Internationals believe they will not be spoken to if they do not know the language, while the Dutch believe it is very easy to integrate no matter what language you speak. 

The question of integration will always exist as long as there are differences. But maybe instead of discussing those linguistic matters without real-life application, it would be much more productive to gather in a circle and make an equal effort to understand each other, turning the debate into a fruitful exchange of experiences.

LIZA KOLOMIIETS

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