‘Language letter’ Built Environment backfires

Colleagues and students of the Department of Built Environment last week received a letter seeming to suggest that the use of the Dutch language is no longer permitted. This is because it has been agreed that English is the working language. Yesterday the letter appeared in full on the website of Geenstijl, where it received plenty of criticism. Similarly, within the department it has become an important topic of conversation. Dean Theo Salet says the letter was never intended to sow discord, “but, on the contrary, to bring about greater cohesion and to do so by way of a common language.”

photo Angeline Swinkels

Dean Theo Salet says that when he woke this morning he wondered aloud why as a means of conveying a positive message - “how can we increase yet further the cohesion within the department” - he chose to send a letter. “Normally, good contact is achieved in our department by way of the quarterly meetings online, which are well attended. In addition, we use a newsletter to communicate with our colleagues and students.”

That the letter, published in full yesterday by Geenstijl, has now caused so much commotion was, he says, never his intention. “Nor does it contain - and its contents were intended for internal use - a rejection of Dutch as a language, rather we intended to use the letter to communicate that the use of a common language, English, will further increase our cohesion. And at a time when the make-up of our population - students and colleagues - is becoming increasingly international, this is necessary,” says Salet.


To the question whether the tone of the letter might be perceived as imperious, he says that this, in any event, was never the intention. “We know that our colleagues and students are incredibly busy and so we decided, in a letter, to set down a number of matters, clearly grouped: this is how we wish to do things within our department. Thereby letting students and colleagues know where we want to get to. But this approach seems not to have worked; quite the contrary, we have done more to drive people apart than to bring them together.”

It would appear in the letter that Salet is describing the use of Dutch within his department as ‘insidious’ and ‘destructive’. “That is not the intended meaning, we never intended to use the letter to be provocative. All in all, I'm astounded by the effect it is having; this effect is certainly not what we intended.” Salet is now busy drafting a response to the discussion prompted by the letter.


In the preamble to the letter it is stated that the letter has been written because complaints have been made about the use of English and the internationalization of the curriculum.

The problem is presented as having three sides. Firstly, it concerns the ‘habits’ that have developed as a way of coping with the use of English in the department's education, research and administration. For example, at the start of a lecture or meeting the question the reader is told to stop asking whether those present understand Dutch. The default should always be to commence in English and to stick to this. In addition, there is the issue of the English proficiency of the department's staff. Those whose English is below par should take a course to improve their skills. Salet is of the opinion that the university should support members of staff in this endeavor and that this is not something that staff should have to do in their own time. “It should be possible to make time for this,” says Salet.

The international orientation of the educational and research program is the third focus. “If as a department we really want to be able to play a role on the international stage, then we must look at this,” says Salet. “I know that the construction sector here often focuses on the Dutch culture and way of working, but opportunities for making that focus more international do exist. We have a growing number of lecturers in the department who bring a foreign background and can play a role in achieving this.”

Amazement and frustration

Dennis Andreoli, master's student of Urban Systems and Real Estate, today sent the dean a letter (in Dutch) in response to the letter he himself received last week. Cursor also received Andreoli's letter, and Salet says he has read it. Andreoli reports having read the dean's missive with ‘mixed feelings of amazement, frustration and disbelief’. He continues: ‘In this letter, in a nutshell, you call for the banning of the Dutch language, way of working and culture from [the department's] education and organization, and the social surroundings they have given rise to. In my opinion, an extraordinarily unreasonable and ill-considered call.’

According to the master's student, prohibiting Dutch would hinder the social and personal development of employees and students. It would also be detrimental to education and to students' employment prospects. ‘By stripping from every form of education all Dutch examples and working methods whose ‘international or generic dimension or relevance' is unclear, you drive an unnecessary wedge between the student and the Dutch employment market,’ writes Andreoli. In addition, he says, ‘the vast majority of the study associations and other student organizations affiliated to the department, have, since the switch to English-taught education in 2015, been doing their utmost to adapt the organizational structure to the switch, and with success’.

Salet says he will get in touch with Andreoli, “because at the end of his letter I see that he has nonetheless understood the message we wanted to convey. He also says he would like to discuss this matter. I'd also like that.”

Nienke Luijten, master's student of Building Physics and Services and chair of the Departmental Board, tells Cursor that the board will discuss this issue further when it next convenes. “So at the moment I can't make any statements about the opinion of the council,” says Luitjen. At study association CHEOPS, the matter will be discussed today by the board, and president Leoni Booij says that a response to the letter will follow tomorrow.

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