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Dutch people should stop ‘politely’ switching to English

Endangered languages can survive if they are taught properly to new speakers, such as people with a migrant background. This is what Professor by Special Appointment Felix Ameka will say in his inaugural lecture on 30 September. Dutch people can do their bit by being less ‘polite’ to people whose mother tongue is not Dutch.

No other animal on earth uses so many variations of form and meaning in its communication as humans. But if this makes humans unique as a species, why is the loss of countless languages not seen as one of the biggest problems of our times? 

The loss of secret languages and dialects

As languages are lost, much more is too. ‘Registers, codes and dialects die out along with them, which means our general knowledge decreases,’ Ameka explains. ‘I speak Anfoegbe, a variant of Ewedomegbe Inland Ewe, a dialect of Ewegbe that is spoken in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. Growing up, we were told about a secret language that was part of Anfoegbe. It was used in situations where the Anfoe didn’t want outsiders to understand them. By the time I was growing up, only a few elders remembered some of the expressions. When those elders died, that knowledge went with them. And unfortunately, I didn’t yet have the linguistics knowledge to record this language!’ 

Dutch language also losing ground

It’s not only smaller languages spoken by indigenous peoples that are under threat. Dutch, with its 24 million speakers one of the 40 most spoken languages in the world, is also an endangered language. Perhaps not in the short term, but it is definitely losing ground. As a cosmopolitan country, we are hooked on English. The Dutch Language Union foresees Dutch eventually becoming a language that is only spoken at home with the family, having lost its place in the world of work, money, science and technology. 

Ameka wants to consider another area where Dutch is losing ground: the arena in which native speakers communicate with people from migrant backgrounds, like himself. ‘One of the ways endangered languages can stay alive is by attracting new speakers and encouraging more people to learn and use them. For migrants in the Netherlands, the formal systems are commendable: there are integration courses and all kinds of learning opportunities. The tricky thing is that if you then want to practise in an informal setting, Dutch speakers often immediately switch to English.’ 

Dutch speakers think they are being inclusive

As soon as Dutch speakers encounter someone who appears to be a migrant, they assume it is better not to use Dutch. At such times, English is seen as a common language. Ameka will argue in his inaugural lecture that Dutch speakers are quick to switch because they want to be inclusive in their communication. It’s seen as polite to use English. ‘Unfortunately, it is not perceived as polite by the target groups, who often see switching to English as a strategy to exclude them from participating in the Dutch community.’

This is linked to ideas about a standard form of Dutch. People assume that anything that deviates from this, even if it is a different variant of Dutch, will lead to misunderstandings. Ameka has noticed, for example, that people who do not speak standard Dutch but with a Twents regional accent instead, for example, are subtitled on television. ‘Most shocking is when the subtitled person comes from Suriname, a country where standard Dutch is spoken and which is a member of the Dutch Language Union. We know from experience that when people are excluded because of their language, they end up not wanting to use that language. This is how we contribute to language loss. Everyone should make a little extra effort to accept language varieties and accents.’

Text: Imme Visser

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