Remember a better future

Els Ruijsendaal

The European Union is often accused of working too slowly, of not having a clear political line, but is at the same time looking for expansion, which does not necessarily strengthen the federation internally. But let us look at what is going well and what could be done otherwise, bearing in mind that, in fact, we can no longer do without the EU.

The idea of progress is an unwavering part of our actions and, in our view, is close to the concept of change, too close. Optimism about new developments and changes sometimes affects the sense of reality. Take for example the introduction of market forces, in the last decades of the previous century. Arm in arm with technology, a western version of “the great leap forward” brought the time-honored merchant straight back to the throne, albeit in a very different time and that is why he is now called business.

Undeniably, prosperity has increased, but in some cases to a very high level. In this way a rich and developed upper layer has been created, rich people who have the opportunity to develop themselves and whose possibilities in life transcend those of others. Nobody can claim that this is an entirely new kind of development; history is full of it.

Of course, our prosperity also attracts people from other countries, who are struggling due to food scarcity, war, hopelessness, like our grandparents and parents once left for Australia, America, to build a new life there. The immigrants have to start from scratch, which means that they initially often join with the less privileged citizens. They feel that extra pressure is put on them as a result.

In this way, prosperity clashes with well-being and, partly as a result of this, cohesion in society comes under pressure. We are in a new era, one that has old characteristics, but at the same time has a changed culture.

In Germany, there was an Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft foundation (remembrance, accountability and future). It is not possible to say more concisely how the country tried to deal with its debts from the war past, also in its own country. The federal government did this with the help of seven partner organizations all over the world. As Europeans, we may not overlook this. As far as we are concerned, memories are often quickly blurred, responsibility is often only sought when things go wrong, and the future, well, can be freely entered with new plans.

Now that EU Commission President Juncker is looking for new ways for better cooperation between the Member States – which must consider what the countries themselves can and should do, and what power they grant to the EU – the three words of the aforementioned foundation come up again. It covers all known fields, but also new ones, but little is known about language and culture, which of course are part of the principle of subsidiarity. It is now up to the Member States themselves to deal with this.

But then we have bad luck in the Netherlands, because the Dutch language is not as important to us as one would think. People in Europe, for example, will not believe that the official language of the Netherlands, which is important for everything concerning the country, from the law, through education to communication in all areas of society, and communication with other EU countries, does not have to be part of the constitution! The other EU countries do (the British constitution is a separate case). In short, the reason given by the Dutch government is that it is not necessary. However, Europe needs to know which official language it is dealing with, and this is normally done by indicating the official language in the constitution.

It is about money, it seems: now, to give an example, the Dutch government and the universities can save or earn a lot of money by opening the door wide for English lectures for those who find it attractive to study in the Netherlands. And that is a success. However, for everyone, including the Dutch speakers, a language of instruction other than one’s own, is less good for the acquisition of knowledge: one can understand the language well, but the subject matter offered therein is in many cases not good enough and, above all, not learned subtly enough.

Recent research has already proven this sufficiently. The issue is therefore anything but new in Europe. It is not for nothing that Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670) already advocated for the use of the mother tongue as the instruction language instead of Latin. The children learned the language of instruction very well and the material on average less. Comenius’ warning has been forgotten, but since then the EU countries have reached scientific highs, which have been devised and formulated in their own languages.

This Erinnerung may well lead to Verantwortung, in order to examine carefully whether English as a language of instruction, is such a good idea. And what exactly is the motive behind it? It must be clear that scaling up our cultures requires sacrifices. But even now, a language community such as the Dutch, one of 24 million people, spread over three countries, with a high level of education, still seems viable enough to keep pace with all developments, in which Afrikaans (approximately 7 million Afrikaans speakers) should play a much greater role than is currently the case. The Low Countries should also welcome Afrikaans more in the Language Union, which causes few problems in a receptive sense. This is especially true when the technique and the technology in translating and converting from spoken to written language (and vice versa, think of the information in trains) make life a lot easier for us.

The EU must seriously consider whether it might be more important to give full support to the central, official languages of the European countries, instead of spreading that support to regional languages for example. The national languages deserve all support to enable states to function properly, to connect its citizens and to bring education in line with life, as intended by Comenius. Our culture will benefit from this, in all its differences and parts.

Lees dit artikel in het Nederlands, klik hier (pdf).

Els Ruijsendaal
Professor at Benelux-Universitair Centrum for science, culture and humanity