English, language of international (mis-)communication?

Delta nr 14, April 2005

Jacques Berenbak, TU professor of structural design, won this year's 'Worst Teacher Award', presented to the TU staff member with the worst English language skills. The award ceremony was part of a discussion program about English-language education at TU Delft.

Professor Jacques Berenbak's winning 'worst' phrase, "Don't let the cheese eat off your bread", as well as the two runners-up, "I tried to lead you around the garden" and "I have an equation picked from the sky", were all direct translations of Dutch expressions. Winning the 'Worst Teacher Award' however didn't embarrass Berenbak, who was present to receive the award.

"I'm glad I was here to advertise my classes, sponsors and the company I work for," Berenbak said in his acceptance speech. "I've used my award-winning phrase more than once and will probably use it again, as all my students, both Dutch and international, understand what it means."

During Berenbak's high-rise building workshop at the Faculty of Architecture, students from different countries work together in five-person groups. Apart from an individual grade, they also received a grade for team effort. Berenbak: "Some students did way too much for the team and therefore received a good team mark, but a bad individual mark. They came to me complaining and I said to them: 'You gave them the chance to eat the cheese off your bread'. That's where the phrase comes from."

The 'Worst Teacher Award' is an initiative of Vssd, the Delft Student Union, and aims to stimulate discussion about English language usage at TU Delft. The award ceremony was preceded by a lively discussion about English language education. The TU's Vice-President for Education, Paul Rullmann, opened the discussion by stating why English-language MSc programs are important for TU Delft.

"We want to be an international university," Rullmann said, "and to remain a top international institute, we must offer English-language MSc programs." Rullmann added that offering programs in English also gives students the possibility of working for international companies after they graduate. Rullmann: "I think in a few years time we'll also offer full English-language programs, where the Bachelor phase is in English too."

Rein Willems, chairman of Shell Netherlands, agreed that English is mandatory if the TU wants to retain its international standing: "The reality is that all major companies have English as their official language. The same goes for top institutes of higher education. I think even in the Bachelor's program some classes should be in English. Predominantly it should still be Dutch, but students could then use their Bachelor period to improve their English."

The 40 or so students and staff members who attended the discussion debated a variety of topics, including study load ("If you also must study and translate everything into English, that increases your work load!"), quality of education ("Changing to English will eventually increase the quality of education."), English courses ("We must learn scientific English instead of just grammar and basic vocabulary") and the laziness of Dutch students (a Dutch student said: "We don't learn English because we're reluctant to; there are too many Dutch students we can talk to in Dutch").

Opinions varied and the discussion showed that when it comes to the use of English in academic programs, there isn't a simple solution. As much as Willems' statement - "Having MSc programs in English is a non-issue, it's a must" - is true, the practical side of things definitely requires a lot of serious thought by everyone in


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