The well-known Nederlandse Taalunie (NTU), or the Union for the Dutch Language, has selected a new expert for its Council for Dutch Language and Literature: Professor Rik Vosters, currently chair of VUB’s department of Linguistics and Literary Studies. He joins a group of twelve experts with diverse backgrounds who advise the Committee of Ministers in Flanders and the Netherlands on all issues related to the Dutch language and language policy. He’s also one of its youngest members, and follows in the footsteps of renowned VUB linguists such as Prof. Dr. Em. Roland Willemyns.

It’s an exciting opportunity, and one I accepted readily. The work the NTU does is well known to Dutch speakers in Belgium and the Netherlands, but I think people don’t realise the full extent of its work,” Professor Vosters explains.

It’s true that Dutch is often underestimated in its spread and use. It’s spoken by 24 million people worldwide. It’s an official language in Belgium, the Netherlands, but also in the Dutch Caribbean countries, Sint-Maarten, Aruba and Curaçao, and in Suriname. Dutch is also in the top 40 of most spoken languages in the world — bearing in mind that over 6,000 languages are spoken globally, so not an unimpressive position —, and it’s listed as the 8th most used language in the EU. Vosters adds: “Contrary to the popular perception, Dutch is actually an extremely strong and vital language — a large small language, one could say.

Does this make the Nederlandse Taalunie something akin to that maybe more well-known — some would say ‘infamous’ — Académie Française? “There is a very clear distinction between the work of the Taalunie and that of many other bodies that try to ‘regulate’ aspects of the language, such as the French Academy. For starters, the NTU is not really the ’guardian of the Dutch language’, even though it is in charge of the official spelling norm. It was actually only founded in 1980 as an intergovernmental organisation between the Dutch and Flemish governments to combine knowledge, capabilities, and manpower to support Dutch as a shared language. Spelling is one aspect of that, albeit symbolically an important one. It’s a success story that Dutch has a unified and officialised spelling, which from a purely linguistic aspect might not seem that important, but from a societal aspect it was big and created a sense of unity; of one language.” 

But the NTU’s work goes far beyond spelling and issuing its famous ‘Little Green Book’, the spelling reference guide used by students, teachers and anyone unsure of how to spell a Dutch word. Its remit is broadly focussed on five areas: ensuring the Dutch language is described (e.g. grammar, vocabulary) and used as efficiently and effectively (e.g. digitally) as possible and made available to all; It advises governmental bodies and other groups on Dutch language issues; It promotes the use of Dutch in different sectors; It supports Dutch-language education in Dutch-speaking countries but also non-Dutch-speaking ones; and it actively promotes the Dutch language and culture internationally.

That international appeal and reach of Dutch is largely unknow to most of its native speakers in Belgium and the Netherlands. There is a general perception that Dutch is a ‘small language’, often accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders and the statement ‘who wants to learn Dutch anyway’. However, there are some 14,000 students of Dutch outside the six countries where it is an official language. It is taught in over 130 institutions in some 40 countries. That’s quite impressive. And they all receive support from the Taalunie in some shape or form, either through financial support in setting up chairs of Dutch language and literature at universities, or supporting teachers of Dutch across the world, providing access digitally to language technologies, or setting up translation dictionaries of Dutch. From Berkeley (USA) to Shanghai (P.R. China), from Oslo (Norway) to Capetown (South Africa)… Dutch departments are found all across the globe, often with support from the NTU.

What does this appointment to the Taalunie mean personally to Professor Vosters ? “From a personal perspective, I expect that joining the NTU will help me to continue pursuing a cause close to my heart: promoting the study of Dutch in higher education. The last 10-15 years have seen an astonishing drop in student numbers for all language and literary studies departments across Flanders and the Netherlands, including Dutch. This is a worrying trend, for our departments, but also for society at large. And at the VUB we are faring better than at some other universities. The VU Amsterdam actually closed its BA programme in Dutch, and decisions like that have far-reaching consequences. The lack of graduates in languages is already visible on the job market: vacancies for language teachers are piling up, and we regularly get calls from desperate principals trying to get a hold of a good French teacher, for instance. But also beyond education, language professionals and literary experts with good communication skills and a critical mindset are in high demand. In fact, employment rates for our graduates in Linguistics & Literary Studies and in Applied Linguistics are at an all-time high."

As an active member of the Flanders Language Platform, Professor Vosters is keen to carry on this work at the NTU to promote the value of Dutch and other languages to the business world, the job market, to society as a whole. “Dutch isn’t per se ‘under threat’ from English; it’s threatened as a study topic, alongside other languages, because people perceive the study of languages as being without economic value. Nothing is further from the truth: languages are invaluable to the economy, to prosperity, and the job market is hungry for those with a language degree. Employer organisations such as VOKA are our biggest allies in this campaign, as they are well aware of the economic value of solid language skills. And that includes Dutch, and not just in Belgium or the Netherlands, but across the world. Dutch is not a minority language. It’s a ‘small global language’ that deserves to have its place in the curricula of universities and colleges across the world, and in the Low Countries as well.”