Customizing differences

“Why should a university have a language policy?” the university president asked. He wanted a one-sentence answer. I guess I gave an answer of sorts. I had been invited this week to give a talk in Tilburg University on my own university’s implementation of its language policy. The occasion was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Tilburg University Language Centre – indeed forty years is quite a feat worthy of celebration.

Tilburg University Language Centre 40th anniversary

Tilburg University Language Centre 40th anniversary

A university doesn’t necessarily need a language policy if it has other means for regulating language quality and which language or languages can be used in which circumstances. A university may subsume all language communication issues under other policies, such as internationalization, human resources, examination regulations, and so on. Yet, it can be useful to combine all the language aspects in a coherent programme; it makes it easier for everyone to know what is required, and where they stand.

Any university worthy of the name is involved heavily in teaching and research with people and institutions from anywhere else in the world – potentially at least. Many universities have found that if they wish to attract talented people, they have to engage with them in a common language: many have adopted English for at least some of activities. That poses questions about what happens to other languages, not least the language of the host country (a critical question if the country has only recently made its own language the language of the academy). One and the same faculty may offer programmes through different languages: some form of regulation may be desirable. These are some of the issues a language policy can address.

Sand-timer

Sand-timer

I liked the metaphor a colleague gave me (thanks, Anneke!): language is the sand-timer, it makes everything else flow smoothly. But ill-used, it can be the grain of sand that causes the machine to stop. It was pleasing to hear the metaphor repeated by other participants.

It would have been nice to be able to talk the implementation of Maastricht’s language policy. However, it is early days: implementation by and large doesn’t start till next year. But I am pleased with one aspect. It is not one-size-fits-all. Quite the opposite in fact. The obscure principle of subsidiarity applies: devolve responsibility to the lowest appropriate level. A university is a heterogeneous body of hundreds of overlapping academic and non-academic communities. To expect them all to adhere to identical practice is whistling in the wind. Language policy implementation needs to be customized.

Aram Khachaturian

Aram Khachaturian

Differences of a different kind appeared in a wonderful performance this week of Aram Khachaturian’s Trio for clarinet, violin and piano in g minor. An ear-opening delight of cross-rhythms that depart and come together again, with the instruments seemingly alternating conflict and harmony. The end result is stunning.

Maybe our language policy will have equally stunning results.

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