[Column] Having a different mother tongue

Having a different mother tongue is a challenge. Columnist Claudia Werker explains how you can support colleagues who have different mother tongues.

Claudia Werker: “Abuse of power towards women is an important factor in gender equality and it remains a pressing problem.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Language is a challenge if you live or work somewhere new. Up to now in our informal series about language we talked about how you feel if you need to speak a different language than your mother tongue and the predominant one in the country (Delta columnist Bob van Vliet) or reside in a different language region temporarily (Delta columnist Monique van der Veen). But what is it like the other way around? What happens to your language if you move somewhere new? I am qualified to talk about this as I have swung between German, English, Dutch and Flemish for the past 20 years.

Let me start with my mother tongue, which is German. I give about one professional presentation in German every year. Over the years I have started to feel less and less competent in this language – and that while I did my whole degree programme including the PhD research in German and speak German every day. It is crazy that I am no longer able to express myself professionally in German easily anymore. But I also did not think it would be right to simply give the presentation in English. So now what I do is print out my English language presentation and write the German version of each professional term next to the English one. And I sometimes have to look it up too.

In Flanders, where I live, I quickly felt linguistically competent. After a two week crash course at a fancy language institute, I could buy bread at the bakery, chat with the neighbours and meet up with my new friends. But it was not that easy professionally. At TU Eindhoven, where I was working at the time, the vast majority of my colleagues kept speaking English to me. When I started working at TU Delft, my Dutch was already a lot better so I spoke much more Dutch with my colleagues. And luckily they spoke Dutch to me. Nevertheless, in my professional context I did not feel comfortable with Dutch for a long time. Luckily I had a colleague (who is now our section leader) who, with great love for Dutch and a thorough knowledge of German, shared word games and stories in Dutch with me. As time went by, I started feeling more competent in Dutch, even in my professional context.

‘Giving compliments needs some fingerspitzengefühl’

How can you help people with a different mother tongue? What are the dos and don’ts? As someone with a different language background, I find it rude if I address someone in Dutch and they immediately switch to English. So speak Dutch with colleagues who want to learn Dutch. I would also appreciate it if colleagues would correct my mistakes, even though I understand very well that they may not feel comfortable doing so. Please do so otherwise I will never learn.

One way to do this is to repeat the sentence with the mistake correctly. You do not have to first apologise for correcting me. This only takes time and apologies are not needed as you are helping me. I will then repeat the correct sentence so that I remember it. I will also not apologise for making a mistake as I am doing my best to learn the language. If time is short or there are other people around, it is better not to explain why it was wrong. If desired, do this another time or not at all.

Everyone who speaks in a foreign language loves compliments. However, this needs some fingerspitzengefühl – you need to know the person you are talking to sufficiently. A few years ago the rector of a German university complimented me on my excellent command of the German language. He saw my name card with TU Delft on it and we had exchanged a few sentences. I found it amusing but he felt terrible.

That columnists have a connection with language is hardly surprising. That I was intrigued by the columns of my co-columnists and wanted to add something is also not surprising. In fact, I actually wanted to write about the digital transition this time, but that will come up next time. I promise. Unless of course my co-columnists write more intriguing pieces about language. In that case only the editorial board will be able to stop me.

Claudia Werker is Associate Professor Economics of Technology and Innovation at the Faculty of TPM. She has worked at TU Delft since 2007. She is also the Vice Chair of TU Delft’s Works Council.

Claudia Werker / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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