Multilingualism in the workplace

Multilingualism in the workplace

25 years ago, the birth act of the European Union was signed in Maastricht. A historic moment, which brought the capital of the Dutch province of Limburg international fame. Yet, Maastricht and Limburg could profit much more from ‘Europe’ than happens today. Language still forms an obstacle though. A new project from research institute ITEM further explores this issue.

When walking through the shopping streets of Maastricht, you can hear a great variety of languages. The proximity of the Belgian border makes the city attractive for Flemish and Walloon shoppers. And of course there is Maastricht University, where students from all over the world meet.

Yet, for many inhabitants of Maastricht and the South Limburg region, it is no obvious choice still to study an entire degree programme in another country. Also when it comes to job-seeking, few people cross the Dutch border. It turns out that even for entrepreneurs, the border can still be a real obstacle sometimes.

Dutch appendix vs most European province

When you look at a map of Limburg, you can see this is problematic, as the province is locked in between Belgium and Germany. It is no coincidence that Limburg is sometimes jokingly called ‘the appendix of the Netherlands’. Some proud Limburgers rather call it ‘the most European province of the Netherlands’. But when one looks at how important the national borders still are in this area, one can’t help but wonder whether this observation is true.

More jobs and a higher salary

Nevertheless, Maastricht and Limburg, as typical border areas, may have much to gain from ‘more Europe’. A publication from the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) suggests that it would even be good for these areas if the borders were erased completely. In that case, the unemployment rates would drop while the average salary would rise, according to the Bureau.

Policy makers are quite sensitive to such findings. Therefore, representatives from various layers of government have started an action committee, which aims at tackling the disadvantaged position of border regions in the Netherlands. Last week, the team presented a report to the Dutch government, in which they outline their plans.

Persistent obstacles

When reading this report, one realises that borders do not just disappear though. Moreover, borders come in all shapes and sizes. They are not just political and geographic borders. There are also linguistic and mental borders, as well as borders between different education and taxation systems. It turns out that overcoming one such border is often not sufficient. There are enough reasons for potential students, employees and entrepreneurs to exclude the possibility of crossing a border a priori.

Various initiatives, including the so-called ‘Grensinfopunten’ (border information points), are supposed to make this crossing easier now. Also, the University of Maastricht is actively involved in the ‘de-bordering’ of Limburg: the euroregional research institute ITEM produces much research on opportunities and obstacles for commuters.

New ITEM project: multilingualism in the border region

By now, ITEM has become known as a centre for legal expertise on commuting, including questions on the recognition of degree certificates and the question which laws from which country should be applied in which situation. At the same, ITEM staff realise that there is much more than just legal borders and more borders have to be overcome for people to actually become commuters.

For this reason, ITEM also invests in research from other academic disciplines besides its important legal pillar. The most recent example of this is a four-year research project on multilingualism in the Dutch-German border area, commenced by sociolinguist Daan Hovens on 1 January.

Actual language use in the workplace

Daan’s research focuses on mixed Dutch-German workplaces in the Dutch province of Limburg and the neighbouring German federal state North Rhine-Westphalia. He does not only look at the language demands that new employees are facing, but also at which languages are actually being used in the workplace. One may think of communication in Dutch, German, English, a Limburgish dialect, a minority language, or a combination of various languages.

Daan’s research aims to establish the extent to which language forms an obstacle in Dutch-German workplaces and the best way to prepare employees for daily practice in such places. Daan mainly focuses on employees with either a vocational degree or with no degree at all, and he is much interested in industrial and logistics companies. The reason for this is that most commuters work in these fields, while little research has been done so far in these sectors. This research seems particularly useful with the position of the German language under pressure in the Netherlands for several years now.

If you have questions or tips for Daan, please write to