Taalunie: 40 years of supporting the Dutch language around the world


The ground-breaking Taalunie is celebrating its 40th anniversary, with much to be proud of as its new director sets goals for the future

‘Language is a bearer of culture’

Some 413,000 people around the world are learning Dutch, and most of them have been helped or influenced in one way or another by the work of the Taalunie. The Dutch-Flemish organisation is celebrating its 40th birthday this week.

That makes the Taalunie older than even the Flemish government. Back in 1980 when it was launched, the agreement was signed between the Netherlands and Belgium because there was no authoritative Flemish region.

Today the Taalunie, or Dutch Language Union, is still the only cross-border policymaking organisation in Belgium. “Nothing else between the Netherlands and Flanders brings together people who are into policy-building,” says Kris Van de Poel (pictured), the organisation’s director. “The original idea was that the two countries needed an organisation to take care of the language as a whole, with the understanding that language is an interpretation of culture.”

Through literature, you show pieces of who you are as a culture

- Taalunie director Kris Van de Poel

That’s still the idea today. Taalunie, based in the Hague and with an office in Brussels, works to support the learning and accessibility of Dutch at home, throughout Europe and even further afield. Aside from setting policy when it comes to a unified standard language, it supports educators at all levels, funds translations of Dutch-language literature and acts as an advisor to various levels of government.

It’s a broad remit and can mean something as simple as ensuring that teachers in Suriname have the right materials and as complex as setting language education policies in schools in Flanders and the Netherlands.

To keep priorities straight, the Taalunie works according to a few guiding principles, and accessibility is one of the most crucial. “Anyone who wants to learn the language must have access to it,” says Van de Poel, matter of factly. “In order to make that happen, we have to make sure that the necessary tools are available. We want people to feel like they are part of their community, part of society, so that they can function optimally within the language.”

That applies mostly to people who come to live in Dutch-speaking regions, but accessibility also means that people in other countries interesting in learning Dutch for whatever reason should be able to find the resources they need to do so. This isn’t just crucial in terms of introducing the language outside of the borders but in sharing culture and ideologies.

“Language is a bearer of culture, and culture is a bearer of language as well,” says Van de Poel. “Language isn’t something that is confined to a household, it’s something you can use in international collaboration. A simple example is that through literature, you show pieces of who you are as a culture. Literature in Dutch is not accessible outside of the Netherlands, Flanders and Suriname. So we foster translation of literature and a master’s programme in literary translation. Through focusing on the teaching of literature and language, we try to expand the range of what Dutch culture can do.”

To achieve these goals, Taalunie works with many partners in both the Netherlands and Flanders. It organises conferences, for instance, with universities, hands out a playwrighting prize with Flanders Literature and organises the Week of Dutch with deBuren culture house in Brussels.

I know how it feels to want to work in a foreign language, and how it affects you as an individual

- Kris Van de Poel

Every summer, Taalunie brings more than 100 international students to Ghent University for a summer immersion course in Dutch and Flemish culture. Students came from as far away as Argentina and China.

“These are ambassadors of our country, of our culture,” says Van de Poel. “They can really build the bridge between what people think and feel abroad and what people think and feel here. With internationalisation through the language, you actually open up a bit of your own culture, a bit of your own community and a bit of your own policies and politics.”

Increasing that level of international co-operation is one of Van de Poel’s goals for the coming years. A linguist by training, she was a professor at Antwerp University and has worked abroad herself – six years in Denmark and six in Scotland.

“I know how it feels to want to work in a foreign language, and how it affects you as an individual. So I want to foster that internationalisation and make it happen abroad.”

Her other area of focus at Taalunie is reading. “Reading is a skill that is kind of overlooked because it’s considered to be something that is just learned naturally. But it isn’t. Reading and understanding what you read and enjoying what you read, and having the motivation to continue to read, is a very intricate competency. This competency needs research and campaigns, but it needs, first and foremost, good education.”

Van de Poel has been at the head of Taalunie for just six months. “I started on the first of March, and I locked the doors on the 16th of March. So I’ve had an interesting time with all my collaborators. I’ve gotten to know them through the screen.”

When the time is right, however, she plans to travel “and visit people who are working in the field. But corona has put a bit of a stopper on that one”.

Photo top ©Frank Bahnmuller, other photos courtesy Taalunie