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KNAW Early Career Award for Alisa van de Haar: ‘I want to take a more positive approach to migration and multilingualism’

Alisa van de Haar is one of three humanities scholars to win a KNAW Early Career Award this year. The university lecturer of Ancient French Literature is receiving the award for her innovative research on multilingualism and migration. 'It would be nice to use this to set up a project with students.'

Van de Haar had almost missed that she had won an award. When she received a call in late 2023 with the good news, she did not answer the phone. 'I didn't recognise the phone number,' she laughs. 'It was a huge surprise when I heard the second time that I had won. I already thought it was an honour and recognition that I had been nominated by LUCAS, but the fact that the KNAW chose you as well is, of course, completely wonderful.'

Multilingualism as added value

The KNAW Early Career Award is intended for young researchers who stand out for their innovative approach. Van de Haar has received the award for her research on multilingualism in the sixteenth century. ‘When we think about history, we sometimes forget how multilingual our past really was,’ she says. ‘These days, we live in nations with national, standardised languages, but people in the early modern era spoke all kinds of languages and dialects interchangeably. This is the focus of my research, and in recent years I’ve been increasingly making a link between migration and multilingualism.’

In fact, Van de Haar would recommend that we take a more nuanced view of migrants’ language skills. ‘It’s often assumed that language is an obstacle in relation to migration,’ she explains. ‘People say that migrants need to learn the local language as soon as possible, because you can only become integrated and add something to society when you’ve done this. It’s important, of course, but what’s often overlooked is that migrants also bring a language with them, which can be very valuable. For example, in the French Language and Culture programme we have several students with a migrant background whose native language is French. They’re now training to teach French, and thus helping to solve the shortage of teachers in that subject.’

Money and an artwork

Van de Haar will receive 15,000 euros as part of the award, and she would therefore ideally like to spend it on showing the added value of multilingualism, although she hasn’t quite decided how to do this yet. ‘On the one hand, I’d like to involve students more in my research, for example by creating a kind of extended Research Traineeship. On the other hand, it would be great to set up a more outreach-oriented project. I’ve previously been in contact with the Dutch Council for Refugees (VluchtelingenWerk) about starting an alternative Language Buddy project with students, which not only helps migrants to learn Dutch but also introduces students to another language. So I still need to think carefully about exactly what I want to do.’

The award also includes an artwork in the shape of a screw, and Van de Haar is already clear about what she will do with this. ‘I’m going to give it a very nice place in the bookcase at home, where it can’t be mistaken for a real screw; we’ve just moved house, you see, and we’re doing lots of DIY.’

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