Somen Becker (18 March 1944 – 8 May 2015)

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Somen died two weeks ago (on 8 May 2015), not long after being diagnosed with an unexpected and devastating condition. His health had not been good in recent years, but this illness and his rapid demise came as complete shock. He was only 71.

Somen started his career as a lawyer in South Africa. After a number of years, he was bitten by the travel bug and began a lifetime of teaching English around the world. I don’t know where he lived exactly during his interesting life, but he seemed to have been everywhere. He spent some time in Japan, a country he loved. He also lived in the UK for some time. Apparently, acting was one of the things he pursued there.

Sometime in the late 1980s, he arrived in Amsterdam. By that time, he was an extremely experienced teacher. He joined forces with two Americans (one also being a lawyer) and they started teaching legal English to Dutch lawyers.

I first met Somen in 1999 when I started working as a legal editor at Houthoff Buruma, one of the largest law firms in the Netherlands. Somen was teaching legal English at that firm. Indeed, he was teaching at many Dutch law firms. At that time he was already one of the premier trainers in legal English in the Netherlands, a position he held until he retired in 2013. Our professional relationship and personal friendship started in earnest around 2007 when I realised that training in legal English and legal drafting was something I also wanted to focus on.

Somen had designed and developed a successful and effective legal English programme (called “Practical Legal English”). This programme was based not just on his legal background, but also on his understanding of the mistakes Dutch lawyers were making and why. But apart from that, Somen was just an experienced, knowledgeable and intuitive teacher. He had a certain rapport with the lawyers in his classes. In trying to explain what this rapport was, the best word I can come up with is “wisdom”. Somen was wise, and his students could tell that. I suppose this may have also related to his spirituality.

Galileo said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” I don’t know whether Somen knew this quote, but this sums up his preferred teaching style. He knew that Dutch lawyers were already quite good in English and had a good deal of personal and professional experience with the language. When he taught, he created a sort of dialogue or drama that would lead to what he called “an aha! moment”. To him, teaching was very much a social, interpersonal and respectful process — for him, it was so much more than just imparting information.

William Arthur Ward wrote, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”  I remember after one course had ended two of his students eagerly came right to my office to find out more about how they could improve. Somen had inspired them. This is why Somen was a great teacher.

Somen did not write articles or publish a book, even though he could easily have done so. He did not have a website. He was a behind-the-scenes man. He was part of the unnoticed and unsung battalion of English-speaking professionals who have quietly been assisting the Dutch over the years to achieve the high level of bilingualism they have. His legacy consists of the two thousand or more Dutch lawyers who were able to communicate more effectively and who were inspired to care more about language.

Someone described my relationship with Somen as “intense”. Partly that’s because over the past few years we discussed many aspects of legal English and developed a professional partnership. I am not good with being mentored and with father figures, but I suppose part of me looked up to him in that way. I hope he felt at the end that I was a worthy successor to his professional legacy. He sometimes tried my patience; however, he was willing to be patient with me, too. I’m grateful he chose to work with me and, when I needed it, was supportive and reassuring. I learned a good deal from him. He helped me to see that I have something of value to offer the Dutch legal community.

To be honest — despite it all — I’m not sure I even knew Somen at all. He was not an open book; he shared things with you only occasionally. He loved living in the Netherlands. He travelled often. He had family in the US and in Canada. (I met some of them.) I’ve only met a few of his friends here, but I know he had many. He cared deeply about language, of course. I know he loved jazz. He liked Bach. Like me, he enjoyed Japanese and Chinese food. He was politically aware. He was passionate and introspective. He loved the Ridhwan School and the many friends he had there. He also loved the co-op where he lived, and the many friends he had there.

Somen was a private man, but he was a man of substance, a wise man and a gifted teacher, a man with many talents and interests. I am glad and not at all surprised that he had so many friends when he died. I will miss him.

Greg Korbee (May 2015)


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