Belgium Language: Understanding the Multilingual Belgian Community
Belgium is located strategically, bounded by the Netherlands, Germany, and France that its linguistic diversity and freedom is guaranteed by law. The country has four linguistic areas: the French-speaking, the Dutch-speaking, the bilingual area within Brussels Capital and the German-speaking area. Interestingly, the original Brabantian dialect adopted by Greater Brussels area has been heavily influenced by French. Historically, French was generally the only language used by authorities. The Dutch version of the Belgian Constitution only gained equal footing with its French counterpart in 1967, and the German version only since 1991.
Belgium map. Google
Regional languages spoken in Belgium
Belgium is divided into two distinct regions – Flanders to the north, where the capital Brussels is located, and Wallonia in the south. In a twist of language-identity mishmash, the Flemish, which relates to the Flanders of the north, speak Dutch or at least close to it, but do not consider themselves as such. On the other side of Belgium, the Walloons speak French, but do not identify themselves as French.
About six in ten residents of Belgium belong to the Flemish community, 40% to the French community and less than 1% — roughly to the German-speaking community, although the figure relating to the official Belgian languages include unknown numbers of immigrants speaking a foreign tongue as primary language.
With at least two recognized languages prevalent among Belgian people, they are reflected in every day life. For example, visitors can easily notice the bilingual language used in street name signs, with French and Dutch versions displayed next to each other.
Brussels has traditionally been a French-speaking city. But as the seat of the EU headquarters and home to a large population of foreign officials and diplomats, it has become more accommodating to a multilingual community. All public services and information are in both French and Dutch.
Other dialects and languages spoken in Belgium
On a more granular level, certain parts of the country have their own regional dialects. As you travel around Belgium, you would be introduced to variations such as Champenois (spoken in small parts of Wallonia), Picard (western Wallonia), Walloon (southern Belgium), Lorrain (Gaume), Low Dietsch (Liege), Luxembourgish (Luxembourg), Yiddish (Jewish communities in Antwerp). The arrival of immigrants has also brought in Arabic, Berber, English, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and Turkish.
On a national level, politicians can choose which of the three official languages they wish to use. In Belgian parliament, as with many assemblies such as the multi-lingual EU community, simultaneous interpretation is available to those who need them.
In the academics front, Dutch language is used in the Flemish community, French in the French (Wallonia and Brussels), and German in the German-speaking communities. Instruction using other languages is banned in schools funded by the government, except for foreign language subjects, and in higher education where English is increasingly used as medium of instruction.
Official communication with the government (e.g. tax papers, passport requests, permits, etc.) must be in the official language of the region or community.
Language as sign of political division
The use of these language not only symbolize rich cultural upbringing of Belgian society, it’s also sort of a demarcation and segregation between its major regions Flanders and Wallonia.
When talking to locals in the north, it is common for them to be identified as “from Flanders” instead of the more direct “from Belgium.” Flanders has its own parliament form of government with a number of political parties campaigning for Flemish independence.
Given this scenario, it is a good idea to be sensitive to topics relating to the cultural and linguistic differences. As travelers, it’s good to start a conversation in English, a language fluently spoken by most Belgians.