Belgium has often been described as one of the most unnecessarily complicated countries of the EU, and one of the main arguments that people bring up to support this idea, apart from Belgium's many political structures, is its complicated relationship with language. Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German, but if you'd have to guess which language you should use, you should probably pick English, as language to Belgians is often a sensitive matter.
Language in Belgium is inherently connected with history, culture economy and politics, which makes it a minefield for uninitiated. Belgium's language issues cannot be understood without a good grip on what has happened from 1830 onwards and even long before the Belgian state was even created. Moreover, now they might even be more complicated than ever before, with divisions along linguistic lines, the thorn in the eye that is Brussels and English proving the proverb of the two dogs and their bone.
To understand Belgium and its language hang-ups, a minimal understanding of Belgian en pre-Belgian history is necessary. Indeed, language is one of the themes that defined many of the struggles of the region that is now Belgium, but was once known as the Southern Netherlands, and grew in importance along with the acquisition of communal identity. Let me explain.
Before Belgium was Belgium, the region now known as Belgium, together with the region we now call the Netherlands, was a much-desired jewel in many international royal families’ treasure chests. Flemish, Dutch and to a lesser degree Walloon cities, like Antwerp, Liège, Bruges, Mechelen and Ghent were rich medieval commercial centres where international traders came together and royals liked to set up court. The Lowlands, as the region was at the times called, went from the hands of France to Austria and then to Spain.
The relative independency which many of the rulers permitted the cities of the Lowlands to have, made them hotbeds for cultural, intellectual, social and economic advancement. This made them also proud, however, and not as easily controlled when there were royals who wanted to apply stricter rule. When the French wanted to levy more taxes from, in particular, some Flemish cities, for instance, this resulted in the 'Battle of the Gulden Spurs', a successful commoner war against the French aristocracy.
Language, even though, only practically, was already a theme at this time in the development of the region, as a legend says that the Flemish identified French spies before the 'Battle of the Gulden Spurs' by making them say 'Schild en vriend' (shield and friend), a phrase which a French speaker would not be able to pronounce without exposing themselves.
When the Flemish cities eventually split from the Dutch cities and a mass exodus of intelligentsia happened from the Southern Lowlands (Flanders) to the Northern Lowlands (the Netherlands) the Flemish speaking part of what would become Belgium diminished in status.
'Belgium' languished many years after this, until, with the industrial revolution another cultural, social and intellectual peak became the region's. While the previous, medieval peak had concentrated itself mainly in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, now the French speaking part, which had grown a lot by then, had its turn. Heavy industry grew in Wallonia in places like Charleroi, while Flanders remained mostly farmer-country. Moreover, Brussels, by then mostly French speaking, while originally a Flemish city, became the second most important cultural city after Paris, excelling in art nouveau. When Belgium in 1830 became a country of its own, after rebelling against the then Dutch sovereignty over the region, French became the most important language in the country.
At the time this seemed like a wise choice, since French at the time was the common lingua franca of the educated and universally understood. Moreover, the Flemish dialect, diverged from the Dutch of the Netherlands and diverging into different variations itself, did not have a standard. To the many Flemish, who still were the majority, however, the imposition of this, to many of them, foreign language, became an important rallying point. Many stories were told of poor farmers who were falsely accused and couldn't defend themselves, because they didn't understand the French of the court that judged them, and soldiers during WWI who were sent to their deaths, because they didn't understand the French commands of their upper-class leaders, went the rounds. Ironically even, romantic novelists, like Hendrik Conscience, striving to create a common culture for the new country, fanned the flames, with books like 'The Lion of Flanders', which referred back to the triumph of the Flemish cities over the French during the Battle of the Gulden Spurs.
Eventually, the indignation became too important to ignore and Dutch was in many ways put on an equal footing with French. Law and order became available in Dutch and in French and many of the Flemish universities started teaching in Dutch. In the sixties, the students of one of the most prominent universities in Flanders, the Catholic University of Leuven, went even so far as to demand the expulsion of all French at all, leading to the creation of a sister university on the border of Wallonia, the French speaking part, called Louvain-la-Neuve (New Leuven).
While many were now content and Flanders again began to grow in importance due to the new possibilities opened up to many of its citizens, even eventually overshadowing Wallonia, where growth had stagnated, some also began to see a new unexpected hurdle at this time. Indeed, to put the language of Flanders on the same level as French, legislators had taken the standard established in the Netherlands as a basis. This meant that Dutch from the Netherlands, with its specific accents and word choices that had diverged from the Flemish Dutch, called Flemish, was seen as the hallmark of an educated Dutch speaker. On the television, programs like 'Tien voor Taal' (Ten for Language) were broadcast to instruct citizens in speaking their own language properly, the Dutch way. To many, this seemed like as much of a barrier to advancement as when French was the only option.
Eventually this settled down though as people began to see the absurdity of the need to speak as a foreigner to be seen as educated and a Flemish standard started to take shape. The result of this evolution is that at the moment, language is not a barrier anymore to anyone of Flemish or Walloon origin who wants to succeed in Belgian society, as many laws have been put in place to guarantee equal treatment and to ascertain linguistic neutrality. Even the little German speaking part of Belgium, added after WWI, has its linguistic rights. Because of the long history of language as a theme connected to social, cultural, political and economic struggles in the past, it is still always under the surface though.
Politics, Economics and Culture
Moreover, the structure of the current Belgian state is not really conductive to a merging of Flemish, French and German interests. Belgium has a federal government, with representatives from the French, Flemish and German community, but at the same time the French community and the Flemish community also have government of their own. These separate governments only address the people of their community and oversee many topics that could bring the citizens of the country together, like education and culture, while the federal government occupies itself with themes that are more outward looking, like international politics and defence. In practice this means, for example, that each community can decide for itself what their high school students have to know, resulting in French being a mandatory course for Flemish students, while Dutch not being a mandatory course for Walloon students, which increases the divide instead of lessening it. Furthermore, on other grounds the Flemish and French community are growing apart as well.
Economically, Belgium has often flipped along linguistic lines, resulting in resentment on both sides. At the time of the country’s creation, French speakers were in power and economically successful, while the Flemish were generally poorer. Then the end of the industrial era happened and the Flemish, focusing on a service and knowledge economy, got the upper hand. Now every year, millions of taxpayers’ money goes from the Flemish speaking part of the country to the economically less successful French speaking part of the country. This of course has its repercussions in politics, as the also politically different Flemish speaking part sees this as an argument to split the country among linguistic lines.
Indeed, not only does economic success divide itself along linguistic lines in Belgium, but also politics does. While Walloons vote more socialist and left, with no major right leaning parties, Flemish people generally vote more right, with Flemish nationalists (who see Flanders as their nation and not Belgium) gaining more and more power.
They find a voice because even culture is split along linguistic lines, with the national broadcast existing in two versions (a French one and a Flemish one), who, while working in the same building, collaborate less with each other than with their respective linguistic sister nations (France and the Netherlands). Flemish students don't often hear, see or speak to Walloons and Walloons don't hear a lot about the Flemish except when the news talks about them. Both groups live in worlds of their own, except when they encounter each other in border towns or Brussels.
Brussels, because of this, is, especially to the Flemish, a bit of a sore issue. When they look at it, they see a town that was once Flemish, but that now is almost completely French speaking, within their own region. If they want to split from Wallonia, Brussels presents a major issue. Moreover, they panic when they notice that Flemish towns between Brussels and the Walloon border are slowly becoming French speaking.
At the moment a growing portion of people in Brussels is also English speaking, however, as a result of EU-diplomats taking up residence and general diversity. This group might eventually even force many of the native French and Flemish speaking people out because of a rise in the cost of living. At the moment they are not as negatively viewed, though, as they are still generally seen as foreigners, without any stake in Belgium’s language struggles.
Tips and Tricks
All this does not make language easy in Belgium. As a tourist, you are relatively safe. Belgians are quite good in English and often happy to talk to someone in that language. Avoid making statements like ‘You all speak French, right?” or “So you know Dutch? Tell me something in Dutch,” though, especially in places like Brussels, where all linguistic groups are present together. However, while English is often the best option, be aware of not coming off too arrogant by assuming that everything and everyone will be ready for English. Even though Belgians don’t mind English, they do not like someone that has no regard for their culture, of which language is a big part, either. As always, be respectful and accommodating. Lastly, also try to approach someone younger rather than older, as younger generations are better at speaking English than older ones, who haven’t grown up with the predominance of English as their children have.
If you do want to practice your Dutch, French are German, Belgians would normally be happy to help you, providing you try to speak the right language to the right person. So, be aware of where in Belgium you are and listen to the tones of the people around you, before addressing anyone. Flemish is spoken in the northern part of Belgium and French in the southern part. German is spoken in the little south-eastern part bordering, of course, Germany. Also, Flemish Dutch is not exactly the same as Dutch Dutch, just like how Walloon French is not exactly the same as French French. So, if you have a basic knowledge of Dutch Dutch, for instance, Flemish might sound strange and you might hear some words that seem strange. Indeed, ironically, while Belgium’s French and Flemish communities are so divided on the basis of language, these two languages have not failed to influence each other in Belgium, proving that a common Belgian culture on some level does exist and that there is a platform after all to speak of Belgium as one big community.
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© 2019 Douglas Redant
Douglas Redant (author) from Europe on November 14, 2019:
Indeed! Thank you very much for your kind words.
William Bridgers on October 14, 2019:
Excellent summary and review from a "big-picture" perspective. Since my days in college when I was first required to study the matter of "Belgium" as it related to the Spanish (college major) occupations, I have found that rule number one about Belgium is a) don't sweat the details and b) it's all about the details. One has to include all the players on the stage, but one must also be able to see the the goings-on in back of the main characters. You did that well without getting bogged down by the shear volume of details that mattered but only required being mentioned. Too many times historians get caught up in the eccentricities and lose the reader's interest in what is most important. Bravo, and felicidades!