Language Matters April 2011: The Linguistic Conflict in Belgium

Dear Language Friend,

Planning a trip to Belgium? If so, be prepared for a complex linguistic situation. It is probably safest to speak English, which is neutral and likely to be understood all across the country, but maybe you are ambitious and want to speak the local language? Please read on…

Contributed by Doris Anne Heidemann and Cecilia Rose. Thanks for reading!

Linguistic Regions of Belgium

Belgium is divided into three regions: Wallonia in the South, Flanders in the North, and the Brussels-Capital Region. In Flanders, Dutch (often locally referred to as Flemish) is the predominant language and Dutch-speakers comprise 59% of the Belgian population. In Wallonia, French is the predominant language and French-speakers comprise 40% of the Belgian population. There is also a German-speaking minority, mainly located along the Eastern border of Belgium and Germany.  A small number of elderly people still speak local dialects like Picard and Walloon, however they will likely become extinct sometime in the future.

The Conflict between Flanders and Wallonia

Unfortunately there is an acrimonious linguistic conflict going on between the Dutch-speakers and French-speakers, which alongside with political conflict between the regions may split the country.  Each side is struggling to uphold its respective culture and language.  Caught in the middle is the Brussels-Capital Region, which is officially bilingual.  Because of this status, both languages have to be represented by the authorities in street signage and for official matters.  Interestingly, this does not apply to the education sector and schools are either Dutch or French, though in higher academia, English is quickly becoming the lingua franca.

A Country Split in Two… or is it Three?

There is an urgent debate regarding the future of Belgium.  Because of the linguistic and political differences between the North and South, many are calling for a split.  That leaves the Brussels-Capital Region on its own, with some suggesting that it become an independent district, much like Washington, DC.  All of this controversy has led to derision in the last few years, particularly in one instance, when during the Belgian general election in 2007, Yves Leterne, a Flemish politician and prime candidate was asked to sing the Belgian national anthem in French, and instead sang La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France! With this kind of discord, it is unlikely they will come to a formidable agreement soon.

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