Beatrice Dedeurwaerder, a Belgian intern at Wolfestone, writes about the multilingualism of her capital city, also the de facto capital of the EU

If you’ve ever been to Brussels you are likely to have seen the statue of the peeing boy in the heart of the city. With over 800 costumes created for it, as well as its own museum, this little boy is the symbol of the capital.

If he could tell you his story, what would it be? Or rather, in which of Belgium’s three national languages - French, Flemish, or German – would he tell it?

The famous statue of the peeing boy in Brussels, Belgium.

Geographically, Belgium is divided into three regions: Wallonia, Flanders, and the Brussels-Capital region. However this repartition was too simple for us Belgians, so we also decided to linguistically divide the country into four communities: the French-speaking, the Flemish-speaking, the German-speaking, and the bilingual Brussels-Capital (see map below).


Brussels' linguistic diversity

The Brussels-Capital region itself is divided in 19 municipalities. As they are situated in the bilingual region, law requires that all official documents, plus street and highway signs be in both French and Flemish. The municipal administrations address Brussels citizens in French or Flemish, depending on their preferential language, therefore staff members must be bilingual themselves.

To become bilingual in Belgium begins at primary school. The rule is simple: the language used in general courses is that of the linguistic region. In year 5, pupils (aged nine or ten) must pick a foreign language, the study of which ends in year 13 (the final year of compulsory education), when they are asked to know two more languages in addition to their mother tongue. Ultimately, pupils are expected to know three languages by the time they leave compulsory education.

In Wallonia, pupils can choose between Flemish, English and German starting from year 5. According to statistics of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, more and more pupils chose English at the expense of Flemish in year 7 onwards, and the same tendency has been observed in Flanders, where French is the only foreign language taught at primary school.

In Brussels, Flemish is compulsory from year 5 onwards in French-speaking schools, and the same with French in Flemish schools. It is in year 9 that a second foreign language is added: English, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, or Russian for the most ambitious of us.

As there is no language census, it is difficult to assess the bilingual character of Brussels. However, according to tax returns, 92% of Brussels-Capital is French-speaking and as we said, most of them now pick English as a foreign language at school. And this is a huge part of the reason why Flemish politicians are now asking for French-speaking schools to offer more hours of Flemish classes.

When geographic and linguistic borders meet

It is not uncommon to see this linguistic border on the Belgian motorway: Flanders has recently erected barriers along its section to prevent deer and other animals from crossing, but as soon as you arrive in the Brussels region, these barriers simply disappear.

Let’s say you want to cross this charming country from West to East by train. Although this journey would only take you three hours (when your train is on time), it will be a linguistically bumpy ride. And if the train conductor is the same all along, he will deserve a round of applause because he is about to perform an impressive linguistic feat.

You would typically begin your journey in the medieval city of Bruges, also called the ‘Venice of the North’. There, the train conductor will welcome you on board and make his announcements in Flemish until you arrive in Brussels. Once in Brussels, you will hear the same announcement twice: once in French, once in Flemish.

Then, once you are back in Flanders, Flemish only. As you can see on the map above, you are almost there, but still have to cross Wallonia, where the announcements will be made in French only. When you hear German on the speakers, you’ll know you’ve reached Eupen, the capital of the German region.

Although the status of the Flemish language in Brussels has always been a matter of contention, let’s not forget that Brussels is home to 20 EU organisations and 42 intergovernmental structures, making its multicultural nature impossible to ignore.


Youth prefer English

In fact, a total of 104 languages are actually spoken in Brussels, so it is not really surprising to see that youngsters would rather learn English as a second language, whether their mother tongue is French or Flemish.

I want to conclude this article with a personal anecdote: while visiting the south of Spain with my Belgian French-speaking friends, we bumped into another group of three Belgian students, only one of whom was French-speaking and the other two Flemish-speaking.

Out of a group of nine Belgians, the only common language we could find was English. Even though every single person in the group had had at least six years of French or Flemish at school.

I don’t know why we chose that language. Maybe it was because none of us, for some reason, wanted to make the effort of talking in the other national language. Or maybe it was because that due to the way those languages are taught, once we leave school, they are forgotten.