Bilingual Belgians?
August 1, 2019 1:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm watching Unité 42 on Netflix and noticed something puzzling. I have always labored under the assumption that Belgians spoke both French and Flemish fluently. In one scene, though, the police are questioning a government official who is speaking in (I think?) Flemish, and the older cop has to translate it into French for the younger cop. Don't they learn both languages in school? And what's the significance of a government official not speaking a language all 3 people understand?
posted by orrnyereg to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I lived near Liege for a summer many years ago as high school student. It is the French speaking part of Belgium. My friends (also high school kids) said that they were required to learn Flemish in school but since they had little use of it outside of the Flemish class, many of them had pretty minimal fluency. Since the native Flemish speakers usually need French to get along in the world, they are much more likely to be bilingual which further reduces the need for French speaker to learn Flemish.
posted by metahawk at 1:19 PM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Eight people died in the Pecrot train crash in 2001 because the warning of a signalman who spoke only French was not understood by a signalman who spoke only Dutch. From what I remember of the coverage at the time, bilingualism is common in Belgium but very much not universal.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:20 PM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

In Belgium, language is a political issue. In principle, you learn all three languages in school, but I've literally never met anyone who spoke them all fluently. I never lived in Belgium, but a good part of my family did for almost twenty years in sum.
Often, in the supermarket, staff would rather answer you in English than in the language they found repulsive. I don't agree that the Flemish speakers are more likely to speak French in general. But there are more well-educated Flemish speakers, and they obviously speak French and German, just as well-educated Wallonians are likely to speak Flemish and German. Mostly, people understand the other languages, even as they won't speak them, but as Vortisaur says, sometimes they don't, with tragic outcomes.
posted by mumimor at 1:38 PM on August 1, 2019 [10 favorites]

I attended a public French-language area school (elementary) in Belgium for a few months in 1986 and I don’t remember any Flemish instruction.
posted by bq at 2:23 PM on August 1, 2019

Ehm. I found that the Flemish indeed are more likely to speak French than the Wallonians are to speak Flemish/Dutch.
Which is confirmed by research.

56% of Belgians have Flemish as their mother tongue, and 48% of Belgians have French as an additional language
38% of Belgians have French as their mother tongue, and 15% have Dutch/Flemish as an additional language

(59% speak English as an additional language)
posted by Thisandthat at 2:26 PM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

My oldest sister moved to Brussels from the UK decades ago and has even become a Belgian citizen so she can stay after Brexit.
What is telling is that she has picked up hardly any Flemish/Dutch in all that time, despite being a super linguist who picks up languages easily. That's how much of a French-speaking bubble Brussels is, and the country is divided up into bubbles like this.

A friend from the BBC dropped in on their national broadcaster and said there was an actual line painted down the middle of the office with everyone divided by language.
posted by w0mbat at 2:38 PM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I used to live in Belgium about 10 years ago and my understanding was:
It is a political issue
Flemish are indeed more likely to speak French well (or at all) than vice versa
Both parties prefer using English to the other language (I experienced this first hand in Flanders)
Very few people speak German despite it also being an official language
Educated Belgians think nothing of speaking two or three foreign languages
Businesses will often require French, Flemish and English for even a basic job eg receptionist
As French is an official language at the European institutions (a big employer) this may contribute to more people learning French than Flemish, especially Flemish and expats
In some parts of Flanders it is compulsory for new residents to take lessons in Flemish
A lot of migrants come from the French speaking ex-colonies eg Congo, Rwanda and Morocco
posted by EatMyHat at 3:08 PM on August 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

the conductor on an Antwerp-Brussels train refused to acknowledge me until I addressed her as "madame".
posted by brujita at 5:10 PM on August 1, 2019

Short answer: not all Belgians are bilingual (far from it) and learning a second official language is not in fact mandatory throughout all of Belgium. As more of an explanation:

I will preface this by saying I'm putting aside things like communities with language facilities (facilités linguistiques / faciliteitengemeente), as well as the German-speaking community in eastern Wallonia, to keep the answer relatively simple.

Belgium is divided into three regions (it's actually quite a bit more complicated than this, but I'm simplifying for the sake of this answer): Flanders, the northern part of the country; Wallonia, the southern part of the country; and Brussels, the capital, which is entirely surrounded by Flanders, though it's not far from the Flemish-Walloon border.

The first key thing to understand is that that Belgium is very decentralized, that there are strictly defined language areas in Belgium and that Brussels is the only fully bilingual (French/Dutch) region of the country. In Flanders, Flemish is the only official language; in Wallonia, French is the only official language. Only Brussels is officially bilingual, but in everyday life French is by far the dominant language (of the two official languages) in the city.

Many governmental powers are devolved to the Belgian regions; education is one of these regional competencies, and so is done solely in the official language of the region; so all education is in Flemish in Flanders and in French in Wallonia; even in Brussels you have to choose either a French-medium school or a Dutch-medium school for your child. As for second-language education, Flemish is not mandatory in Wallonia (only a third of all French-speaking Belgian students choose Flemish as their second language); on the other hand, French is obligatory for students in Flanders, but again, only as a second language. French and Dutch are obligatory in Brussels, but it's not a bilingual half/half education: one language (most often French) is the main vehicle of education; the other one (most often Dutch) is learned as a second language.

And beyond education, all governmental business is transacted in solely the official language of the regions, and even things like place names on road signs change from region to region. So if you are driving from Flanders to (say) Lille in France, you had better know that Lille is Rijsel in Dutch, because that's all you're going to see on road signs in Flanders. Similarly, if you're driving from Wallonia to Ghent or Antwerp, you need to know that these are Gand and Anvers because that's all you'll see in Wallonia. Announcements on local Belgian trains are only in Dutch in Flanders, only in French in Wallonia, and only in both Dutch and French in Brussels, even if you have stayed on the same train the whole time.

So, in short, if you don't cross Belgium's language border there's relatively little need to use the other official language. Daily life takes place in French in Wallonia and in Flemish in Flanders.

The second key thing to realize is that language is very political/touchy in Belgium, for a variety of reasons, a central one being that the various regions of Belgium are economically doing very differently. Up until the mid-20th century, French-speaking Wallonia was the economic engine of the country because of its early industrialization and rich natural resources. Coupled with the general prestige of the French language and French culture at that time, French was by far the dominant language and the language of social advancement, high culture, public administration, etc., etc. in Belgium. (This is in fact in large part why Brussels, even though it's surrounded by Flanders, is majority French-speaking -- the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the city switched to French en masse over the last two centuries.)

As you can imagine this created quite a lot of political resentment among Flemish-speaking Belgians. After WWII, however, Flanders has become by far the richer region of Belgium (and French's role as the preeminent international language has also receded), with Wallonia suffering from higher unemployment and deindustralization. And so, with the combination of historic resentment, a substantial flip-flop in relative economic prowess, the presence of an officially bilingual but dominant French-speaking capital city geographically surrounded by Flanders, there's all the ingredients for resentment between the main two linguistic groups of Belgium.

These days, with the increasing prominence of English as a global language, you will indeed find (as others have said above) that many Belgians will prefer to use English to speak to a Belgian who does not share their first language, because English doesn't have all the baggage of Belgium's national languages.
posted by andrewesque at 6:33 PM on August 1, 2019 [30 favorites]

I used to play French-language online Scrabble games with someone in Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium). I once asked her if she spoke Flemish, and if most Walloons spoke it. She seemed to dismissively scoff at the idea, telling me that Flemish is only spoken in a small part of the world, and that an attempt to learn it would beg the question "Which dialect?". I was somewhat taken aback by her attitude, because although I don't presume to know the history of relations between the Walloon and Flemish populations, I can't blame the latter for not appreciating being expected to learn French when that effort isn't generally reciprocated. As an aside, if I'm not mistaken Switzerland is a better example of a country where speaking at least two languages is quite common.
posted by DavidfromBA at 7:06 PM on August 2, 2019

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