Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
Belgium straddles the border between Germanic and Romance-speaking Europe, and this position is reflected in the politics, culture and linguistic makeup of the country. Three language groups all sharing one roof — what could go wrong? Apparently, a lot. Unlike other countries in Europe who have successfully managed to forge a united national identity out of multiple linguistic communities (looking at you Switzerland), Belgium’s linguistic diversity has become a political hot potato in recent years — with divisions over language often pitting the different linguistic communities against one another. So what are these languages spoken in Belgium?
What Languages Do They Speak In Belgium?
Most people know that Dutch and French are spoken in Belgium, but what surprises many people is the fact that there are actually three official languages in the country — not two.
Firstly, there is the Dutch-speaking Flemish community, mostly found in the northern region of Flanders, which comprise about 60% (6.5 million) of the population. The language this community speaks — while largely identical to the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands — is called “Belgian-Dutch” by academics and “Flemish” by everyone else. Of course, there are differences between Flemish and Standard Dutch, particularly in pronunciation, vocabulary and idioms, but someone who can speak Dutch shouldn’t have too many problems in Flanders.
The second most-spoken language in Belgium is French. The French-speaking community lives in the southern Wallonia region and in the capital Brussels, and this community constitutes approximately 40% (4.5 million) of the Belgian population. Again, despite there being clear differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, if you learned the standard French spoken in France, then you should be able to understand the French-speaking Belgians once you’ve adjusted your ears.
Lastly, there is a tiny German-speaking minority in the eastern regions of the province of Liege (on the border with Germany) who form roughly 1% (75,000) of the population of Belgium. Because these regions were only incorporated into Belgium after World War I, the German spoken here is still very similar to standard German over the border. Unlike Belgian Dutch and Belgian French, Belgian German has had much less time to evolve independently!
Luxembourgish And Others
To complicate things even further, a fourth language — Luxembourgish — can also be heard in the arrondissement of Arelerland, in the Belgian province called Luxembourg (which, unsurprisingly, borders the country of Luxembourg). This language has not been recognized at the national level but has nevertheless been recognized as a minority language by the French Community of Belgium.
Are you managing to keep up? Good, because there are myriad Germanic and Romance dialects found across Belgium as well! There are the Flemish dialects of Limburgish, Brabantian and East and West Flemish, there is the German-inspired Low Dietsch in the German-speaking region, and then, not wanting to be left out, there are the French dialects of Walloon, Picard, Champenois and Lorrain in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
So as we’ve warned you, things are a little bit complicated in Belgium.
Which Languages Are Spoken In Brussels?
Brussels is officially bilingual, with all street signs, transportation information and even commercial advertising presented in both French and Flemish. But the reality of this supposedly bilingual utopia is very different than what meets the eye. Despite Brussels’ Flemish past (the city was predominantly Flemish-speaking until the late 19th century), you will rarely hear Flemish on the streets of the capital today, and attempting to converse with shopkeepers or bus drivers in Flemish will not get you far.
Brussels underwent a shift to French because the language was considered to have more prestige than Flemish. For many Belgians at the time, speaking French was a prerequisite for access to higher education and the most affluent jobs. The Francophone nature of the city has solidified in recent decades, despite the fact that Brussels is actually an enclave within the Flemish region. This is mainly due to two factors: Firstly, because of internal migration to the city by French-speaking Walloons from the south. And secondly, through immigration from former Belgian colonial countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and other Francophone nations such as Tunisia and Morocco.
Can I Get Around With English In Brussels?
Maybe you should grab a chair and sit down, because you’re in for a shock: Brussels is not the “comfortable with speaking English” cosmopolitan city you read about in the brochures. Although Brussels is the capital of the European Union, and despite the fact that the city is home to thousands of international companies and organizations, simply put — you absolutely need some level of French if you are looking to complete the everyday challenges of getting a haircut, visiting a doctor or shopping at the supermarket.
Brussels is very similar to Paris in the sense that the locals are not happy being addressed by tourists or expats in English without at least a cursory attempt in French first. Yes, you can use English as a last resort (I certainly had to on many occasions), but you will need to be able to deploy the basics in French for all of the above situations. Getting a haircut in French was scary at first, but had I gone to my local barber and tried to explain what I wanted in English, I could’ve ended up looking like David Hasselhoff circa the Knightrider years (to be clear, this would be a bad thing).
Don’t Speak The Wrong Language In The Wrong Place
I can’t stress this enough. If you are in Wallonia, you should never address anyone in Flemish right off the bat. Not only is there a great chance that you won’t be understood (knowledge of Flemish among French-speaking Belgians is low), but you will also likely be met with silence. Likewise, if you are in Flanders then you should refrain from addressing people in French (despite knowledge of French being very high in this region).
Such is the resolve of the two groups to protect the status of their respective mother tongues that neither the Walloons nor the Flemish take kindly to being addressed by strangers on the street in the “wrong” language. I often witnessed this phenomenon first-hand in Belgium — from the Flemish waffle waitress in Bruges who did not take kindly to the demands of a French-speaking customer and strongly told her (in Flemish) to go forth and multiply, to the French-speaking ticket-vendor at the main train station in Brussels who sat in stony silence refusing to answer the questions of a Flemish traveler.
There’s More To Belgium Than Language Politics
Don’t let the Belgian contortions over language put you off to visiting the country! I had the pleasure of living in Belgium for a few months and I can say that from the beauty of Bruges to the beer of Brussels, and from the lush forests of the Ardennes to the German Christmas Markets of Eupen, there is much to tempt the traveler to Belgium. Belgium is a beautiful country with a fascinating culture that infuses the best of both the Romance and Germanic worlds, so brush up on your Dutch, French or German, and set off to discover Belgium!