Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
Belgium straddles the border between Germanic and Romance-speaking Europe, and this position is reflected in the country’s political, cultural and linguistic makeup. With three major languages spoken under the same roof, what can go wrong? Apparently, a lot. Unlike other countries in Europe that have successfully forged 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 different linguistic communities against each other. So, what are the languages spoken in Belgium then?
What Languages Do They Speak In Belgium?
Most people expect to hear Dutch or French in Belgium, but what surprises many is that the country has not two, but three official languages.
First off, there’s the Dutch-speaking Flemish community mostly found in the northern region of Flanders. They 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. Still, someone who speaks Dutch shouldn’t have too many problems in Flanders.
Second on the list of most-spoken languages in Belgium is French. The French-speaking community lives in the southern Wallonia region and in the capital, Brussels. They make up approximately 40% (4.5 million) of the population. Again, despite clear differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, if you learned standard French in France, then you should be able to understand the French-speaking Belgians — you just have to adjust your ears a bit.
Last but not least is the tiny German-speaking minority found in the eastern regions of the province of Liege (on the border with Germany). This forms 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 the standard German spoken over the border. Unlike the other languages spoken in Belgium, Belgian German has had much less time to evolve independently!
Luxembourgish And More
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 isn’t recognized at the national level, but it’s nevertheless recognized as a minority language by the French Community of Belgium.
Are you managing to keep up? Good, because there are even more Germanic and Romance dialects found across Belgium as well! Such as the Flemish dialects of Limburgish, Brabantian and East and West Flemish. There’s the German-inspired Low Dietsch in the German-speaking region of Belgium, and then, not to be overlooked, the French dialects of Walloon, Picard, Champenois and Lorrain found in the French-speaking part.
We 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’s 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 shifted to French because people regarded it as the most prestigious language spoken in Belgium. 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 like 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. Despite the fact that Brussels is the capital of the European Union and home to thousands of international companies and organizations, you absolutely need some level of French if you want 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 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, but you’ll need to be able to deploy the basics of French in many situations.
Don’t Speak The Wrong Language In The Wrong Place
There’s one thing concerning the languages spoken in Belgium we can’t stress 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: Neither the Walloons nor the Flemish take kindly to being addressed by strangers on the street in the “wrong” language.
There’s More To Belgium Than Language Politics
Don’t let the complexity of the languages spoken in Belgium put you off from visiting the country! From the beauty of Bruges to the beer of Brussels, out to the lush forests of the Ardennes and the German Christmas Markets in Eupen, there is much to tempt travelers 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!