It’s a rookie mistake to assume that Belgian people speak a so-called “Belgian” language. Some people go their whole lives not knowing very much about this country aside from the fact that it’s famous for its waffles and its chocolate. In reality, Belgium is a complex multinational state with three official languages, and they don’t necessarily coexist without conflict. Why is French spoken in Belgium, then? And while we’re at it, why are Flemish and German spoken there, too?
Belgium’s Linguistic Makeup
If you’re traveling through Belgium, you’ll find that the predominantly spoken local language will change pretty drastically from one side of the country to another.
For the most part, the Flemish community lives in a northern region called Flanders, and they make up about 60 percent of the population. Technically, they speak Belgian-Dutch, which is usually referred to as Flemish. Flemish is pretty close to the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands.
In Brussels and the south — what’s called the Wallonia region — you’ll mostly hear French. Brussels is technically bilingual, speaking French and Flemish in an official capacity, but Flemish isn’t commonly spoken there in practice. In fact, you actually need to speak some French if you want to navigate Brussels successfully. The French-speaking community makes up about 40 percent of the overall Belgian population. Belgian French differs from Standard French in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, but the two are mutually intelligible.
There’s also a smaller German-speaking community in the east, where Belgium shares a border with Germany. Belgium’s German-speaking minority is only 1 percent of its population, and the German spoken there is very close to Standard German.
Unofficially, Luxembourgish is also part of Belgium’s linguistic tapestry. You’ll mostly only hear this language spoken in the arrondissement of Arelerland, in the Luxembourg province (which borders the country of Luxembourg).
Generally speaking, if you’re traveling through different parts of Belgium, you should address people in the regional language. In other words, you wouldn’t address a stranger in Flemish in Wallonia (at least not right away), and you wouldn’t address anyone in French in Flanders. Even if the person you’re talking to can understand the other language, they probably won’t appreciate it.
Why Is French Spoken In Belgium?
The answer to this question also explains why there’s such a contentious divide between the Flemish and Walloon communities in Belgium.
Once upon a time (that is to say, during the Roman Empire), the modern-day Walloon region was run by the Gauls, and Germanic tribes were posted up in the Flanders region.
The tension between the two regions only got more intense after Belgium gained independence in 1830 from the Netherlands. French became the official language, which highlighted existing class tensions between the nobility (who generally spoke French) and the Flemish (who were seen as lower-class).
This decision was actually largely a rebuke by the French elite against Dutch King William I’s previous attempt to unify the country under the Dutch language. In a sense, speaking French became synonymous with Belgian independence, but not for Flemish speakers. They were treated like second-class citizens for some time due to anti-Dutch sentiments in the fledgling nation, even though they made up the majority of the population.
The capital city of Brussels originally shifted to speaking predominantly French for the same reasons the newly independent Belgium did: because it was considered the most prestigious language in Belgium at one time, both for getting access to higher education and well-paying jobs. A lot of French-speaking Walloons also eventually moved to the city, as did immigrants from Francophone nations, thus compounding the Francophone culture of Brussels.
The movement for Flemish equality began picking up steam in the mid-19th century, especially after two innocent Dutch-speaking men were convicted in a Wallonian court and later executed, having not been able to properly understand the judge or their lawyers. Gradually, Dutch would become the primary language in courts and schools in the Flanders region, and later the language started to appear on currency and postage stamps.
In 1898, the Equality Law established French and Dutch as co-equal official languages, but there was still often a bias toward French in practice. In 1967, an official Dutch version of the constitution was passed, but this hardly marked the end of regional tensions. Still, at this point, Francophone culture had already become firmly established in certain parts of the country. And despite French being spoken in the Walloon region, the French language also eventually crowded out the indigenous Walloon dialects.
In contrast, the history of the German language in Belgium is much more recent and much less contentious. The regions where German is spoken were incorporated into Belgium after World War I as part of the Treaty of Versailles.