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 »  Articles Overview  »  Language Specific  »  The Linguistic Conflict in Belgium

The Linguistic Conflict in Belgium

By Maria Karra | Published  06/4/2007 | Language Specific | Recommendation:
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Maria Karra
grecki > angielski translator
Członek od: Sep 2, 2000.
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In 2000 I decided to go to Brussels for a 5-month translation traineeship. I wanted to be prepared before arriving; I wanted to learn about Belgium and its culture. This is why I bought myself a traveller’s city guide. I was reading about the languages in Belgium, when I stumbled across the following paragraph:
"Belgium has a long history of language division and it is often better to speak English, which is widely understood. If you speak French to a Flemish person, he or she might be offended. If you happen to speak Flemish or Dutch to a French-speaking Bruxellois he will most certainly answer you in French with some disdain. Brussels has its own dialect, Bruxellois, that is primarily Flemish in origin but in the course of time has taken on a lot of French as well. Very few people now speak this interesting dialect. It is hard to get it right, and even Flemish- and French-speaking people in Brussels will sometimes use English to communicate with each other" (Sattin 93). The same book states that "rivalry endures between those who speak Flemish and those who speak French" (Sattin 6).

Are the above statements true? Does rivalry really exist between those who speak French and those who speak Dutch?


In order to examine the language conflict in Belgium, it will be useful to give some historical information. The "language frontier" between the Flemish and the Walloon Communities was traced for the first time in the 4th century, when Franks invaded Belgica (Belgian Gaule) and founded what today is called Flanders. They conserved their Germanic language in this region, but were not able to do so when they had to face the Galloroman people who outnumbered them. In the following centuries Belgium underwent many changes as regards language. Let's direct our attention to two events that occurred in the course of these centuries:

- In 1794, after the French revolution, Belgium was integrated into the French Empire; Napoleon prohibited the usage of the Dutch language and imposed the French Civil Code.

- After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna proclaimed the "Kingdom of the Netherlands" which included Belgium. The new king, a Dutchman, imposed the Dutch language on the entire kingdom. Both Walloon and Flemish people revolted against this Dutch authoritarian king, who imposed his language. More revolts took place and led to the creation of an independent Belgium in 1830.

When the Belgian state was created in 1830, the Constitution had provided for a unitary state which soon proved to be unsuited to the ambitions of Flemings (Dutch speakers), because only one official language was provided for: French. It should be added that next to Dutch (the language spoken in the Netherlands), French was rightly or wrongly perceived by the ruling elite as a factor in achieving national unity and independence from the Netherlands. Furthermore, following the ideas of the French revolution, French enjoyed great prestige as "the language of reason and civilization." As for the Belgian elite, which was filled with admiration for France, the French language seemed to be the obvious choice, when in fact the native language of the majority of Belgians was either a dialectal form of Dutch (Flemish, Brabantish, Limburgish) or one of the idioms derived from Latin (Walloon, Picard, Lorraine.) As regards the city of Brussels, only 15% of its population was francophone at the time.


The linguistic conflict started in 1840, at which time the French language prevailed in most of the country's social interactions. In fact, all schools, the government and municipal services, courts, etc. used only French in official documents. French was the language of the dominant classes, both Flemish and Walloon. So the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie spoke French, while the common people spoke Flemish, Walloon, Brabantish, or various other local dialects.

In successive steps the defenders of the Dutch language succeeded in imposing the introduction of Dutch in the country's official life. In 1880, 50% of the population of Brussels was Flemish, but it was not until 1883 that Dutch - called "Flemish" in French texts - was allowed in primary education (which was of limited application) and until 1889 that it was accepted in courts (for oral testimonies). In 1894 the DeVriendt-Coremans law ranked it next to French as an "official language". However, in reality French remained the language primarily used to all intents and purposes in the Belgian state. This is why the defenders of Flemish (whom their adversaries called "Flamingants" – a French term denoting Flemish nationalists) changed the language used at the university of Ghent from French to Dutch; the Flemish upper middle class, which remained francophile, was against this change. This is when the term "Wallingant" –which denotes a Walloon separatist- also appeared, modelled on the term "Flamingant"; both terms, strongly derogatory, denoted the political activists who advanced mainly nationalistic and regionalistic interests.

In 1921 the Belgian government decided to create three linguistic regions:
1) a Flemish part in the North (where French could still be used);
2) a French part in the South (where Dutch would not be used despite the significant presence of Flemings);
3) a bilingual part (Brussels), although the great majority of Brussels inhabitants spoke Dutch.

The law of July 14, 1932 prescribed Dutch to be the official language in Flanders, French to be the official language in Wallonia, and German to be the official language in the region of Eupen and Saint-Vith (a German-speaking region). Only the city of Brussels, surrounded by Flemish territory, was declared bilingual. Thus French and Dutch became the two co-official languages of the Belgian state.

Bilingualism in Brussels represented a victory for Francophones because this status gave them the possibility of still "gaining ground" on Flemings, who had become a minority. The law of 1921 was supposed to protect the Francophones, whereas today it favors the Dutch speakers. According to this law the language boundary should change following decennial language censuses. The university of Ghent became exclusively Dutch-speaking. Nevertheless, the law still allowed Walloons to trick Flemings out of some of their territory every ten years.

Since the sixties the revival of community conflicts between Flemings and Walloons dominated political life. The compromise of a linguistic boundary moving according to decennial censuses was no longer agreeable to Flemings, who watched the Walloons increasing their territory by a few kilometres every ten years. As a result, Flemings set a goal to establish a definitive linguistic boundary.

Establishing a definitive language boundary meant that Walloons would no longer obtain any Flemish territory, and vice-versa. Therefore, the Flemish tried to suppress the decennial language census because it should no longer play a role in determining this boundary. Thus the census of 1960 was boycotted by roughly 300 Flemish mayors, apparently because they feared that the census would prove the existence of French-speaking minorities in their communes. A language question is still asked during population censuses to Belgians (only for statistical information and not to influence the language boundary), except to those living in Brussels. This is to avoid further linguistic conflicts to which this bilingual environment is subject.


According to the Constitution of 1994, Belgium consists of three economically autonomous regions: Wallonia in the South, Flanders in the North, and Brussels (which is situated in Flanders); three language communities: the French Community, the Flemish Community, and the German-speaking Community; and finally four linguistic regions: the Dutch-language region, the French-language region, the German-language region, and the bilingual region of Brussels.

- The region of Flanders covers 44% of Belgium's surface and comprises 57.6% of the Belgian population (5.9 million inhabitants). The inhabitants of this region speak mainly Dutch, as well as various dialects of Dutch (such as Flemish).

- Wallonia covers 55% of Belgium's surface and comprises 32.4% of the population (3.3 million inhabitants). Walloons speak mainly French, but some speak dialects, such as Walloon.

- The region of Brussels, situated in the Flemish province of Brabant, comprises 9.3% of the Belgian population (960 000 inhabitants). 70% of these inhabitants speak French, 10% speak Dutch, and 20% speak other languages (such as Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, etc.).

How reliable are these numbers though? Since 1961 it is forbidden to conduct a language census is Brussels. It is therefore very difficult to calculate the exact percentages of French- and Dutch-speaking people in this city. The statistical results provided in a study conducted by Laval University ( and in other studies come from the lists of voters in regional elections (there are different lists for Dutch-speaking people and for French-speaking people), which cannot reflect the truth, since there are Belgium residents who do not speak either of the two languages, but still register to vote on one of the two lists.

It is not the regions, but the Communities that issue decrees concerning language. The French Community corresponds to the region of Wallonia and to the bilingual region of Brussels (for those who have chosen French as "language of administration" and/or "language of education".) The Flemish community corresponds to Flanders and the region of Brussels (for those who have chosen Dutch to be their "language of education" and "language of administration"). There is also a German-speaking Community, which corresponds to the German-speaking region (actually situated in Wallonia), but it cannot issue laws or decrees related to language, according to the Constitution.

Belgium’s language policy is defined in particular in the following articles of the Constitution of 1994: 2, 4, 30, 43, 54, 67, 68, 99, 115, 118, 121, 123, 127, 128, 129, 130, 135, 136, 137, 138, 139, 175, 176, 178, and 189, as well as in a big number of language laws, among which we find:

- the royal decree of 6 January 1933 regarding the languages used in administration
- the law of 15 June 1935 regarding the languages used in the judicial sector
- the law of 30 July 1938 regarding the languages used in the army
- the law of 2 July 1954 regarding the languages used in administration
- the law of 30 July 1963 regarding the languages used in education
- the law of 30 November 1966 regarding language exams
- the special law of 8 August 1980 regarding constitutional reforms
- the law of 5 October 1988 regarding the languages used in the judicial sector
- the special law of 12 January 1989 regarding municipal institutions in Brussels.

Official communication in a single language constitutes a violation to the federal law. This is why poster advertising, road signs, etc. in Brussels always include both languages: Dutch and French. Citizens are allowed to use the language of their choice, but this is not the case for government institutions.

As regards languages used in the federal government, according to article 99 of the Belgian constitution, the council of ministers must have as many French-speaking ministers as Dutch-speaking (7). The same balance (50% French and 50% Dutch-speaking) applies to the Court of Arbitration, the Council of State, the Court of Cassation, the Supreme Council of Justice, and other government organizations.

While communities and regions have only one Council each, the federal state has a federal parliament and a senate. According to article 43 of the Constitution, in the federal parliament and the senate, deputies and senators are divided in two language groups: French- and Dutch-speaking (proportional representation). This proportional representation favours the Flemish, who, as a result, outnumber the Walloons both in the federal parliament and the senate. In the past, in order to avoid unfair decisions regarding language and culture-related laws, these laws were adopted according to the principle of double majority. However, in case of disagreement by the deputies or senators, decisions took very long to make and language laws were often forgotten or took years to adopt. This is why today, according to article 107, in order for a law to be adopted, the majority of votes in each language group must be reached, and the total number of positive votes must reach two thirds of all vote casts.

In the justice system, the law that determines the languages used is that of 15 June 1935; it has been modified several times, but still applies today. According to this law, only Dutch must be used in Flanders, and French in Wallonia and the German-speaking region. The law provides the following options in case the defendant does not speak the language used by the court:
a) he (the defendant) may accept that the process take place in another language (French, Dutch, or German); b) he may ask for an interpreter; c) he may ask for the process to take place in a court of another province where his language is spoken.
The same law requires that in Brussels, two thirds of judges be bilingual.

In the administration sector, the law of 18 July 1966 states that federal administration must function in French in Wallonia, in Dutch in Flanders, and in French and Dutch in Brussels. According to article 19, public administration must use the language of the person that is using their services. As far as documents are concerned, they are issued in all three official languages (French, Dutch, and German).

As regards public poster advertising and road signs, these are displayed in French in Wallonia and in Dutch in Flanders. Thus, French toponyms are written in Dutch in Flanders; similarly, French names are used in Wallonia for Flemish toponyms. As an example, the name used in Flanders for Liège is Luik, which may confuse those who are not familiar with the name of this city in both languages. As mentioned above, poster advertising and road signs are displayed in both languages in Brussels. Thus, we see street names written in French and in Dutch. As for which language is used first on road signs, this is determined by the region in which a town is located; for example, a sign for the city of Liège (which is situated in Wallonia) would display “Liège/Luik”, while a sign for the Flemish city of Antwerp would display “Antwerpen/Anvers”.

In his examination of higher education in Belgium, Piet Van de Craen gives us some insight on the languages used in the education sector. It is the 1962-63 laws (commonly known as the language laws, discussed in McRae 1986 and Murphy 1988, cited in Van de Craen) that determine which languages are taught in school. In Wallonia, from the fifth class of primary school, Dutch, English, or German classes may be taught, depending on parents’ demands. In secondary school, from the first year a second language is compulsory (Dutch, English, or German). In Flanders, from the fifth class of primary school, a second language may be taught (French or English, again depending on parents’ demands); in the first year of secondary school, both French and English are taught. In Brussels the situation is different: from the third year of primary school, a second language (Dutch for French-speakers and French for Dutch speakers) is compulsory.
We infer from this educational strategy that a significant factor in students’ second-language acquisition (SLA) is language planning. Although SLA is affected by individual factors such as motivation (neoclassical approach, as described by Tollefson (1991)), studies on language acquisition in Belgium concern mainly language planning strategies, historical, social and political factors, which shows that it is the historical-structural approach that is used here.


The processes of policy formulation and elaboration described by Fishman et al. (1977) were discussed above. However, the existence of language-related laws and strategies does not guarantee that these laws and strategies will be respected. How does the Belgian state ensure that the appropriate language will be used in each situation? The law of 18 July 1966 regarding the use of languages in administration provided for a committee of eleven members (five French-speaking, five Dutch-speaking, and one German-speaking member) appointed by the king for 4 years. This is the Permanent Commission for Language Control (Commission permanente de contrôle linguistique) and its purpose is to monitor the application of language-related laws. This commission is divided in two parts: a Dutch section that is responsible for Flanders, and a French section responsible for Wallonia and for the German-speaking cantons. These two sections have to collaborate when it comes to the city of Brussels. It is this committee to which citizens can address their complaints regarding the use of languages in public services.

What is the motivation for such a complex language policy? In his study of Australia’s language policy, Lo Bianco (1987) examines why a move towards a national language policy is necessary. Similarly we should explain the purpose of a language policy in Belgium. Complex language legislation was established in Belgium in order to guarantee members of the Dutch-speaking and the French-speaking community the use of their own language in administration and municipal and regional services. In Brussels, where the two linguistic groups coexist, the language policy is necessary in order for citizens’ linguistic rights not to be violated. Such rights, as mentioned above, include the choice of language (either Dutch of French) in which one’s children will be educated, the right to use one’s native language in administration, the possibility of interacting with a judge who speaks a citizen’s native language in court, the possibility of living in a city where one can understand road signs and subway maps, etc..

Now let’s direct our attention to the micro aspect of the language situation in Belgium. Is the language policy successful as regards social interaction between Belgium’s two main language groups? Is there really rivalry between the Dutch-speaking and the French-speaking Belgians? Do these two groups really communicate in English with each other, or do they try to learn the other group's language? The study conducted at Laval University states that according to the Flemish daily paper Standaart, only 16.5% of the Flemish people have a very good knowledge of the French language, although in fact 60% of them are able to understand it and speak it. On the other hand, only 6% to 7% of the French-speaking Belgians speak Dutch.

What does this mean? One point of view is that there is indeed rivalry between these two groups of people. Another point of view could be that these people are desperately trying to defend and preserve their linguistic and cultural identity, which they feel is threatened in this bilingual, or rather multilingual country called Belgium. Which point of view is closer to reality? Having lived in Belgium for a few months, I came to the conclusion that there is some truth to both of them, one being a consequence of the other. I have to admit, though, that the statement I quoted from my city guide is somewhat exaggerated. If you speak French to a Flemish person, they will probably reply in English (most likely because they don't speak French and assume that you don't speak Dutch), but they will certainly not be offended!

An internet search on the words "rivalry, language, Belgium, Dutch, French" produces numerous sites describing this rivalry and "constant fighting" between Flemings and Walloons. In an article called "Group Identity and Nation Identity" I read the following statement:
"Belgium: The sharp separation between Dutch and French speakers means that, as Pierre van der Berghe has put it, Belgium is no closer to being a nation than it was when it was created in 1830; the Flemings and Walloons are still almost exactly where Julius Caesar left them after De Bello Gallico!"
I find this statement to be far beyond truth or reasonableness. Not only is it highly exaggerated, but also very pessimistic.

In his article "Belgium: society, character and culture. An essay on the Belgian identity", Dr. Francis Heylighen, a Belgian scientist, expresses a different opinion:
"There have been a lot of political conflicts between the two main linguistic communities, but the language problem, which is the issue that has received most publicity outside Belgium, is (at least in my view) much less important than it seems. Since the federalization of the state the linguistic conflicts seem to have very much diminished, now that politicians are no longer capable to blame difficulties on the "other side". There have never been any real conflicts between Belgian (Walloon and Flemish) people, as opposed to conflicts between Belgian politicians. The best illustration of that is that even during the most heated episodes, no one has ever been killed or seriously injured in clashes connected with the linguistic conflict. It suffices to consider similar situations in other countries where conflicts exist between cultural or linguistic communities (e.g. Yugoslavia, Canada, Northern Ireland) to conclude that such peacefulness is not the common rule."

The above point of view is very close to that of most Flemings and Walloons that I have interacted with during my stay in Belgium. Yes, there is a language conflict, but it is not as serious as many people (mostly non-Belgians) believe, and it certainly does not prevent Belgium from being a nation.

Measures such as the prohibition of language census in Brussels, described above, show that the government is now doing its best to eliminate language conflicts. Indeed, the so-called linguistic conflict is not obvious in everyday life. My personal experience has led me to believe that Walloons and Flemings are aware of the fact that living in a multicultural and multilingual environment has many advantages, the most obvious of which is the ability to learn two or three languages from a very early age. Young people who are perhaps more open-minded than previous generations and have not lived through linguistic rivalries accept the fact that there are three official languages in Belgium and try to take advantage of the positive aspect of this situation.


DROIXHE, Daniel, Le français en Wallonie et à Bruxelles aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. URL:

EMENANJO, Nolue E., Language Policies and Cultural Identities, World Congress on Language Policies, Barcelona 2002. URL:

Fishman, J., Das Gupta, J., Jernudd, B., and Rubin, J. (1977), ‘Research outline for comparative studies of language planning’ in Rubin, J., Jernudd, B., Das Gupta, J., Fishman, J., and Ferguson, C. (eds) (1977)
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