Bilingual taboos easing in Belgium
26 September 2007, SAINTES (AFP) - In "juf" Sonia's class in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, French is banned today.
26 September 2007
SAINTES (AFP) - In "juf" Sonia's class in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, French is banned today.
Cyril, Chloe, Jason and her other pupils are taking their lessons in Dutch, a language slowly gaining currency among Belgium's Francophones, who in the past snubbed its use as the tongue of Flemish peasants.
A year ago, the Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) school in the village of Saintes, some 20 kilometres from the capital Brussels, turned to "language immersion" in an effort to encourage real bilingualism.
It's a method that surfaced a decade ago in the French-language part of Belgium, Wallonia, and the bilingual region of Brussels and is now in use in around 113 primary schools and 61 high schools.
And with the country's current political crisis, bilingual education is again under scrutiny as one way that might help overcome some of the divisions sparked by the predominance of single-language regions.
Belgium, with 10.5 million residents, is divided into four linguistic zones.
French, Dutch and German speakers have monolingual regions, while Brussels -- home to some one million people, most of them Francophone -- is officially bilingual: French and Dutch.
More than three months after general elections, Belgium is still without a government in a crisis that is fuelling concern that the country could break apart along the linguistic fault lines.
Political parties in Flanders are seeking more autonomy while the Walloons see this aim as a threat to the federal state.
The coalition talks have thus been blocked over how much federal power, on subjects like employment, should be devolved to the regions -- the relatively rich Dutch-speaking Flanders, with 60 percent of the population, is seeking more than French-speaking Wallonia, which has 3.5 million people.
Arc-en-Ciel principal Michele Cabaret said "50 percent Dutch" is in use in the school. In other establishments, the use of a second language -- sometimes English -- can climb to 75 percent of class time.
Every second day, 26 children from this village in the first year of primary school are given classes in Dutch by the "juf," a young teacher trained in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region to the north.
On this September morning, three weeks after the new school year started, she is teaching them the basics, with the help of the same small text books used by Flemish children.
To keep their attention, something difficult to achieve with youngsters even in their native tongues, she is expressive and uses elaborate hand gestures.
But using French is out of the question.
"At the beginning, there were fears that the children's French would suffer but all the tests have shown the contrary," said Cabaret. "Playing with languages helps develop the mind, even if it is more tiring for the children, not to mention the teachers."
She said the number of people trying to enrol their children in the school had risen sharply this year.
"There was strong demand for immersion from parents who, in many cases, couldn't find work because they couldn't speak Dutch," said Cabaret, who admits that she too has not mastered the language, like many French-speakers.
Indeed Belgium's linguistic trends appear to be changing.
French -- once practised by the bourgeoisie whether they were Flemish or Walloons -- is being studied by fewer students in Flanders, who now turn to English as a second language, while Dutch is slowly taking root in Wallonia.
"The priority is total immersion in Dutch at school because in Flanders there are still many dialects and you have to know real Dutch to succeed with your studies," said Flemish regional education minister Frank Vandenbroucke.
"It's got nothing to do" with Belgium's political problems, he insisted.
[Copyright AFP 2007]
Subject: Belgian news