Home About Belgium The Basics A tale of two languages
Last update on February 25, 2019
Written by Natasha Gunn

The new editor gets to grips with Belgium’s language divide and duly does a little research into the subject, which turns out to be just as complex as suspected.

In Brussels, the double-named metro stations are potentially confusing, at least for new arrivals in Belgium.

Visiting an international friend who lives near metro Louise, I duly noted I needed to change metro at Arts-Loi. As the train pulled in I saw the station name clearly. I then turned my head around to collect my bag and then back again. The word Kunst-Wet appeared to be in the place where previously I had seen Arts-Loi.

For a split second I thought that I hadn’t arrived and that this was the station before my stop. My brain struggled to deal with the conflicting messages. Knowing that Kunst is Art in Dutch, I quickly deduced it was the same station and stepped out wondering how many visitors, perhaps with no knowledge of either language or knowledge of only one, had been thrown by this, despite being aware of Belgium’s language divide.

I decided it was time to find out more about this.

Sifting through the facts

Although the majority of the population in Brussels, around 80 percent, speak French, in Belgium as a whole, around 60 percent of the population speak Dutch, 40 percent speak French and less than 1 percent speak German.

Also new to me is that a Belgian who is a native speaker of Flemish is a Fleming. I’ve heard people speaking of the Flemish before, which is also the language.

Probably I haven’t heard the term Flemings (from the Dutch Vlamingen) because the term Flemings is currently mostly used to refer to the ethnic group which comes from Flanders, rather than the language itself.

However, I was aware that a native of the French-speaking region of Wallonia or the Walloon region, was a Walloon, which is also the dialect of French spoken in Belgium. Hence my confusion.

The language frontier runs from east to west and divides the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders to the north, from the southern French-speaking region. There is a German-speaking enclave, but this is in the eastern Ardennes and known as the Eastern Cantons.

It appears that the linguistic division between Dutch and French, or Flemish and Walloon to be precise, is the foundation of the complex political structure of Belgium today.

In brief, the battle of Waterloo took place near the now Belgian village of Waterloo, south of Brussels. The Duke of Wellington’s allied army defeated the French army led by Napoleon and the Netherlands was then given control of the area known as ‘the Austrian Netherlands’.

Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands in 1830 after a revolution broke out in Brussels during an opera at the Monnaie theatre.

From here, the country has evolved from being a centralised French-speaking state, where power was focused in a national government in Brussels, into a complex federal state in which power is split between the federal government and the regional governments of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.

So this might be the story in brief, but one thing is for sure. Knowing the French and the French Language and the Dutch and the Dutch language is not a passport, although it helps, to understanding Belgium and the Belgians.