"Xenophobe's® Guides: Languages in Belgium"

Xenophobe's® Guides: Which Belgian language?

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Language in Belgium is a clash of regions, dialects and politics, so it's necessary to be bilingual - at the very least – if you plan on working in a Belgian national institution.

Xenophobe's® Guides: A book series that highlights the unique character and behaviour of different nations with insight and humour.

To get a job in almost any Belgian national institution you need to be bilingual. This puts the French-speakers at a distinct disadvantage as they are by tradition deeply reluctant to learn Dutch. What, they argue, is the point of learning a language that only six million people speak? (22 million, if you include the actual Dutch). In revenge, Flemish Dutch-speakers – even those holding government posts – pointedly refuse to speak French. With hindsight, one might suggest that the Belgian government should long ago have taken decisive action in the educational system to ensure that all Belgians were fully bilingual. Oh no, say the Flemish with a grin: for if that had happened, the French-speakers would not have so conveniently disqualified themselves from virtually all government posts.

Dutch (formerly known as Flemish)

It's official: the language of Flanders has been rebranded as Dutch, and calling it Flemish is now discouraged. Nonetheless, many people still refer casually to Vlaams (Flemish) as a language – though this was never so much a language as a disparate collection of dialects, so disparate that the people of West Flanders find it hard to understand those in the east. At school the Flemish learn Dutch, i.e. Nederlands, which is effectively the lingua franca of the Dutch-speaking world, and this enables them to talk to all fellow Flemings, as well as the Dutch themselves (who also have their own dialects).


The word Walloon comes from the name of a Romanised Celtic tribe, the Wala, who lived in southern Belgium and developed their own kind of French, which, after all, is a mixture of Celtic and Latin. Walloon is thus a dialect form of French, or rather a collection of regional dialects. Today few people speak wholly in Walloon and the language has all but vanished, preserved in a few words that pepper the language of the French-speakers of Wallonia. For instance, some say les canadas for potatoes.

For more, read The Xenophobe's Guide to the Belgians.

Reproduced from Xenophobe's Guide to the Belgians by kind permission of Xenophobe's® Guides.

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