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Languages in Belgium: Don’t Get Tongue-Tied in Brussels!

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Belgium’s a wonderful little country.

Similar in size to the state of Maryland, and with 11 million people living there, our favorite diminutive country has brought many joys to the world. Belgians through history have invented such things as the beloved comic strip Tintin, the saxophone, and a whole host of culinary delights including French fries, pralines, and waffles.

But What Language Do They Speak in Belgium?

Trick question: it’s more than one!

The answer is there are three official languages in Belgium.

Flemish, which can be thought of as the Belgian variant of Dutch, is the first and most common one, spoken by a little under 60% of the population.

Most people know that French is another one, thanks to Agatha Christie’s fabulous Francophone detective Hercule Poirot. Around 40% of Belgians speak French as their native tongue.

That leaves German as the third and final official Belgian language.

Wow, that’s a lot to cram into one country, right? Let’s dig into how all of this fits together.

languages in Belgium french flemish german

Why Does Belgium Have So Many Languages?

Belgium is made up of two distinct cultural and linguistic groups: the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish-speaking inhabitants of Flanders.  

The differences between the two peoples reflect centuries of various European powers ruling over Belgium: Spanish, Dutch, and French rulers have all presided over the country at one point or another, passing control of the territory among them.

The Belgian Revolution in 1830 – where the Flemish and the Walloon groups rebelled against their Dutch rulers – finally led to the country’s independence, and the Kingdom of Belgium was born in 1831, uniting the two linguistic groups.

Following the end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, the German-speaking territory of Eupen-Malmédy was annexed by Belgium from Germany. This brought thousands of German speakers under Belgian rule.

How Are the Languages of Belgium Distributed Across the Country?

Belgium is split into three official regions: Flanders, Wallonia, and the Brussels Capital Region. The fourth community, which speaks German, is contained within Wallonia.

Let’s see exactly how it is split.

There’s an internal border from east to west, roughly splitting the country in half. This creates the Flanders region, with its 7-million-strong Flemish-speaking population, to the north, and the Wallonia region, comprising 3.6 million Belgian French speakers, to the south. Flemish and French are the sole respective official languages for these communities.

The Brussels Capital Region is a bilingual enclave within Flanders, where 1.2 million people – over 10% of the population – live, and where French and Flemish are co-official languages.

The German-speaking community, also known as Eupen-Malmédy, is found on the far eastern edge of Wallonia, right on the border with Germany. Around 70,000 people call Eupen-Malmédy their home.

Although French and Flemish are given equal official status in Brussels, 80% of its inhabitants speak French on a day-to-day basis. Both French and English tend to be used as linguae francae in the capital. This is largely due to the high number of people living there who are working at the many Brussels-based European institutions, where English and French are primary languages.

Doesn’t the Division Cause Problems?

Kind of. Language politics is a huge source of friction in Belgium, with both French and Flemish speakers complaining that their language is not given priority by the authorities.

The language border – the demarcation between French and Flemish-speaking communities – is fixed by federal law.

But although Brussels is officially bilingual, it’s become majority French-speaking due to its central role in international politics.  The influx of foreigners is more likely to speak French than Flemish.

As the capital has expanded, the number of French speakers outside the city’s boundaries has expanded into neighboring Flanders. This can lead to tension between French and Flemish speakers, who each just want to speak their own languages.

This must sound a little daunting to anyone wanting to visit Belgium. After all, no one wants to offend the locals!

But don’t be put off by the politics, just keep these simple tips in mind when you’re wondering which language to use in Belgium:

Three Tips For Choosing Which Language to Use in Belgium

  1. Never speak French to locals in Flanders.
  2. Never speak Flemish to locals in Wallonia.
  3. When in doubt, start the conversation in English (particularly in Brussels) and then ask which language you should continue in.

How is Belgian French Different?

Any French speaker who’s visited Belgium will know that the biggest differences between Belgian French and French from France are in the small, everyday words.

Numbers are the most obvious difference!

Most French learners have likely spent years proudly mastering lightning-quick mental arithmetic in order to fluently recall the complicated French numbering system, featuring numbers like soixante-dix, quatre-vingt-huit and even quatre-vingt-treize. Way to go – that’s no mean feat!

Except, Belgian French uses different numbers.

Quoi?

Yes, that’s right. Belgian French has dropped the vigesimal numbering system (i.e., the system based on the number twenty), and instead uses the really simple system below for anything over 60:

Number France Belgium
60 soixante soixante
70 soixante-dix septante
80 quatre-vingt huitante
90 quatre-vingt-dix nonante

Phew!  That is so much simpler, isn’t it?

If you’re worried that you’ve wasted time learning the French numbering system, fear not. You’ll still be perfectly well understood if you say quatre-vingt-quinze instead of nonante-cinq. It’s still French, after all, just a different version.

Here are a couple of smaller vocabulary differences in Belgian French:

S’il vous plaît is really common in Belgian French, but not how you’d think.

It still means ‘please,’ but it’s also a synonym for the French voilà. So you might hear s’il vous plaît from a waiter as he brings your food to your table, for example.

This is a great example of how Belgian French has borrowed from Flemish, as the Flemish word alstublieft (please) is used in the same way.

The way that Belgians say they like something is ça me goûte, literally, that it tastes good. 

This is different from the French way, ça me plaît, that something is pleasing. This is likely another borrowing from Flemish, where the phrase is dat smaakt, again, literally, that it tastes good.

What is the Flemish Language – Vlaams Dutch?

As we mentioned, Flemish is actually a variant of Dutch. Called vlaams in Flemish, it’s similar to Netherlands Dutch (called nederlands), with just a few differences.

Although Flemish and Dutch are incredibly similar, it’s important not to refer to a Flemish person as Dutch. The Flemish are ethnically and culturally a different people who have a turbulent history with their northern neighbors, so it’s offensive to suggest that they are one large group!

Here are some linguistic differences between vlaams and nederlands Dutch:

  • The Flemish language tends to be more formal. They use the formal U form of you, whereas the less formal je is common in the Netherlands.
  • Vlaams uses more French loanwords, whereas nederlands uses more English borrowings.
    • Flemish people put confituur on their bread (from French confiture), but the Dutch use the English word jam.
    • The Flemish word for a bike is the same in French: vélo. In Dutch, this word is fiets.
  • The diminutive suffix is different in the two languages. In Flanders you use -(e)ke as the diminutive, but in the Netherlands it’s -(e)tje.
  • The dialects sometimes favor one standard Dutch word over another.
    For example, the word peinzen (to think) is common in Flanders, but in the Netherlands, the synonym denken is more prevalent. This is like the terms ‘to call’ and ‘to phone’ in English. Both are valid, but some groups favor one over the other.
  • The written language is more or less the same in both dialects.

All About German in Belgium

German is spoken by less than 1% of Belgium’s population. That’s around 70,000 speakers.

So, the number of speakers isn’t huge, but the community is recognized as culturally and linguistically significant enough for German to be given co-official status. It even appears on Belgian passports!

Because the German-language region of Eupen-Malmédy only became a part of Belgium 100 years ago, and the residents there spend a lot of time working, shopping, and having fun in Germany, the German spoken in Belgium hasn’t diverged significantly from the Hochdeutsch spoken in Germany.

Over to you!

So that was our guide to the different languages of Belgium, and the groups who speak them.

We know that preparing to visit multilingual countries can be tricky, and hopefully, we’ve resolved some of the confusion about which languages you need to know, and in which region, of Belgium.

All that is left to say is:

Bon voyage, goede reis and gute Reise!

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