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Speaking the Language

Belgium - Speaking the Language


Belgium is a relatively young independent country, having existed in its current form since 4 October 1830. Its strategic location between France, Germany and The Netherlands with access to the North Sea made the area vulnerable to a succession of invading armies. Prior to independence, the areas now within Belgium were variously small city states, part of larger empires, or ruled by other nations. Its independence has continued to be threatened on occasion; in 1914 the UK joined the First World War after German armies marched into Belgium as a shortcut to their invasion of France, and in 1940 Belgium suffered a horrifying occupation by the Nazis. Internal division is now the biggest threat to the country, with the 1994 constitutional change making Belgium a federal state reflecting the extent to which its native communities do not integrate well with each other.

Reflecting the history and location of the country, Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch and German. The languages taught at school are French and Dutch. Brussels, the capital of Belgium, also recognises French and Dutch as the two official languages. The extent to which each of these languages are spoken will depend heavily on which region you are located in, and if you are travelling in a new area the signposts and building names should give you a clue about the dominant language used in that location.

A variant of French, Walloon, is spoken by 33% of the population of Belgium, predominantly in the southern area of the country in a region called Wallonia. This is an area which is more economically depressed than the north, with almost twice the rate of unemployment.

A Dutch variant known as Flemish is spoken by 60% of Belgium’s population, mostly in the region of Flanders, the larger and more prosperous northern area of the country.

The third region of Belgium, the Brussels-Capital region, is completely surrounded by Flanders, but only about 22% of the native population speak Flemish, with the rest speaking Walloon. The Brussels-Capital region has experienced a high level of immigration so many other languages are spoken there.

Only 1% of Belgium’s population speaks German as their first language, clustered in the east of Wallonia.

With around 1 in 10 of the residents of Belgium having moved there from other countries, many other languages are spoken which are not officially recognised. Luxembourgish is used by roughly 0.5% of the population, and other languages spoken include Italian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic and Turkish.

Belgium has increasingly struggled with its identity as a unified country where different languages and culture in the three regions are so distinct and segregated, and powers once held by central government have been largely devolved to local governments. The country does not have national political parties, which is leading to problems securing and maintaining long term coalition parliaments while politicians represent only the interests of their own region. The absence of a national newspaper or a national TV channel, with media laws determined and implemented by each separate region for their own area, means the population thinks of news and events in terms of their own region and not with wider perspective on the country as a whole.

There is no national school curriculum. The language spoken in each school will depend on the area in which it is located and the community it serves. This is also true of signage, the public libraries, the local government services, and even the language to be used in election campaign materials which are determined by law. Occasionally materials or signs will be available in both French and Dutch.

There are small areas of the country where these language issues become a problem for residents. The Belgians commonly aspire to live in a leafy suburban environment and it means some of the communities living close to each other have started to intermingle as space is at a premium in this heavily populated country. Rather than bring integration, these situations have caused some communities to feel under threat by groups of incomers who continue to speak their own, separate language and have their children educated in separate classes. It causes particular alarm when the incoming communities wish to take part in local politics using their own language. As this is one unified country, the language of the incomers is an official and native language yet the local political laws may restrict its use in various locations such as council meetings. It is a difficult issue for the people of Belgium to resolve, though the tendency has been for individuals within communities to complain quietly about it and there is little suggestion that this will result in political or social unrest.

Three quarters of Belgium’s trade is with other European Union countries, so many people will have a good grasp of English as a business language. Whilst English lessons in school are not as widely available as might be expected, and the travel and tourist industry represents just 6% of the country’s GDP, many people do speak English to a decent level. The youth culture is centred around music and films from the UK and US, and subtitled films and TV programmes are available at home, so many people pick up English this way. Anecdotal evidence suggests Flemish speakers are likely to speak English to some degree, and Walloon speakers are less likely to; in the city of Brussels a basic knowledge of English could be expected fro, the majority of residents.

It is acceptable to ask if someone speaks English. Trying to speak French in Flanders would be understood but would be socially unwelcome; it is unlikely anyone would be rude to your face but you will either receive a curt reply or the staff would make a few comments between themselves.

Belgium has excellent connections to the internet, and 95% of households have access to cable television, so access to radio and television programmes in English should not be a problem. Films in English can be screened using subscription or on demand services.

Radio X is an English speaking radio station based in Brussels. It also has a website.

English language bookshops are available in most big cities, and Waterstones has a branch in Brussels.

If you wish to work in Belgium teaching English as a foreign language, some private companies will accept competent candidates for the work even if you do not have relevant qualifications and experience. The more qualified and experienced you are, the better the opportunities available.

Teaching English in a state school will usually require a BA in English or an MA for higher level teaching.

The cost of living and taxation in Belgium is high, especially in Brussels. Teaching incomes for unqualified staff are not generous. You are unlikely to be offered a full time salaried job as most English language tutors are paid by the hour. Rates vary enormously, but are usually in the range of €18-38 an hour. Students may be native to Belgium, but many adult immigrants also take English language lessons.

Websites which may get you started on your search for an English teaching job in Belgian include:

Go Overseas Students
Teach Away


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