Welcome to the linguistic tapestry of Belgium, a country renowned for its rich cultural diversity, where the interplay of languages defines its unique identity. In this exploration of “Languages in Belgium,” we delve into the fascinating coexistence of Dutch, French, and German, unraveling the linguistic nuances that shape the nation’s heritage and daily life. From the bustling bilingual streets of Brussels to the distinct regions of Flanders and Wallonia, join us on a journey to discover how language weaves a vibrant narrative throughout this European crossroads.
Quick Answers about languages in Belgium
The language situation in Belgium
The language situation in Belgium is a quite complex and sensitive topic. To explain it in short, Belgium has 3 official languages: Dutch, French and German.
- The Brussels-Capital Region is bilingual, with both French and Dutch as an official language
- The official language is Flanders is Dutch or Flemish
- The official language in most of Wallonia is French.
- There is a German speaking minority in the east of Wallonia.
Does this sound confusing? Don’t worry, people in Brussels or Flanders will have a good understanding of English. In Wallonia, English is a bit less uncommon, but a few words of French will serve you well.
Belgium regions and communities explained
Due to all the complex diversities in languages and identities, Belgium is subdivided into 3 communities, 3 regions and 4 linguistic area’s, overlapping each other. Here’s a simplified representation.
|Kingdom of Belgium
|Flemish Region (Flanders)
|Walloon Region (Wallonia)
Belgium governments explained
Because language is an important issue in the formation of the Belgian Federal state, we can’t delve into this issue before shortly explaining our somewhat complicated government structure. Here’s a really short version:
- The Kingdom of Belgium is a federal state, run by a federal government.
- The four language areas exist only as geographical circumscriptions, serving to delineate the empowered subdivisions
- All the communities and regions have their own parliament, government and administration.
- All responsibilities of the Flemish Community and the Flemish Region are unified and exercised by one elected Flemish Parliament based in Brussels.
- As a result, Belgium has 6 governments: 1 Federal government + 5 Regional governments.
I admit, our government structure is quite complicated and might seem weird to foreigners. As you can image, language is always an important point on political agendas in Belgium. Due to this complicated issue, we broke the world record of country without an official government twice. However during those times our country continued functioning as usual. During the pandemic, an interim-government was put into place to deal with the urgent matters, so other political issues could be solved after. So in all of this complexity Belgium found a way to balance things out, even during times of crisis.
Belgium Language Map
In order to visually represent things, here’s a map of the official languages in Belgium.
- The Flemish community represents roughly 60% of the people living in Belgium
- The French community represents roughly 39% of the people living in Belgium
- The German community represents roughly 1% of the people living in Belgium
The Flemish community in Belgium
The Flemish community (Vlaamse Gemeenschap) is the largest of the three communities in Belgium. It represents the Flemish Speaking population in Belgium and has legal responsibilities within the precise geographical boundaries of the Dutch-language area and the bilingual Brussels-Capital region. Both the Flemish communities and Flemish Region (Flanders) are unified under the “Flemish Parliament”.
The French community in Belgium
The French community represents the French-speaking population in Belgium. It has its own government, parliament and administration, which operates within the precise geographical boundaries of the French-Language area and the bilingual Brussels-Capital region. The official flag of the French community is identical to the flag of Wallonia.
80% of the French speaking community is living in the Wallonia Region, 20% is living in the Brussels Capital Region. Flanders counts an estimated 400,000 native French speakers as well.
The German-speaking community in Belgium
The German speaking community represents the German-speaking minority of Belgians, living in the Wallonia Region. It has legal responsibilities within the precice geographical boundaries of the German-language area in Wallonia. Despite representing only 1% of the Belgian population, the German speaking community has a parliament, government and administration just like the other lingual communities.
Municipalities with language facilities
French Speakers who live in the Flanders region and Dutch Speakers who live in Wallonia aren’t represented by the parliament of their lingual community, due to the limitations of the jurisdictions.
Belgium counts 27 municipalities with language facilities which must offer linguistic services to their residents in another language then the official language of the region they belong to.
- 12 municipalities in the Flanders regions must offer services in French as well
- 4 Walloon municipalities must offer Flemish services in addition to French.
- 2 Walloon municipalities must offer German services in addition to French
- All municipalities in the German-speaking part of Wallonia must offer French services aside from German
The Different Languages in Belgium
Now that i’ve explained the complexity of the Language situation in Belgium, lets dive deeper into the different languages and dialects that are spoken in Belgium.
Flemish or Dutch, what are the differences?
Dutch is an official language in The Netherlands and Belgium, but also in Curaçao, Sint Maarten, Aruba and Suriname.
The term Flemish has become ambiguous and is used in different contexts. Generally Flemish can be considered as a dialect of the Dutch Language, that’s spoken in Flanders and the Brussels-Capital region.
Spelling wise, there are no differences between Dutch and Flemish. The main differences are the pronunciations and use of words. For example in Flemish we use words from the French language. The standard Flemish is mostly influenced by Brabantian and East-Flemish dialect.
Regional wise there are some strong variations of the Flemish language. Some are considered to be a dialect, others rather a local language on themselves.
Brusselian / Marols dialect
The Brusselian dialect is a heavily Francisized Brabantian Dutch dialect, that originated in the Marolles neighborhood in Brussels.
The West-Flemish language consists out of several dialects, spoken in the Province of West-Flanders and the neighboring Dutch coastal district of Zeelandic Flanders. West-Flemish is spoken by roughly a million people.
For most Flemish people from outside of the region, West-Flemish is often difficult to understand.
Limburgish is an unofficial Language spoken both in the Dutch Province of Limburg as well as in the Belgian province of Limburg. It’s closely related to Dutch, but has German influences as well. The Limburgish language has many regional dialects and variations.
A typical running joke is that people who speak Limburgish in Belgium speak really slow because they stretch the vowels.
Personally I grew up speaking a mixture of dialects and started speaking Limburgish automatically after spending so much time in this beautiful province of Belgium.
Belgian French / Walloon French
Belgian French or Walloon French is a variety of the French Language, that’s widely spoken by the French Community in Belgium. It’s the official language in Wallonia and one of the two official languages in the Brussels Capital Region. Roughly 40% of the Belgian population speaks Belgian French. In addition, Flanders counts an estimated 400,000 native French speakers as well.
Regional Languages in Wallonia
Alongside the Belgian French, there are several regional languages spoken in Wallonia. Linguisticly they are considered regional languages, rather then French dialects. However, don’t worry, if you speak regular French, you’ll get along just fine.
Walloon and French, what are the differences?
Walloon is a regional language, spoken in Wallonia. Although related to French, it’s not a dialect of French. The Walloon language is considered to be spoken by about 600.000 people and is considered to be an endangered language. The language has several regional differences as well as two different spelling methods.
The Picard language is spoken in the western parts of Wallonia and northernmost parts of France. This is another regional language, related to French.
In the South-west of Wallonia near Eupen, bordering the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Luxembourgish language is also spoken by a minority of people. Luxembourgisch is considered a West-Germanic language and is spoken by about 400.000 people world-wide, mostly inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Lorrain / Gaumes
In the South-East of Wallonia, in the Gaume region, the Lorrain language is spoken. In France, it’s classified as a regional language of the Lorraine region. In Belgium it’s referred to as Gaumais. The language is influenced by Lorraine Franconian and Luxembourgish.
Champenois is a regional language in France, spoken in the Champagne and Île-de-France provinces. In Belgium it’s only spoken in the municipality of Vresse-sur-Semois. It is however officially recognized as another regional language in Belgium.
People often confuse Dutch and German and are surprised to hear that only 1% of the Belgian population speaks the German language.
You might wonder why this is the case, well after the first world war, Belgium acquired the regions of Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt-Vith from Germany. Despite the small percentage of people who speak it, it became an official language in Belgium.
Useful words to use in Belgium
Whether you find yourself in the Flemish-speaking Flanders or the French-speaking Wallonia, mastering a few key words in both languages can greatly enhance your experience.
- Hallo / Bonjour (Hello): A friendly greeting suitable for any encounter.
- Dank u wel / Merci (Thank you): Expressing gratitude in the local language is always appreciated.
- Ja / Oui (Yes) / Nee / Non (No): Basic affirmatives and negatives for clear communication.
- Alsjeblieft / S’il vous plaît (Please): Politeness goes a long way, especially when making requests.
- Goedemorgen / Bonjour (Good morning) / Goedemiddag / Bonjour (Good afternoon) / Goedenavond / Bonsoir (Good evening): Polite ways to wish someone well based on the time of day.
- Waar is…? / Où est…? (Where is…?): Essential for seeking directions or locating specific places.
- Lekker / Délicieux (Delicious): A term to express enjoyment of tasty food, a common sentiment in Belgium.
- Goeiedag / Bonjour (Good day): A polite and neutral greeting suitable for various situations.
- Alstublieft / S’il vous plaît (Please): Demonstrates politeness when making requests.
- Dank je wel / Merci beaucoup (Thank you very much): Expresses deeper gratitude for a kind gesture.