Do they speak French in Belgium?

The case of the French language as it pertains to France and Belgium is an interesting one. It isn’t always clear to foreigners why other countries of Europe seem to be using “the Language of France”or how France allows for such a borrowing to take place. Let us shed some light on the question.

In Europe, the countries that use French as a native language are Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. All of these countries have a perfectly legitimate use of French. Contrary to widespread belief, French was never the “belonging” of France. The development of the language actually predates the formation of these nations. Think of it as a stretch of land which developed over hundreds of years in which various groups of humans spoke a form of Latin that would eventually lead to French.

We should not forget that well into the 20th century, the country of France itself was not unified by one language. The nowaday-version of the French language which is now spoken was imposed in a rather muscular way upon its citizens who more often than not spoke dialects at home. In an effort to repair the damage done, France has been reintroducing dialects such as Occitan and Breton in schools.

The main difference between France and Belgium is in the size of the territory where French is spoken. In Belgium, French is only spoken in the Southern half of the territory whereas France is a monolingual country in which only one language is spoken throughout the whole surface of the country. This specificity also makes France the only monolingual country of the four: Luxembourg, Switzerland and Belgium all have second and third languages that are used officially.

Belgium shares a border with the North of France. It is a politically-complicated country which has 2 official languages to represent the 2 different communities. One half of the country speaks French, the other speaks Dutch – the same language as the Netherlands. If you were to step over the border from France to Belgium, you would nonetheless encounter a seamless use of the French language.

The reader of this blog post will perhaps have seen on certain maps that the French speakers of Belgium are called the “Walloons” and the Dutch speakers the “Flemish”. This classification is overgeneralizing and not representative of the facts. There are French speakers of Belgium who are not Walloons at all.

The Belgian speakers of French who are not Walloons might call themselves “francophone Belgians” and might live in a big city like Brussels or Namur. A “true” Walloon is somewhat of an unclear term that is both geographical and social. It may even border of the derogatory, in the same way the USA views parts of the Midwest or Florida.

I myself am a prime example of the complicated nature of Belgium’s linguistic division: I am neither Walloon nor Flemish. I grew up in the Dutch-speaking community of Belgium but went to school in French-speaking Brussels, which can be seen as a third cultural Community within Belgium. Because I was not a speaker of Flemish, I am foreign to their culture despite having I lived there for over 20 years. A Flemish person would not recognize me as one of their own.

The French-speaking city of Brussels is where I was educated and it is as French-speaking as any other city from France. A striking oddity about Brussels is that even though it counts over 90% of French speakers and is the largest concentration of French speakers of any city in Belgium, it is not the capital city of the French speakers or of the walloons. Brussels is indeed the capital city of Flemish speakers, even though very few people actually speak Flemish there.

Technically, Brussels is located in Flanders, which is the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. Hence, the speakers of French are not able to claim it as their cultural stronghold. It is a sort of “island” similar to the yin and yang symbol: the black dot in the white space would represent Brussels surrounded by speakers of Flemish.

As many capital cities, Brussels is diverse which perhaps justifies the argument for it being a third Community. Some inhabitants of Brussels (either French or Dutch-speaking) might consider themselves to be genuine “Bruxellois” (residents of Brussels) – as one might consider themselves a real “New-Yorker” as opposed to an American.

When it comes to the media, the TV that Belgians watch is all in French. The exact same French as they use in France or Switzerland. As children, we would just as easily switch to French TV stations as we would to French-speaking Belgian ones. Our choice depended on which channel was showing the better cartoons. It would not
occur to a Belgian that the language in France was any different from theirs or that there was any cultural barrier that prevented full understanding.

For those who still have doubts, a quick glance at the map of Europe should put to rest any concerns about there being different versions of French. The distances between the 4 French-speaking countries of Europe are so small that it would be a major linguistic oddity if 4 versions of French had developed independently from one another. If the two Correas speak the same language despite their antagonistic relationship, we can well imagine how unrealistic it would be to suppose that 4 peaceful countries with a desire for exchange might have grown apart linguistically.

To conclude, French only has to be learned once and will safely carry you through all francophone countries internationally. There will be no adaptation period when going to Belgium, Switzerland or Luxembourg.

French is French, wherever we are.

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