Friday, January 22, 2010

A country divided

So the first thing you should know about Belgium is that there's an invisible line dividing the country in half horizontally. This is the language border.

To the north is what used to be called Flanders, i.e. the Flemish part of the country. Linguistically and culturally, Flanders is closely aligned with Holland, a.k.a. The Netherlands. The Flemish speak Dutch; in Dutch (an English word that doesn't exist in Dutch) the language is called Nederlands. It's very similar to the Dutch spoken in Holland, but there are differences. Friends tell me it's like the difference between British English and American English.

To the south is a region called Wallonia, which is French-speaking. In the nineteenth century, Wallonia was at the forefront of the industrial revolution in Europe and was much more prosperous than the Flanders, which was primarily agricultural. Beginning in the twentieth century, as the importance of heavy industry declined, Wallonia's fortunes waned and it is now much poorer than the north, with high unemployment.

The linguistic and economic differences between north and south result in a great deal of social and political tension, if not outright conflict. As far as I can make out, the Flemish people don't have much to do with their French-speaking compatriots, and vice versa. I'm told that Dutch-speaking Belgians think of the Walloons as lazy and dirty. (If I had to guess, I bet the French speakers regard their neighbors to the north as uptight workaholics.)

Brussels, the capital, is on the Flemish side of the language border but is primarily French-speaking. There's also a small German-speaking region, which was annexed by Belgium after the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

All of this makes for a very convoluted system of government. Belgium has a king, and is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. There are three regional governments, with jurisdiction over the French, Flemish and German areas. It's actually a bit more complicated than that even, since the linguistic communities and geographic regions aren't the same.

Anyway, one of the first things I wanted to know about Belgium when I decided to move here was "What language do they speak?" Simple question, right? Wrong!

There are three official languages: Dutch, French and German, as well as a fourth "unofficial" language: English. Because everyone has a different native tongue and because of the influence of American media, everyone speaks at least a little English, and most people I've met speak it fluently.

Which is lucky for me, since I don't speak Dutch. I know a little French, which sometimes comes in handy, mostly for reading labels and signs, which tend to be in both languages. I'm starting an intensive Dutch language class next week. So far, I've found it very hard to understand, even a little, and very hard to pronounce. This should be interesting.


  1. My first year in college my House Parents had a baby so several of us took turns baby sitting their 3 year old. The Mom was Dutch, from the Flemish side, and the kids were raised speaking Dutch and English. Every time I asked Vincent to pick out a book for me to read to him for bedtime he'd come running back from his book shelf, giggling, with a book written in Dutch. There was nothing else on earth that gave him more pleasure than to listen to me try to sound out the words in those books! When I asked my house-mates how they did with the books they all said Vincent never tried that with them. Wouldn't you know? :o)

  2. How are the Dutch language lessons going? Thanks for posting your's a fun read. : )

  3. You're fortunate. Here in Wallonie there are very few people who speak any English at all. I think that in our group of friends there are about 4 who speak it well enough to have a simple conversation. But hey, I became an English teacher for a reason so all these non-English speakers are an unlimited supply of students!