The Languages of Belgium

In a country of diverse ethnicities and with a population of over 10 million, there are three recognized official languages: Dutch, French and German. In 1962 a law was passed in the Belgium that establishes the language areas and facilities for learning the language. There were four established language areas: The Dutch, the French, the German, and the Brussels-Capital deemed to be a bilingual area. In ethnologic reports, Dutch is said to be spoken by about 60% of the population, followed by French at around 38%, and German about 2%.

Until today however, there are still two distinct linguistic strains widely spoken in large areas of Belgium, apart from the capital region: Flemish (also the colloquial term for the Dutch language used in the country) is used by the people in the north particularly in the Flanders area, and French by the Walloons in the south. Aside from this, there are a number of languages and dialects spoken by minor ethnic groups in the country.

Dutch is the first official language of Belgium, used by about 60% of its population. It is a West Germanic language that is also spoken in the Netherlands, and areas in France. There is no official declaration on when it started but scholars appoint its origins somewhere around 700 AD. The word “Dutch” is said to have come from the old Germanic word “theodisk” which is translated to “of the people.” The Flemish Dutch differs from that of Netherlandic Dutch. The former is considered softer in pronunciation. Dutch is also characterized by a rather complicated word order – two or three words can be joined together to form one long word.  In Flanders where Dutch is the most commonly used language there are about five main dialects: Brabantian, West Flemish, East Flemish, Antwerps and Limburgs. 

The second official language of Belgium is French. This Romance language is the official language of about 30 countries such as Italy, Switzerland and Haiti, and the fourth widely spoken in the European Union. It is said to have had its origins from the Latin language spoken during the Roman Empire.  In Belgium, the dialect or form of French spoken is called Belgian French, differing slightly from that spoken in northern France. Sentences are pronounced differently and the accents also vary depending on the region where it is spoken – for instance, French spoken in Liege is distinct from that spoken in Flanders where many people also speak the language. In Belgium, French is predominantly used in the region of Wallonia (where Walloon is also spoken by residents), as well as the Brussels-Capital Region.  The French-speaking community in Wallonia includes Namur, Hainaut, Luxembourg and Liege. Other dialects related to Belgian French which are spoken in Wallonia include romance languages such as Picard in some parts of Hainaut, Lorraine in areas of Luxembourg and Gaume, and Champenois in Sugny, Bagimont, Pussemange and Bohan.  These languages are still alive but in decline.

Then there is German, still considered an official language even though it is actually spoken by a minority of the population in Belgium (about 1%). The German-speaking community of Belgium consists mainly of the areas that were annexed in Germany. These are Amel, Bullingen, Burg-Reuland, Butgenbach, Eupen, Kelmis, Lontzen, Raeren and Sankt Vith. In Belgium, the German-speaking community actually has its own government which is appointed to post by its own parliament. There are also parts of Liege that uses the German language. Another Germanic language being spoken in parts of Belgium is called Low Dietsch. It is used by residents in areas which have already been part of the Kingdom of Belgium in the 19th century. These areas include Plombieres, Gemmenich, Homburg, Montzen and Welkenraedt.

Other minority languages spoken in Belgium include Yiddish spoken by Orthodox Jews in Antwerp. English is increasingly being used and taught especially in the big cities where tourism is one of the major economic activities. There is also Arabic, Greek, Spanish, Turkish, Italian, Polish and Portuguese. These languages have been brought in by immigrants and their descendants.
Multilingualism is alive and promoted vigorously in Belgium. There is freedom to choose which language to use as decreed in the Constitution and even in the Belgian parliament, translation services are provided for those who want it. However, in the language areas, education is still in the primary official language: Dutch or Flemish in Flanders, French in Wallonia and Brussels and German in the German-speaking community. Business correspondence and communication must also be in the official language of the language area.