Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Learning the local tongues

It would have been easy to get by speaking English in Brussels, but improving my French and taking up Flemish has offered me more of an insight into two very different but overlapping sides of Belgian culture, writes Deirdre Lennon.

Tue, Sep 4, 2012, 11:40


It would have been easy to get by speaking English in Brussels, but improving my French and taking up Flemish has offered me more of an insight into two very different but overlapping sides of Belgian culture, writes Deirdre Lennon.

Deirdre Lennon in Antwerp. Photograph: Gatien Du Bois

Belgium’s capital is considered to be one of Europe’s most multilingual cities, a melting pot of nationalities, a place that young professionals flock to for internships or full-time jobs in the EU, NGOs, or consultancies.

Living in Brussels, it’s easy to get by speaking English, throwing in the odd phrase in French here and there –Belgians are always willing to use the English they have. I arrived in Belgium two years ago armed with adequate Leaving Cert French, but I soon realised the passages I had learned about global warming or my favourite novel would not help when I needed to find an apartment, or deal with Belgian administration – which is not an easy task.

Brussels is designated bilingual, so everything must be in both Flemish and French. But apart from a few enclaves within the city itself, it is dominated by the latter. On my daily pilgrimage to the coffee shop, it has become normal to be greeted with “Goedemiddag/Bonjour”.

My professional life took me from the “European” environment of Brussels – where English was the lingua franca in my previous jobs – to the Flemish city of Antwerp, best known for its diamonds. Working here for the past year has opened my eyes to the major differences between the two main communities in terms on language and identity.

When I say that I work in Antwerp but live in Brussels, it raises a few curious eyebrows, with the next question being: “So do you speak Dutch?” Flemish Belgians, like many Europeans, started learning English from a young age, whether formally in school or by watching non-dubbed television programmes. It would have been easy for me to continue to speak English day in, day out, considering the level of English among those that I work with is very high. I began to pick up the odd phrase here and there, which is not hard to do while working in a communication’s role. My interest piqued, and I started taking Dutch classes.

As an outsider, it is interesting to see how the two languages cross over. Both communities have adopted certain phrases. In the Antwerp region, it’s common to use “merci”, despite the fact that there are many ways of expressing gratitude in Dutch. It had been a while since I began a language from scratch, but being immersed in a Dutch speaking environment has helped my progress.

Central train station in Brussels. Photograph: Gatien du Bois

The country itself is seen outwardly as a divided nation, split into the Flemish, Wallonian and German communities who speak Dutch, French and German respectively. Belgium is also seen as a nation with an extremely complex political situation. Since the 1970s, Belgium’s political parties have honed their agendas based on linguistic or nationalistic interests. During the era in which Belgium famously had no federal government for more than a year and a half, the struggle to ensure equal representation for both sides made the news worldwide. However, each region quietly continued to govern its respective community, until a consensus was eventually reached in December 2011. It surprised me how the transitional government continued to conduct business without relative ease.

I’ve learnt from the Belgians I’ve met here – from Flanders and Wallonia – that the fundamental reason for the linguistic divide lies in the education system. A teenager growing up in Wallonia takes Dutch lessons at school, a Flemish teenager, French lessons, and may fall out of practice due to their select social circles once they reach the university stage. Many younger Belgians seeking work acknowledge the importance of having a high level of both languages for jobs in the public service, as it is required to speak both fluently. The majority of Flemish community and the French community don’t watch the same news programmes or holiday programmes, and are interested in different home-grown celebrities.

Generally, younger Belgians are open about the language issue. Those who are bilingual and have family from both communities are flexible to the demands of the languages and are proud of their heritage. They have no issue with switching between the two if needed. There are also those who believe that a stronger emphasis on the other language during early schooling might encourage more of a mix between Flemish and French speakers.

While Belgium’s communities remain firmly divided on political and linguistic issues and can function almost independently, living in Brussels and working in Antwerp has given me, as an emigrant, the opportunity to get to know people from both Flanders and Wallonia, and to see what makes them similar and how they differ. Having a few words of the local language can make a huge difference when it comes to important tasks such as ordering a Trappist beer or finding one’s way around. On the other hand, my commuter lifestyle means that I have accidently ordered my morning coffee using a mixture of French and Dutch on more than one occasion.

For more emigrant perspectives on getting to grips with new languages, see Talking the talk, a Generation Emigration feature published last month.

View over Antwerp. Photograph: Gatien Du Bois