Belgium’s Language Divide Affects Everything From Government to Soccer Clubs

The divide between French speakers and Dutch speakers in Belgium has grown increasingly intractable, and currently affects everything from how well the country’s government does (or does not) function to coaching schoolchildren at a soccer club.

According to the Associated Press, the KFC Strombeek soccer club of Grimbergen, Belgium has been officially banned from coaching children’s soccer in French. Apparently, when Dutch-speaking citizens of the town heard coaches were speaking French to some of the children (presumably, children who already spoke French), they organized a petition to ensure that future coaching sessions were conducted entirely in Dutch.

That might seem mean-spirited, but it’s symptomatic of a divide that extends throughout Belgian society. In fact, over 2 months after the last elections, Belgium’s government is at a standstill as French and Dutch factions of 7 political parties try to negotiate the next steps.  The party that won the elections, the New Flemish Alliance, wants to split the country in two.

The bulk of Belgium’s economic activity and prosperity is concentrated in the Dutch half of the country, leading many Dutch speakers to resent their French-speaking countrymen. But why take these tensions out on a soccer club?

That’s what Christian Donneux, the president of the soccer club, would like to know. He told the AP:

“We are a sports club, not a political party. Many of my patients here in Grimbergen are Francophones. Am I supposed to send them away?”

Meanwhile, Robert Timmermans, the man who organized the petition against the soccer club, watched a group of French-speaking children at practice and declared:

“They must be coached in Dutch. This is our soccer field. (Dutch-speakers) paid for it. It is our tax money. Grimbergen is a Dutch-speaking town.”‘

6 replies
  1. Robert Derbyshire
    Robert Derbyshire says:

    Language politics are extremely interesting. As an English native speaker who has studied several different languages, wherever I go I meet people wanting to speak English, and a ridiculous and pathetic battle takes place where they go on speaking English, and I carry on speaking their language, until one of us caves, usually me. In this situation, speaking the other person’s language is saying – I have no confidence in your ability to speak my language, and I am better at your language, and anyway I want to practice so give up!

    The situation you have described is the opposite – where one culture feels threatened by another, and takes this out in fairly petty ways, as described in the petition above. Somehow, this situation feels more ominous than the one I described, which is purely selfish!

    I hope they can come to a good resolution in Belgium which does not involve splitting the country. I know it is uncomfortable to maintain the artificial status-quo of two, equally placed languages, but it is surely better than creating two states.

    Reply
    • Caroline Mikolajczyk
      Caroline Mikolajczyk says:

      Hey Robert! I totally agree with you. I guess it’s all about compromise and understand each one’s point of view. For the 1st part of your comment, i understand what you mean, being French myself, i try to speak English as much as i can because i want to improve and sometimes i don’t really make the effort to speak French with English speaking people…i will try to make an effort 🙂

      Reply
  2. Maria Helena
    Maria Helena says:

    I absolutely agree with Robert! Your second statement is exactly about what’s happening in Belgium and is the correct one: a culture is threatened by the other and takes it out in a fairly pretty way… all this leading to outrageous situations like the one exposed in the article… Of course, we also need to get to know the history of Belgium to maybe understand the attitudes of the so called flemish radicalists. Nevertheless, is that a reason to act in such outrageous ways??? Of course not!
    I’m Belgian, from portuguese parents and speak 5 languages including Flemish. I also knew that “communication” is the solvent of all problems and it doesn’t matter in which language we do it. What is important is to be able to “communicate”, which will lead to “culture”. BUT no matter what is the situation, we need to leave our “ego” on the side.

    Reply
  3. Caroline Mikolajczyk
    Caroline Mikolajczyk says:

    Hey Maria! thanks for participating in the conversation, im glad to have the point of view of a native 🙂 I think you are very right about communication, i believe that it’s the key in a lot of situations!Great comment 🙂

    Reply
  4. Babatunde Williams
    Babatunde Williams says:

    And this is why the United States needs to establish English as the official language of the entire nation. There are many Hispanic immigrants and citizens who think Spanish should have equal status- which is absolute nonsense!

    Reply

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