Dutch or French? The Line Between the Two Threatens to Divide Belgium

Belgium is like two countries rolled up into one-French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders. Soon, the tension between the two may split the country apart.

French and Dutch spoken in Belgium

The conflict between the two language groups goes back to when the country was founded in the 19th century. At that time, the country’s ruling class spoke French. In fact, if you wanted to be anyone in Belgium, you had to learn to speak French even if you grew up speaking Dutch. However, the majority of the people in Flanders, a slim majority of the population Belgian population as a whole, speaks Dutch (or Flemish). Over time, the Flemings were able to make Dutch the official language of Flanders, while French remained the official language of Wallonia.

A recent article in The Guardian describes just how fragile this linguistic compromise has become: Walloons and Flemings live apart, work apart and generally don’t marry. In the few bilingual communities, French-speaking students learn in separate classrooms from their Dutch-speaking counterparts. The tension between the two groups has left the government crippled.

The article quotes Jeroen Vermeiren, a Flemish bookseller just outside Brussels, who reassured the newspaper that:

“We won’t fall into madness, like Serbia and Croatia. But it creates great emotions on both sides.”

The Guardian wryly notes that while the two halves of Belgium are divided by language and culture, there is something that unites them: the national debt. The article compares the two sides to:

“a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, eyeing divorce but unable to agree on the mortgage liabilities,” and says that “the Flemings and the Walloons may be stuck together because of the cost of splitting up.”

Shared debt is not a good foundation for a country any more than it is for a marriage. Hopefully, the two sides are able to work something out and move ahead amicably, either as fellow citizens or just as neighbors.

2 replies
  1. Mike
    Mike says:

    Belgium presents an interesting set of linguistic, political and cultural problems. One might think that making both languages official at the federal, provincial and local levels could go a long way toward bringing the two halves together.

    Since Europeans are already multilingual as a whole, Belgians could handle such a dual-language arrangement without much difficulty. However, it seems that the problem stems more from cultural identity and history than the inability or lack of desire to learn another language.

  2. Gemma
    Gemma says:

    I disagree with Mike to say the Earopeans are multi-lingual as a whole. While a lot of Europeans have a good grasp of more than one languages; to make such a generalisation is going too far.
    Example: most Dutch people speak a good level of more than 1 language, but they still feel that the Dutch language unites them and expect immigrants to learn the language as it is part of the national identity.
    The unity that a common language brings to a country cannot be denied, and not having one seems to be a disadvantage for Belgium.


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