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Belgium/ 4.2 Specific policy issues and recent debates  

4.2.5 Language issues and policies

Language is one of the fundamental bases structuring Belgian society. In addition to the 3 official linguistic communities, there is a plurality of languages in use throughout the country by the many immigrant communities. As the capital of Europe, Brussels is a multilingual city.

The Bel’J project brings Belgium’s 3 Communities (French, Flemish and German-speaking) together in a programme of exchanges and opportunities for young people to volunteer in a Community in Belgium other than their home Community, to help them to discover a culture, bolster language learning and open themselves up to the other Communities in Belgium. Nevertheless, the language question is not limited to the country’s three national languages (French, Dutch and German). Many immigrant communities live in Belgium, and of course Brussels, as the capital of Europe, is a multilingual city.

Flemish Community

The Dutch Language Union (Nederlandse Taalunie) was founded in 1980 as an inter-governmental organisation representing the Netherlands and the Flemish Community. In 2004, Surinam became an associate member of the Union. Since 2007, there are framework agreements for collaboration with Aruba, Curaçao and Sint-Maarten. The Taalunie also signed a letter of intent for closer cooperation with the Republic of South Africa in language-related contexts.

Important societal evolutions - globalisation, digitalisation and economisation - forced the Language Union to reconsider its role. Therefore, it formulated a new mission: the Taalunie stimulates people and parts of society to use Dutch in the most effective and efficient way possible, in order to increase their own opportunities. Therefore, the Taalunie proactively develops language policies, products and services. This way, the Dutch language stays an attractive and vivid language, both within and outside its own language area.

French-speaking Community of Belgium

The French language and ‘la francophonie’

There is a special unit tasked with defending and promoting the French language. It runs three main types of actions:

  • the enrichment and legibility of the French language (e.g. the decree on the feminine linguistic form of job titles);
  • the use and presence of French in the sciences, information and the economic sector, etc.; and
  • the raising of the public’s consciousness of its language: the organisation of major annual events such as ‘la langue française en fête’ or ‘ville des mots’.

There is extensive cooperation in language-related matters with the linguistic bodies in France, Quebec and French-speaking Switzerland.

The French-speaking Community of Belgium is a member of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF). As such, it participates in many working groups (theatre, music, languages, etc.) and specifically in the work being done, in particular on cultural diversity, by countries which share the French language. Indeed, the ‘Forum mondial de la langue française’ is to be held in Liège (Wallonia) in 2015. The French-speaking Community of Belgium is likewise represented at the ‘Jeux de la francophonie’, an opportunity to showcase the originality of the French-speaking cultures in all their diversity and a chance to forge artistic exchanges between the French-speaking countries.

The French-speaking Community of Belgium is also one of the founder members of TV5. As the world’s number one broadcaster of French-speaking cultures, TV5 is beamed into over 270 million living rooms in over 200 countries and territories, where it helps to raise the profile of the pluralism of ‘la francophonie’.

In audio-visual terms, the French-speaking Community of Belgium’s regulatory framework requires editors of TV and radio services to dedicate part of their programming to broadcasting programmes and works in French.

Finally, the French-speaking Community of Belgium is a participating partner in the organisation of the ‘Trophées Francophones du Cinéma’, designed to raise the profile of the French-language movement in the landscape of the world’s major cinematographic events.

Indigenous languages

Indigenous languages which do not hold national language status are used in certain regions of Wallonia. Efforts to defend and protect them are made by supporting literature, linguistics and education. The French-speaking Community of Belgium regards them as an expression of cultural heritage.

Indeed, since 1990, the French-speaking Community of Belgium has recognised the special linguistic and cultural status of the users of ‘indigenous regional languages’. The term embraces all minority tongues developed in parallel with French across the territory, whether they come from the Romance area (Champenois, Lorrain, Picard, Walloon) or the Germanic area (Brussels Brabançon, Thiois or Carolingian Franconian, Luxembourgish or Moselle Franconian).

Learning French as a foreign language

Some associations are supported in the framework of cultural decrees to develop actions around welcoming newcomers and learning French for any person living in Wallonia and Brussels.

The Regions adopted some decrees in 2013 to organise the pathway for new arrivals. This welcome pathway is based around a set of actions coordinated at local level and the networking of competent associations and public operators. A cooperation agreement between the Regions and the French-speaking Community of Belgium (the Culture and Education Unit) concentrates in particular on French learning and literacy training. These courses include a citizenship element based on two pillars: information about the way Belgian society is organised, and the promotion of participation in cultural and social life.

Wallonie-Bruxelles International supports the web-based French learning programme set up by TV5.

German-speaking Community

Protection of and giving prominence to the German language in public life is a field for which the German-speaking Community could yet expand its services in future.

Use of languages in teaching is extensively determined by the statutory language status of the boroughs of the German-language area, which all have language facilities for the French-speaking population. In this regard, the Decree of 19 April 2004 on the Instrumentality and Use of Languages in Teaching makes it possible under certain conditions to set up primary schools in which French or Dutch is the teaching language and then German the first foreign language and to allow secondary schools to allocate subject teaching up to 50% or 65% in French.

The Belgian Radio and Television Centre of the German-speaking Community (BRF), instituted by Act of 18 July 1979, has a remit to offer public radio and television broadcasting services in German and currently has two radio stations and one television channel. Legal entities that broadcast radio or television programmes are obliged to ensure protection of and prominence to the German language in their broadcasts by moderating a certain proportion (75%) of their broadcasts in German.

A further initiative for ensuring prominence to the German language is the prizes awarded by the Council of the German-speaking Community:

  • prizes for authors of literary works or works dealing with topics relating to the German language area; and
  • book prizes for schoolchildren with a particularly good command of the standard German language.

The linguistic exchange between the German-speaking Community and the other two Communities is regulated by the agreements on co-operation. This exchange concerns both the area of culture and media and youth policy and teaching.

Chapter published: 16-01-2018

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