Being multilingual in Belgium

Who doesn’t like a good controversy? The Belgian government statistics site has just released a study on language knowledge in Belgium. This study has numbers for Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia separately. Let’s take a look:


Can be found via the statbel page cited above: knowledge of 1, 2 or 3 languages, in the age groups <= 40 and > 40. The numbers are a bit weird (e.g. the number of people that speak NL+FR includes those who speak NL+FR+EN, so the numbers add up to something way bigger than 100%), but I recalculated them in order to make sense and be easily chartable.


The charts

Belgium: overall stats

I actually got these numbers by taking a weighted average of the separate numbers for Brussels (1 mio inhabitants), Flanders (6 mio) and Wallonia (3,3 mio). It is not 100% accurate (the population distribution below and above age 40 might be different) but gives a good approximation.

Most remarkable here: the generation gap. Multi-linguism has gone way up in the age group < 40 years, mostly thanks to more mastering of English. The occurrence of people speaking 3 languages has doubled!


Wow, what is this? 7% of people in Brussels only speak Dutch (NL)? They must be having a hard time getting anything done, like, shopping or asking for directions. The rise in FR-EN might be due to the inflow of English speaking eurocrats that learn French as a second language. That rise also seems to be the reason why tri-linguism has dropped. I think the “FR” colums also includes people that speak Polish and French, or Arab and French.


That’s the Flemish education system for you! 12% of young people speak only 1 language, and almost 60% speak 3 languages. The FR-EN column might be the eurocrats again, living between Brussels and Leuven.


It’s the inverse of Flanders: half of the people only speak French, and only 10% speaks 3 langauges. If they can be bothered to learn a second language, it’s mostly not Dutch. Why learn Dutch? We would only need it to find a job in Brussels…

In 2005 we had a French-speaking senator who signed a contract with Bernie Ecclestone (Formula 1) without reading it since he did not understand the English. And more recently the French-speaking press publishers sued Google for something which only proved that they did not understand how search engines work. Luckily for them the judge did not either, and they won.

They’re gonna need more than that Marshall plan.


Authors of the study:

Artikel door Victor A. Ginsburgh (ECARES, Université Libre de Bruxelles en CORE, Université catholique de Louvain) en Shlomo Weber (CORE, Université catholique de Louvain, Southern Methodist University, Texas et CEPR). Maart 2006, gereviseerd versie september 2006.

💬 Belgium