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.

6 thoughts on “Being multilingual in Belgium”

  1. I’m from Flanders and study in Brussels and all this is something I am confronted with every day (just like you I guess). I suppose I can consider myself to be trilingual (NL-FR-EN) which is almost a neccessity in the city. No one of the staff in my local Delhaize in Oudergem speaks Dutch. At all. When you live there, the first few times you try to be hard headed and keep speaking Dutch, but it’s so contraproductive and just plain tiring you give up. In the end I think it’s an enrichment of your general culture.
    The 7% of people who only speak Dutch and live in Brussels are remarkable indeed. I sure haven’t met any of them. 🙂

  2. Those 7% who only speak Dutch and live in Brussels: maybe toddlers, young children of Dutch-speaking parents? Or people that know French but did not mention it out of some political motivation (language census – talentelling – is a very sensitive issue)?

    What surprises me is that the totals for each column in the spreadsheet is generally less than 90%. What does that mean? That more than 10% only knows English or some other non-Belgian language?

  3. That is mostly the case in Wallonia, which can partly be explained by the German-speaking population present there. Ther’s also the Brussels “> 40” group: these might be eurocrats and/or immigrants.
    On national level, it’s 6% of non-NL/FR/EN speakers in the range < = 40y and 7,5% for > 40y.

  4. Interesting stats – a few comments (from a Brussels-based native EN speaker):

    1. Refering to all EN-speaking foreigners in Brussels/Brabant as “eurocrats” is inaccurate.

    Amongst native EN – and the various very-close-to native EN speakers (who generally prefer speaking EN rather than NL or FR – such as the Nordics) – many work for a variety of private and public organisations (like ITC, R&D, NGOs, Law Firms, Industry Federations, Consultancies, Lobbyists, Academic Institutions, NATO, Embassies etc) or are entrepreneurs.

    Of course there are “eurocrats” in Brussels, but calling all EN-speakers in Brussels/Brabant “eurocrats” plays to a certain, usually negative, stereotype.

    2. I have seen many native EN arrive in Brussels with school-level FR and hardly anyone (unless their partner was NL speaking) saw a need to learn NL.

    But recently there is a small trend for more EN speakers to learn NL (due to work or personal relationship reasons) and there is definitely more awareness of NL in Brussels life than a few years ago.

    However many Brussels-based foreigners, particularly only here for a short period of time, still currently have little incentive to learn NL while in Brussels.

    Native NL speakers don’t appear to push/promote NL that much in shops, bars, restaurants etc in, or eventually get frustrated trying and give up (like in comment 1).

    The NL language community should get credit for it’s efforts; the multilingual “What’s On” supplement with Brussel Deze Week and OPB events for all language communities are great. But targeting some sort of NL cultural language ghetto around Beurs does leave much of Brussels as a NL-free zone.

    3. The blog post touches upon but does not explore where people live and the languages needed for where people work.

    My impression is many Flemish people work in or around multilingual Brussels but are really reluctant to live here. For a few foreigners there is the opposite feeling: prefering to live in more multicultural Brussels and work in Flanders (usually for an international EN-speaking organisation).

    I am sure Flemish speakers are still the most multilingual in Belgium; but is multilingualism as high amongst the Flemish that don’t work in Brussels? Probably – given the amount of EN tv programmes and music in the Flemish media.

    Didn’t mean to write so much, but so much of life in Belgium revolves around language issues …

  5. Arun wrote “I am sure Flemish speakers are still the most multilingual in Belgium; but is multilingualism as high amongst the Flemish that don’t work in Brussels? Probably – given the amount of EN tv programmes and music in the Flemish media.”

    I am a Fleming living in Flanders, but not near Brussels. I can assure you that many Flemings speak English and French too. Their English might be better though. We NEVER watch dubbed movies or television shows (almost always dubbed), we hang out on international forums, and Flemish artists like Deus, Novastar, Ozark Henry sing in English. During the international film festival, movies from countries like Japan are subtitled in English instead of Dutch….
    I myself read lots of Japanese comic books in French( no other translations can be found here).
    At university, some of our books are only available in English, and when there is an Erasmus student, teachers often switch to English.

    You are right, a lot in Belgium revolves around language issues. But that is only natural when you have two different kinds of people living in one artificial country.

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