Belgium is famed for being the beating heart of the European Union, while foodies also flock there to enjoy its chocolate, waffles, beer and more. But what language is spoken in Belgium? And why is it so easy to offend someone by speaking the ‘wrong’ language in Belgium? Read on to find out!
Belgium is nestled between France, Germany and the Netherlands, in Western Europe. Covering around 30,000 square kilometres, it is a relatively small country and also one of the most densely populated on the continent.
The influences of Belgium’s neighbouring countries are inextricably intertwined with its history, as well as with its languages. In fact, Belgium doesn’t have a single ‘Belgian’ language, but rather three official languages: Flemish Dutch, French and German.
Almost all of Belgium’s 12 million residents speak one or more of these languages, while some 38-55% of the population (estimates vary) also speak English as a second language (or in some cases, third or fourth). Belgian speakers of Flemish Dutch, French and German can be fiercely loyal to their native tongue, as we explore in more detail below.
Flemish Dutch is the most spoken of the three languages, with around 59% of the population speaking this as their primary language. French is spoken by around 40% of Belgians as their primary tongue, while just 1% of the population speaks German as their first language.
Many Belgians also speak one or more second languages. 16% speak Flemish Dutch as a second language, 49% speak French and 22% speak German. In fact, Belgium is well ahead of many EU countries when it comes to the multilingual abilities of its residents. Eurobarometer reports that 38% of Belgians use a second or third language at work, while 27% are capable of conversing in three or more languages.
Official Languages of Belgium
Are you looking for facts about the language in Belgium? If so, you’re in the right place. There isn’t just one official language of Belgium, but three: Flemish Dutch, French and German. That’s despite fewer than 1% of Belgians speaking German as their primary tongue.
Belgians are, as a nation, extremely committed to language learning. Children in the German-speaking part of the country start learning other languages from the age of three. Eurobarometer, meanwhile, reports that 88% of Belgians believe that the improvement of language skills should be a policy priority.
Let’s get on board with this focus on languages and take a closer look at a few Belgian language quirks.
What language do they speak in Belgium? Referred to as Flemish by the locals (and many of those outside of Belgium as well), the Dutch spoken in Belgium is similar to that spoken in the Netherlands, though with some notable differences in vocabulary and pronunciation.
Flemish Dutch is the most spoken of Belgium’s three official languages and is enshrined in law, along with French and German, though the country’s constitution does not explicitly mention specific languages. It is spoken as a primary language by around 6.5 million residents, most of them located in the northern region of Flanders.
What languages do Belgians speak outside of the north of the country? Mainly French. It is the second national language of Belgium in terms of speaker numbers, with 4.5 million people using French as their first language.
Most of Belgium’s French speakers are located in the southern Wallonia region, as well as in the capital, Brussels. This is despite Brussels being in the Flemish-speaking Flanders region (we look more at the languages spoken in different regions of Belgium below).
The French spoken in Belgium is largely similar to that spoken in France, though there are distinct differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, just as there are between Flemish Dutch and Standard Dutch. These differences are distinct enough that you would certainly want to use a translator living in Belgium rather than France if you were providing English to French translation services for a client doing business in Belgium. However, you would certainly be able to get by in Belgium speaking French learned in France, once you had attuned your ear to the local accent.
The Belgian national language with the fewest speakers is German. For this language, Belgium is home to just 75,000 primary language speakers, almost all of whom reside in the eastern region of Liege, situated next to Belgium’s border with Germany.
While not the main language in Belgium, German still has official status alongside Flemish Dutch and French. It is more closely aligned to the German spoken in Germany than either Flemish Dutch of the French spoken in Belgium are to their mother tongues.
Why Does Belgium Have Three Official Languages?
As home to more than one official language, Belgium clearly has an interesting history. The country’s wide variety of historical rulers is a key factor in this. The Kingdom of Belgium, as it is officially called today, was formed in 1830.
Long before its unification in 1830, Belgium has been home to fierce linguistic loyalty and opposition. In fact, the language-based quarrels date all the way back to AD 843, when Roman Emperor Charlemagne divided his kingdom between his three grandsons in the Treaty of Verdun. The division saw Wallonia remain a part of the Latin-speaking Roman Empire, while Flanders was part of the German Frankish lands.
Over subsequent years, many other nations helped to muddy the linguistic waters, with Spanish, Austrian and French kings all owning the area at one time or another. Wealth built up over the centuries as a result of the cloth trade, while cultural pursuits such as art flourished during particularly peaceful periods.
Rather than healing linguistic divides, the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830, when residents rose up against Dutch ruler William of Orange, only served to deepen the divides between the Dutch- and French-speaking communities. Flemish Dutch was generally spoken by the working classes, while French was the language of government and the elite.
While the official use of Flemish Dutch and French in Belgium date back centuries, German is a comparative newcomer. The German-speaking part of Belgium only became part of the Kingdom as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, at the end of World War I, when it was ceded to Belgium by the former German Empire. Germany took it back during World War II, but it was subsequently returned to Belgium.
These numerous political decisions and actions have led to the language map of Belgium that we see today, with its three official languages, as well as handful of legally recognised minority languages and dialects.
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How Many Languages Are Spoken in Belgium?
What language do people in Belgium speak other than the country’s three official languages? Several! The country is home to a number of non-official Romance languages, as well as several non-official Germanic languages.
Romance languages and dialects used in modern-day Belgium include Walloon, Picard, Champenois and Lorrain. All four of these are related to French and all four have been legally recognised by the Belgian government since 1990.
When it comes to Germanic dialects and minority languages, Belgium is home to West Flemish, Limburgish and Luxembourgish. Other dialects include East Flemish, Brabantian, Low Dietsch, Moselle Franconian and Ripuarian.
Marols (also called Brusseleir) is a mixture of French and Dutch influences that is spoken in Brussels, but the language is close to extinction.
Belgium is also home to some 20,000 Yiddish speakers as a result of the community of Ashkenazi Jews living in Antwerp. This is one of only a few Jewish communities around the world where Yiddish is still spoken as the dominant language.
There are also some 10,000 Romani or Sinti living in Belgium, many of whom speak Sinte Romani, a language from the Northwestern Romani group.
The Belgium language map also includes a number of immigrant languages, as a result of people movements over the past several decades. These languages include Berber, Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Polish and English.
Which Language Should You Speak If You’re in Belgium?
Many European countries have managed to blend their linguistic influences into a single, core language, or at least set up systems whereby different languages can peacefully and practically coexist without any major issues. Sadly, this is not the case in Belgium.
Belgium’s native languages can be a deeply divisive issue. The different linguistic communities do not exist in harmony. This means that, as a visitor, which language you need to use in Belgium can be a tricky topic.
Generally speaking, if you’re visiting the north of Belgium, then Flemish Dutch will be most useful to you. If you’re heading south, however, be sure to brush up on your French vocabulary before you arrive. And if you’re heading to Liege in the eastern part of the country, be sure to have a German phrasebook to hand. You can click the link below for a comparison of how hard each of these languages is to learn.
Read more: What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?
While the main language in Belgium is Flemish Dutch in terms of speaker numbers, visitors should not assume that this is the first language to try if they don’t know the origin of the person to whom they are speaking. Instead, language choice should be based on the region being visited. Let’s take a look at that in more detail.
The Main Languages Per Region
We’ve already touched briefly on the broad north/south linguistic divide between Flemish Dutch and French in Belgium (with German off to the east), but linguistic regional matters are actually more complex than a straight division across the middle of the country.
Belgium is officially home to three regions: the northern Flemish Region, the southern Walloon Region and the Brussels Capital Region. The German-speaking community is located in the eastern part of the Walloon Region.
Languages Spoken in Brussels
The major complicating factor when it comes to dividing Belgium up by languages is Brussels. The Brussels Capital Region is home to 19 municipalities, including the City of Brussels. Despite being located in Dutch-speaking Flanders, the majority of those living in Brussels speak French.
This has certainly not always been the case. The 1846 language census round that 61% of those living in Brussels spoke Dutch, while 39% spoke French. It was in 1900 that the city first recorded more French speakers than Flemish Dutch speakers and nowadays some 80% of Brussels’ residents speak French as their primary language.
Officially, Brussels is a dual language city that is part of both the French community and the Flemish Dutch community. This means that road signs and municipal facilities use both French and Flemish Dutch, but deep linguistic tensions still remain. As recently as 2011, for example, the French community changed its name to the Walloon-Brussels Federation in order to make a political point.
The Main Languages in Walloon
Walloon is home to several other languages and dialects. What is the language of Belgium in Walloon? Officially, it is French, but you can also hear Walloon, Picard, Champenois and Lorrain spoken within this area.
The Main Languages in Flanders
The primary language of Belgium in Flanders is Flemish Dutch, but the region is also home to speakers of Limburgish and West Flemish. Low Dietsch, meanwhile, is spoken in Liege.
As we’ve shown above, asking ‘What is the official language of Belgium?’ is not a quick question to answer. After centuries of rule by foreigners, each of whom had their own ideas about what language in Belgium should look like, the country is still struggling to find a harmonious balance between its French speakers and its Flemish Dutch speakers, as well as its small but significant German-speaking community.
If you are interested in doing business in Belgium, getting language-based nuances right is extremely important. Using the wrong tongue could not only cost you time and money, in terms of needing to redo your translations, but could also offend those with whom you are looking to do business. But don’t fret – Tomedes is here to help! Use our website to obtain a translation quote today, to get started with your Belgian business venture.