Newcomer Practical Tip 4: Language Issues

Officially Brussels is a bi-lingual region of Belgium, so theoretically it should be possible to speak French and Flemish almost everywhere. The reality of course is a lot more complicated.

Please note:Language is a sensitive issue in Belgium. This article simplifies and generalises a complex issue. The intention is to describe in a clear and balanced way the current situtation.

Depending upon whether you live in Brussels or just outside will have an impact on the languages used in your daily life.

Inside Brussels

For a European capital city (particularly the so-called "Capital of Europe") Brussels population is not that large: approximately one million residents.

In general it is broadly accurate to say Francophone residents are in a majority in the centre and a number of outlying areas of Brussels region. But as you get closer to Flanders, the number of Flemish residents increases noticeably.

While French is often the main default language for initial communication in day-to-day life, do not think Brussels is only a French-speaking city. During the working day the number of Flemish speakers in many parts of the city is at least 50% (as many Flemish commute to Brussels each day).

The number of foreigners in Brussels is steadily on the increase and the use of other languages is rising.

The role of English

In many parts of Brussels (the touristic centre, the EU area and around Avenue Louise) it is perfectly normal to communicate in English. Also among many medium-sized businesses upwards, English is often seen as a neutral working language.

By contrast to Flemish-speakers, for Francophone Belgians the use of English is somewhat patchy.

The "periphery": on the edge

The Brussels region is surrounded by Flanders, which is obviously officially a Flemish-only speaking area.

The area just outside Brussels region and just inside Flanders is refered to as the "periphery": a part of Flanders where a number Francophone (mainly non-Flemish-speakers) have settled. This "periphery"is a constant source of tension, both linguistically and politically.

Understandably the Flemish authorites are promoting the learning of Flemish by non-Flemish speakers. In practice,many Flemish (certainly below the age of 45 years old) have a high level of fluency English and so it is fairly straightforward to get by in English.

Return to: Practial Tips: Introduction

Author: Brussels Legal
Published: 4 December 2005