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Multilingual Brussels

1. What is the official language regime in the Brussels Region and its surroundings ?

The nineteen municipalities of Brussels Capital Region are officially bilingual, which means that both Dutch and French enjoy the status of official language. In these communes, all official documents, public announcements, street names and road signs must be provided in both Dutch and French. In its relations with individual citizens, the public administration must use French or Dutch, as the citizen prefers. And compulsory public education, both primary and secondary, must take either French or Dutch as the medium of instruction. By contrast, with a few exceptions, each commune in Flanders and Wallonia has only one official language, Dutch in Flanders and French in Wallonia. This is the language in which all official relations between the citizens and the public authorities must be administered and in which public education must be organised. The exceptions are 9 Walloon communes in which German is the official language, 2 more Walloon communes with “linguistic facilities” for German, 4 with “linguistic facilities” for Dutch, and 12 Flemish communes, including six adjacent to the Brussels region, with “linguistic facilities” for French. The linguistic facilities consist in some limited rights for a second language in administrative and educational matters.

2. What are the native languages of the Brussels population ?

Ever since the middle ages until the 19th century, the overwhelming majority of the Brussels people had as its native language some dialect of Dutch. French came in as the language of court of the Duke of Burgundy in the 15th century and remained mainly the language of the Brussels elites throughout the following centuries. The situation changed after 1830, when Brussels became the capital of an officially unilingual Francophone state and primary education became accessible to a growing proportion of the children. This triggered a gradual Frenchization of both the original population and Flemish immigrants. Even after the recognition of Dutch as Belgium’s second official language in in 1898, the process continued and led to a large majority of the population having French as its native language. In recent decennia, however, massive immigration from both European and non-European countries has triggered a dramatic increase in linguistic diversity.
The most reliable recent data available are based on a representative sample of 2500 officially registered adult Brusselers surveyed at the end of 2011 for the Taalbarometer of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. They can be compared to similar data collected in 2001 and 2006. The following table gives the proportions of respondents who mention the various languages when asked which languages they spoke at home when they were children, whether exclusively or in combination.

Mother tongue200120062011
French 71.0 76.4 63.2
English 2.9 2.3 2.5
Dutch 19.3 15.6 19.6
Arabic 9.7 6.9 21.1
Spanish 2.5 2.9 3.0
German 1.6 1.8 0.9
Italian 2.5 3.2 2.5

The rise of Arabic into second position (all variants taken together, but mostly darija, or the Moroccan variant of Arabic) is particularly pronounced in the younger generation : 27% of those between age 18 and 24 have Arabic as one of their native languages, compared to 17% for Dutch. Over half of the young Brusselers born in Brussels have been raised in households in which two (49%) or more (4%) languages were spoken. Those who have only French (not in combination with Dutch, Arabic or other languages) as their native language are now only 34% of the total, compared to 52% ten years ago, while those with only Dutch as their native language are now 5%, compared to 9% ten years ago. This suffices to indicate how far Brussels has been moving from being just a place where “pure” Dutch native speakers and “pure” French native speakers live side by side.

3. What languages do Brusselers know ?

No one can know how many languages are known by at least some Brusselers, but there must be hundreds. In the 2011 Taalbarometer survey, people were asked which languages they spoke well or very well. In the sample consisting of 2500 Brussels residents (0.2% of the Brussels population), 104 different languages were mentioned, compared to 72 in a similar sample ten years earlier. This proficiency is of course very unequally divided between languages, even though Brussels’s three most widely known languages have been losing ground in recent years.
The following table gives the proportion of adult Brusselers who claim to speak Brussels’ main languages well or very well, according to the three sets of Taalbarometer data.

French 95.5 95.6 88.5
English 33.3 35.4 29.7
Dutch 33.3 28.3 23.1
Arabic 10.1 6.6 17.9
Spanish 6.9 7.4 8.9
German 7.1 5.6 7.0
Italian 4.7 5.7 5.2
Turkish 3.3 1.5 4.5

Thus, Brussels’ most common native language, French, is also by far the dominant language in terms of proficiency. By contrast, English, Brussels’s second language in terms of proficiency is the native language of only 2.5% of the population. Dutch remains in third position, but the gap with Arabic is closing, even though there are less Brusselers claiming to have a good knowledge of Arabic than mentioning (some version of) Arabic as one of their native languages. Note also that proficiency in each of the three most widely spread languages is declining. The proportion of the Brussels population that has no good knowledge of either French or Dutch or English has now reached 8%, compared to 2.5% five years earlier.

4. What is the place of languages in the curriculum of French-language schools in Brussels ?

The publicly funded schools of the Brussels Region consist in six years at primary level and another six years at secondary level. They are run either by the French Community (the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, about 80% of Brussels’s pupils, also in charge of Wallonia’s education system) or by the Flemish Community (Vlaamse Gemeenschap, about 20% of the pupils, also in charge of Flanders’s education system). By virtue of a national law dating back to 1963, some teaching of the second national language is compulsory at both primary and secondary level in all schools of both Communities located in the Brussels Region or in communes with “linguistic facilities” : Dutch in all French-language schools, French in all Dutch-language schools.
In Brussels’ French-language primary schools, Dutch is taught 3 hours a week in years 3 and 4 and five hours a week in years 5 and 6, whereas it is taught only in years 5 and 6 for 2 hours a week in Walloon schools. However, the competence acquired in Dutch is not taken into account in the test for the primary school degree (Certificat d’études de base or C.E.B.).
In the first two years of Brussels’ French-language secondary schools, all pupils have 4 hours of Dutch per week. (In Walloon schools, English can be chosen instead.) From the third year onwards, there is a big difference between sections. In general and technical sections, all pupils have to be taught at least one additional language, starting in year 3. In most cases, this third language is English, even though German can in principle also be chosen. In some subsections, there is the possibility of choosing a fourth language in years 5 and 6. Depending on the school, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian may be offered. In professional sections, by contrast, language lessons are (very modestly) present only in some subsections, and over 50% of the pupils who graduate from a professional section have had neither Dutch nor English in the course of their four years.

5. What is the place of languages in the curriculum of Dutch-language schools in Brussels ?

In the Dutch-language schools located in Brussels, French as a second language is compulsory for 3 hours a week in years 3-4 and 5 hours a week in years 5-6 (it only starts in year 5 in Flanders), but many Brussels schools already start teaching French in the first year. The target level in French at the end of primary education is the A1 level of the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference).
At secondary level, all pupils in Brussels’ Dutch-language schools are required to learn at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue. In years 1 and 2, French is taught three to four hours per week and English two hours per week. In years 3 to 6, both French and English are instructed for at least two, but generally three hours per week. In addition, a fourth language can be introduced in years 5 and 6. The choice of the languages offered at this stage is left to each school. It used to be restricted to German, Spanish, Italian and Russian. From 2014 onwards, any language can be chosen by the school, providing there is enough demand and teachers can be found. Overall, 20% of the secondary education curriculum is devoted to languages. The learning objectives for French and English at the end of secondary education are pitched at the B1 level of the CEFR.

6. What is the place of languages in the curriculum of European schools in Brussels ?

There are currently four permanent European Schools in Brussels, at Uccle (Brussels I), Woluwé (Brussels II), Ixelles (Brussels III) and Laeken (Brussels IV), and one temporary one at Forest (Berkendael). Part of the mission of the European Schools is to provide a multinational, multicultural and multilingual environment. Consequently, languages play a prominent role in the curriculum. All European School pupils learn at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue.
After a two-year nursery cycle (ages 4 to 6), education in the European School system consists of a five-year primary cycle (ages 7 to 11) and a seven-year secondary cycle (ages 12 to 18). All the official languages of the European Union are taught as a first language (L1).

Language sections of the European Schools in Brussels - 2013/2014
BR I x x x x x x x x 8
BR II x x x x x x x x x 9
BR III x x x x x x x 7
BR IV x x x x x x x 7
Total 1 4 4 4 1 1 1 2 1 1 3 1 3 1 1 1 1 31

There are 17 different language sections in the Brussels Schools. All four European Schools in Brussels have English, French and German sections and the other language sections are divided out amongst the schools, as can be seen from the table.

Pupils with a native language that is an official language of the European Union but does not yet have a separate language section (Croatian, Estonian, Irish, Latvian, Maltese, Slovak, Slovene) can be enrolled in one of the vehicular language sections (DE, EN and FR). Students Without A Language Section (SWALS) are provided with L1 tuition in dedicated language classes. In addition, Maltese and Irish pupils have the possibility of studying Maltese or Irish as Other National Language (ONL), starting from the nursery cycle.
The study of a second language or L2 (English, French or German) is compulsory throughout the school, from the first year of primary education. From primary year 3 onwards, L2 is also used as a medium of instruction in European Hours and sometimes also as a language of tuition for Art, Music and Physical Education lessons. From secondary year 3 onwards, History and Geography are studied in L2, as is Economics, which may be taken as an option from secondary year 4. In the final two years of secondary school, some pupils may have up to 50% of their teaching time in L2.
All pupils must study a third language (L3) starting from secondary year 2. They may choose to study Latin as an option from secondary year 3 onwards and a fourth language (L4) from secondary year 4.
Language classes are composed of mixed nationalities and are taught mainly by native speakers, and everyday interaction in the playground, the corridors and the recreation rooms enhances the acquisition of other languages and the realisation that using them is not only vital but natural.

7. Are there bilingual schools in Brussels ?

Genuine bilingual schools. Bilingual education in an officially bilingual city seems logical. It is practiced for example in Luxemburg with German and French as languages of instruction in changing proportions at various stages of the curriculum, in addition to Luxemburgish in the kindergarten. In Brussels, however, there are strictly speaking no publicly funded bilingual schools. However, the demand clearly exists, as suggested by the growing number of French-speaking parents who send their children to Dutch-language schools and by opinion surveys that consistently show that a majority of the Brussels population would like to have bilingual schools. Shortly after taking office in May 2013, Brussels’ Minister-President Rudi Vervoort declared that he was determined to “fight for bilingual schools”. Significant moves in this direction, however, would need to overcome the political difficulty of obtaining collaboration between the two Communities (Vlaamse Gemeenschap and Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles) which have exclusive authority over publicly funded schools. They would also face the challenge of recruiting and stabilizing enough teachers with the qualifications required to teach subjects in Dutch.

Immersion in French-language schools. So-called immersion schools can be regarded as a modest variant of bilingual schools. Strictly speaking, such schools cannot be publicly funded under the Belgian language laws, because the organization of publicly funded schools is the exclusive preserve of the three Communities, each defined by its medium of instruction — Dutch, French, and German. Since 1998, however, the French Community has allowed some of its schools to become immersion schools by presenting the teaching of some subjects in a language other than French as a way of teaching that language rather than as the use of a second medium of instruction. In 2011-2012, 158 of its primary schools (10 of them in Brussels) and 98 of its secondary schools (17 of them in Brussels) had some immersion classes in either Dutch or English (see list). In Brussels, immersion is always in Dutch at primary school and in the first two years of secondary school. It can in principle also be English in later years, but the offer, so far, has been very scarce (see list). Teaching in the second language varies from 8 to 18 hours per week. Despite the publicity surrounding it, immersion remains a marginal phenomenon in the schools of the French Community. In Wallonia, about 5% of primary school pupils are concerned, with a peak at 11.4 % in Brabant wallon. In Brussels the percentage is only 1.2%.

Immersion in Dutch-language schools. As to the Flemish Community, its official position used to be less favourable towards immersion schools, especially in and around Brussels. The reason given is that a large proportion of the pupils in the Dutch-language schools of the Brussels area do not have Dutch as their native language. For them, attending school in Dutch is already a form of submersion (see below). In particular, using French as an additional medium of instruction when a significant proportion of the pupils has French as its native (or street) language risks impairing the learning of Dutch to such an extent that pupils will never achieve the level of Dutch required for success in secondary and higher education. Despite these reservations, immersion education in Italian and Spanish was offered in a few schools until 2011 at the initiative of the Molenbeek-based association Foyer, experimentation has been continuing in a handful of schools as part of the Stimob project (Stimulating Multilingual Education in Brussels), and the Flemish Parliament decided, on 10 July 2013, to allow for immersion under some conditions, both in Flanders and in Brussels.

8. Are there multilingual media in Brussels ?

Audiovisual. The local TV channels are TéléBruxelles and tvbrussel, respectively in French and chiefly in Dutch. However, tvbrussel operates to some extent trilingually. Its programmes in Dutch are subtitled in French and English, and interviews in French or English are subtitled in the other two languages. There are various Brussels-based radio channels in French, Dutch and other languages. FMBrussel offers programmes in both Dutch and French. The radio station BXFM aims at “Eurobrusselers” and offers radio programmes in French, English, Italian and Spanish.

Printed. There is no local daily newspaper in Brussels, but the French-language national dailies have Brussels pages, and one of them started a website in English : Le Soir in English. The Dutch-language Brussels weekly Brussel Deze Week has a weekly cultural supplement (Agenda) and a quarterly cultural supplement for Brussels children (Kidsgazette), both in Dutch, French and English.

Online. In Brussels, as elsewhere, traditional printed and audiovisual media are being supplemented and partly replaced by websites and blogs, many of them operating in two, three or more languages.

The answers to the questions featuring under the five headings on our homepage express the convictions that underlie the Marnix Plan. Some of them are universally shared. Others are controversial. Well-documented objections are most welcome (at info@marnixplan.com) and could lead us to revise our views. The success of the Marnix Plan depends on its being firmly rooted in a lucid analysis of Brussels and the world as they are, of the opportunities they offer to our hopes but also of the obstacles they put in their way.

We are particularly grateful to Hugo Baetens Beardsmore, Aafke Buyl, Manon Buysse, Nicole Bya, Grégor Chapelle, Bastien De Clercq, Rudolf De Smet, Dany Etienne, Rudi Janssens, Kari Kivinen, Johan Leman, Silvia Lucchini, Jessica Mathy, Françoise Pissart, Hannelore Simoens, Marianne van de Graaff for extremely useful material and/or feedback, to Jolien De Paepe and Diederik Vandendriessche for the Dutch translation of the original English version, and to Sophie Dehareng and Amélie Lelangue for its translation into French.

The responsibility for the current formulation, however, is solely ours.

Alex Housen, Anna Sole-Mena, Philippe Van Parijs,
coordinators of the Marnix Plan.