6. Why is Belgium not just bilingual?

Although Belgium has three official languages, only the Brussels-Capital Region is officially bilingual.The other federated states are officially monolingual. This is the result of a political evolution that started with the establishment of Belgium in 1831.

Belgium is neither bilingual nor trilingual. In fact, this would mean that both French and Dutch are spoken everywhere in the country, by the population as well as by the authorities. Belgium is subdivided into three monolingual language areas and the bilingual Brussels-Capital Region. Many foreigners ask themselves why Belgium is not just entirely bilingual. This probably seems logical and would make the current complex structure superfluous. However, history has decided otherwise.

Upon the establishment of Belgium, French was introduced as the standard language by an administrative elite who invoked language freedom so that they would not have to learn the language of a large part of the common people. Gradually, this elite faced mounting opposition in Flanders where many Dutch speakerswanted laws to protect their language. Such laws would result in equal treatment of Dutch and French in all sectors of society. As soon as the language laws were introduced the problem arose as to how they were to be enforced. Those who did not want to learn the language with a lower status - Dutch - started to sabotage matters. This revealed the limited nature of the language laws. Later on, the Vlaamse Beweging (Flemish Movement) would therefore argue in favour of delineated language areas.

Belgium was finally subdivided into language areas when the language border was fixed in 1962. It is a strict but clear subdivision: in Brussels both Dutch and French are official languages; in Flanders only Dutch and in Wallonia only French.

Source: Living in Translation is written by VRT journalist Michaël Van Droogenbroeck. The brochure is an initiative of the not-for-profit organisation De Rand. See also www.livingintranslation.be.