Language use in practise

So how do all these groups and languages work together in practise? In order to get a good view, we need exact figures, but they don’t exist. Anyhow, it isn’t so simple, because citizens in a multilingual city use different languages in different situations. You could say: just like a monolingual person would also use a variety of registers in his or her contacts with family, friends, colleagues or officials. The >language censuses came to an end in the late forties, because they had become too politically charged. Fortunately, several studies have been conducted in the last few years, based on sample surveys and  these provide a much more nuanced view than the fairly simplistic ‘Dutch or French’ from before.

language skills of Brussels inhabitants

The research conducted in the past few years (Janssens 2001, Extra 2003) has been focussing on the languages that people claim to speak at home (more than 50 different ones), to then compare them with the languages they spoke as a child. We can see, for example, that only one third of all adults that were raised monolingual Dutch, also form monolingual Dutch families themselves. About a third will speak only French and another third becomes bilingual (see also >language shift).

Based on the language group amongst which the inhabitants of Brussels rate themselves, they can be divided into different sections.

source: Janssens 2001:34

We can observe straight away that he political divide Dutch/French, really only applies to about half of the population. 40% cannot be counted to either one of the categories.

Furthermore, the respondents’ language skills were assessed, as well as the domains in which each language was used. For example, many interviewees indicate that they speak English well, but they hardly ever really use it. When we refer to language skills, this includes both languages learnt at home and languages studied at school.

The next table indicates which languages Brussels inhabitants say they speak ‘well to excellently’.



1. French


2. Dutch


3. English


4. German


5. Spanish


6. Arabic


7. Italian


8. Turkish


9. Portuguese, Greek, Russian, Berber

1 to 2%

source: Janssens 2001:39

Most of these languages have been acquired at home. English and German however have mainly been learnt at school. Spanish and Italian are also increasingly visible in the curricula of Brussels schools, even though they are traditionally more home languages. Russian on the other hand, is a language that people from the former Eastern Bloc would have studied, next to their own national languages. In practise, French is the language used most often.

The set below shows the spread of the three most frequently used languages (based on self-assessment of respondents).

source: Jansens 2001:38

It is clear from this diagram that nearly all people who speak Dutch also know French and in many cases English too. So it is fair to deduce that you probably don’t get very far in Brussels with just Dutch. Knowing only French, however, is enough for nearly half of all Brussels inhabitants. Only 3% do not speak any of the three languages ‘well’.

Living in Brussels: Anja Kowalski (33), singer with a German passport

“I have long felt as if I fell between two stools; I have very often wondered how it would be to go into a bakery shop, order a loaf in German and be answered in German. Especially in Antwerp. In Brussels, you don’t even ask yourself the question which group you belong to. Everything and everyone here is so mixed, people speak a patchwork of languages, just like me. And the city itself is a patchwork too.”

“I feel a lot more at ease here. In a city like Brussels, everybody will have to make a bit of an effort, to speak another language than his or her own, in many situations.  That creates more openness, you have to be prepared to enter someone else’s world, if you don’t, you won’t enjoy living here.”

from: Brussel deze week, 02/04/2005

lingua franca: French

Out of the entire Brussels population, about 50% is monolingual French by birth, but French is not only the language of these French speakers, it is also the language most people in Brussels use as a lingua franca. That means that they rely on French in their conversations with speakers of other languages. French is also the first choice in contacts with the world outside in general. Dutch speakers too will speak French or switch to French when the conversation partner appears to speak French.

The red bars in the following graphs indicate the dominant position of French in Brussels.
(all data from Janssens 2001)

contact with neighbours
contact with neighbours

Even though French obviously dominates, 57 other languages or combinations of languages are spoken with neighbours. Sometimes, members of certain language groups also form language communities who live in the same areas. For example, traditionally, a lot of Dutch is spoken in the Northwest of Brussels, so there, people will speak exclusively Dutch with one another. In other parts of the city, the combination of French with another language is most common, which confirms the status of French as the ‘default’ language, even though it is not a mother tongue for about half of the population.

contact with officials
contact with officials

People who live in Brussels can decide whether they want to use Dutch or French in their contacts with the local administration. As English is not an official language, its use will depend on the goodwill of the official. Brussels inhabitants can also choose the language used on their offical papers, such as their driving license or identity card (compulsory document in Belgium). The language use in the administration has long been a hot issue in the >Flemish struggle for emancipation and as a consequence, you would expect all Dutch speakers in Brussels to insist on using Dutch in the town hall. But apparently, that is not the case, Dutch speakers easily switch to French and generally don’t take offense when having to do so. This implies that the political connotation of the administrative situation is not so close to the bone of these Dutch speakers. They are rather flexible and adjust when needed. In principle, all Brussels officials should be bilingual, but this is not always the case. The municipal websites on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach and they offer information in three languages (Dutch/French/English). The Brussels Capital Region website even offers its contents in five languages (Dutch/French/German/English/Spanish)

Living in Brussels: Hilde Wils, actress

“What really bothers me is that explicit Flemish reflex. You have to be a little bit flexible, right? It is very normal to demand that Dutch is spoken in places where it is important you can express yourself properly, but apart from that, I think it is absolute nonsense to say: I only speak Dutch. We are living here with so many people, there is no need to act silly about this. Of course, for a Fleming to speak French everywhere without thinking, is altogether wrong too.”

from: Brussel deze week, 30/06/2005

external contacts at work
external contacts at work

Dutch and English are more prominent in this graph, which should not be surprising, as economic migration lies at the heart of the linguistic diversity of Brussels. Hence, language skills are very important in recruitment. For about one third of all jobs, knowledge of Dutch as well as French is required, whereas English is a prerequisite for one fifth of all vacancies. In any case, jobs which require various language skills are most often taken by Dutch speakers. Brussels employees of all language backgrounds, are usually easy about switching to another language in their contacts with clients or customers.

advertising Brussels businesses
advertising Brussels businesses

The languages used in advertising campaigns are restricted to French, Dutch and English and combinations thereof. The majority of campaigns are run in both Dutch and French, closely followed by monolingual French campaigns. It is interesting to note that English also plays a role in about one fifth of all cases. This may be attributed to the popularity of English in popular culture.


increased use of English


Whereas Dutch and French and many other languages in Brussels are the mother tongue of a number of native speakers, the position of English is different. There are as many people who claim to speak Dutch as there are who speak English. However, the group that uses English as a home language is very small (3%). 1% of those speaks English at home because the partners don’t know each other’s first languages. So you could say that the use of English is mainly functional.  If we take a closer look at the demographic profile of these speakers of English, it becomes clear that the younger and the better educated they are, the better their knowledge of English.

English does not play a major role in the private domain or the neighbourhoods, but it definitely does in the public arena. It is visible on the streets (posters, advertising, notices, shops) and it is also hard to avoid in the media and cultural fields. Even on radio and television, where the official languages are Dutch and French, the language most heard on programmes and music is nevertheless English.


English is also often regarded as the language of the international community, but research has shown that this is really restriced to Northern Europeans, as citizens of other European member states would still opt for French instead. Even English speakers will often use French when they make use of local shops and services.

Notwhithstanding, English has obtained the status of lingua franca on a worldwide scale, which of course is not without consequences in a cosmopolitan city such as Brussels. Even though English does not have a single official right, a lot of information is available in it, and if people want to, they will also be assisted in English in numerous service situations. Moreover, there is an English language weekly magazine in Brussels, called The Bulletin, which sells over 50 000 copies a week and as such can be seen as a considerable influence.
The Bulletin

English is probably most noticeable in business circles, where it may even function as a bridge between French and Dutch speakers. Also in education, English is gaining importance, now that more and more students take a Masters degree in English.

question 7

Do you think that English will gradually become the lingua franca in Brussels and kick French off its pedestal? >Answer

The process of anglicising cannot be compared however, to the Frenchifcation of the earlier years, because it does not per se displace other languages in all domains; at home as well as in public, at work and in school. Nevertheless, its influence is considerable, as English is a language with a very high status and because of its huge economic power, its importance is likely to increase in the future. That is why it is not unrealistic to predict that the knowledge of English in the future will be larger than that of Dutch, particularly in the public domain. However, there is no reason to assume that English would also play a larger role in the private sphere, even though more and more English words are audibly seeping into the Dutch and French used by younger Brussels residents.

language shift

A very natural process in multilingual cities, that language shifts, will continually occur; some languages disappear, others become stronger. This is often a consequence of the social status of a language, think of the story of French and Dutch and more recently, English. Still, it isn’t always this straightforward. For example, Turkish seems to hold its ground in Brussels, even though the majority of Turkish migrants have been in the country for several generations and often belong to the lower social groups. An opposite trend is emerging with Polish, which is a relative necomer in Brussels. The influx of Poles peaked in the late eighties, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and their stay is not always permanent and often even illegal. For that reason, you would expect them to hold on to their language in order to keep their options open for a possible return. Moreover, the Polish community maintains a large social network of organisations, which is normally a positive factor in language maintenance. But still, their children switch faster to one of the two official languages than Turkish children.  A possible explanation could be that the Polish –because of their uncertain status- are more inclined to assimilate and, just like the Flemish and Dutch speakers before them, see French as a way to climb the social ladder. The Turkish on the other hand, look upon their language as a very important aspect of their cultural identity, an identity they are proud of and don’t want to forsake.

Even the position of larger languages is subject to change under the influence of so many other languages. 90% of persons growing up in a monolingual French family, will form a new monolingual French family, the other 10% will combine French with another language. This influence is more drastic among Dutch speakers, as less than one third will set up another monolingual Dutch family. Nearly half will become bilingual Dutch-French and nearly 30% will switch entirely to French. It is also interesting to take a closer look at what happens to bilingual families. A bit under a quarter of them generates another bilingual Dutch-French family, while nearly 70% will switch to French only, and 7% becomes monolingual Dutch.
Among groups of Moroccan descent, we can observe a strong influence of French in the third generation, particulary outside the home where the role of Arabic and Berber is diminishing. But also in the domestic sphere, French is now used in two thirds of all cases, alongside the original home language, which is a clear sign of the influence of French education. On the other hand, a remarkable 8% of people of Moroccan descent, use Dutch at home, which in turn can be attributed to Dutch medium education. (Among Turkish and Southern Europeans, this figure is nil.)

A similar pattern can be found among the Southern Europeans, even though the Frenchification seems stronger there and more families have switched entirely to French (15%). This is understandable, given the fact that French already had a stronger presence in these groups, from the start. Nevertheless, original languages do hold their ground, be it alongside French.
The situation among the better educated EU citizens, Americans and Japanese is slightly different, because they will often not stay permanently in the country and usually send their children to international schools, where they (partly) receive tuition in their own languages. Moreover, their languages generally have a higher social status, so language shifts are less common.

Living in Brussels: Momoyo Kokubu, organist, who has lived in Brussels since 1995

 “When we are all together in the kitchen of the Finisterrae church, everybody speaks a mix of French and Dutch. Typical of Brussels, really nice, but I always felt I didn’t belong as long as I didn’t speak any Dutch. Frustrating. More frustrating: when accompanying the mass for the Flemish, I didn’t understand the sermon nor the closing words. Besides, I think Dutch is an interesting and beautiful language. I have already found a favourite word: koekske [biscuit]. I also really like the way the Flemish use diminutives, the way they call my daughter Yulika, Joeliske.”
“As far as Brussels is concerned, I regret that the French and Dutch speakers live next to each other instead of with each other. Stupid too: they could still learn so much from each other, because there is a big difference in interests, sensitivities and mentality. Personally, I’ve found that the Flemings are more perfectionistic, and bear  resemblance to the Japanese mentality in that sense.”

from: Brussel deze week, 03/11/05