Brussels is home to the institutions of the European Union and for that reason the capital of Europe. Although it’s not as internationally recognized as cities like London, Paris or even Amsterdam, on a political level, this is where things happen. Being American I often call it the “Washington DC of Europe”, but there are countless differences between the two.
Brussels is the capital of Belgium and is legally bilingual with French and Dutch. Why two languages? That’s complicated but imagine a city tucked between two regions – one French speaking and the other Dutch speaking – and that is Brussels. At the same time, it’s the most international city in the world after Dubai with 184 nationalities living here (as stated by the Bulletin.) French is used more within the City of Brussels, but English is the language used in common for the international community of course.
As home to so many nationalities, this means there are numerous languages in contact influencing the other all the time. According to the third Taalbarometer study by VUB, there are 104 maternal languages in Brussels! Among the people I’ve met so far, there are few who aren’t studying some language in fact, be it English for professional development purposes, French to survive in Brussels, Dutch for those living or working outside of town, or another language for professional and promotion opportunities within the EU institutions. Due to the high percentage of bicultural couples as well in Brussels, it’s not uncommon to meet young children who speak four languages well at home.
Not only is Brussels an international place, it’s also within Belgium that has three official languages: Dutch, French and German. For these two factors, I will be bold and say what I have come to believe and observe since moving here: In Brussels, the quantity of languages spoken is valued higher than the level at which you speak each one. This doesn’t mean that people don’t speak languages well, quite the contrary, but it does explain why many claim that they lose fluency and get worse with their second, third or fourth language here. Where there is a loss there is always a gain, and the gain in Brussels will be one or more new languages for your mind and CV as well as immense cultural opportunities.
The graphic below shows Brussels as “bilingual” but this is how the it’s measured within the Belgian system alone. As Brussels is an international place unlike any other, we know it’s much more than just “bilingual.”
A few linguistic challenges to consider in Brussels
In a place where there are more than 100 languages spoken and where there are two official languages within the city limits, no wonder “interference” happens when speaking English in particular. “Interference” is the influence from one’s mother tongue (or other dominant language) when learning and speaking a new language; interference occurs when we “transfer” parts of one language onto another. This is normal; it happens for anyone learning a new language, and it happens a lot in Brussels with English and any other non-native language for that matter. Language “purism” is another factor. Purism is a pejorative term in linguistics for a strong conservatism regarding the use and development of a language. Those who are language purists aim and seek to speak the most original (or pure) form of a language. It is why some will want to learn British English over American English, for example, or study Spanish in Spain instead of Argentina. The chances of learning French or Dutch well are likely here, always knowing interference is a factor in language learning, but if you are intending to perfect your English, know that Brussels can be a hard place to do so.
I learned long ago and am a firm believer that language is a living thing that molds and changes with time and the environment. This is why the emergence of an international English is happening throughout the world and especially in a place like Brussels. I’ve heard people call it different things like: Eurish, Globish, Euglish or International English. When communicating is the priority, sounding perfect and “pure” lose relevance quickly. Stay tuned for future posts on Eurish/Globish/Euglish!
It’s a very enriching experience to live in such a culturally diverse and dynamic place. I’m coming to see that Brussels can be a place for anyone – language lovers or not – but one thing is certain, at some point you’ll probably give in to language learning resistance and pick up another language out of need, interest or possibility while in Brussels. This is just that type of place, and because of the diversity, one must be realistic with their learning goals. The best way to learn a language is full immersion and that isn’t realistic in an international community where communication has priority over language perfection. Next post: realistic goals for learning English in an international environment such as Brussels.