Why Flemings know French better than Walloons know Dutch and why this will never change

Why Flemings know French better than Walloons know Dutch and why this will never change
According to last available data, the percentage who claim to know the language of the other region at more than a rudimentary level stood at 75% in Flanders, and only 20% in Wallonia. Credit: Belga

The government in charge of Belgium’s French-medium schools decided to make Dutch obligatory in Walloon primary schools. Long overdue? Perhaps. Courageous? Definitely. But will it happen? And if it does, will it have any effect?

Philosopher Philippe Van Parijs reflects on current debates in Brussels, Belgium and Europe

On 20 June, Willem-Alexander, king of the Netherlands, was visiting Belgium’ s federal parliament. Reportedly, the parliament’s president, Eliane Tillieux, tried to welcome him in Dutch but got so stuck that the King invited her to continue in French.

How can top francophone politicians, ostensibly so attached to the survival of the country, be so inept at speaking Belgium’s majority language? “Contempt is still ubiquitous”, wrote a past editor-in-chief of the daily De Standaard in a comment on the incident. His explanation is outdated, but the reality is undeniable and it is there to stay.

What do we know about Belgians’ knowledge of the country’s two main languages? Strictly speaking, not that much. The national census used to provide comprehensive information about self-assessed linguistic competence, but only until 1947.

Afterwards, the linguistic part of the census was abruptly discontinued under Flemish pressure, as it showed how French was gaining ground on Flemish soil. The least unreliable quantitative evidence we possess about the current situation stems from a regional decomposition of unpublished data from a 2012 Eurobarometer.

The percentage who claim to know the language of the other region at more than a rudimentary level was then about 75% in Flanders, and about 20% in Wallonia. A few random encounters on each side of the linguistic border should quickly convince you that this gap is not exaggerated. How can such a large gap be explained?

Firstly, there is the long shadow of the past. Most secondary education and all higher education were in French in Flanders until the 1930s. No wonder, therefore, that bilingualism was at the time far more common among Flemings than among Walloons.

Once such a large asymmetry is in place, it is self-perpetuating: whenever Flemings met Walloons in the following decennia, it was highly probable that the French of the former would be better than the Dutch of the latter and that French would therefore be used.

As a result, the French of the Flemings was continually refreshed and improved through practice, while the Dutch of the Walloons was hardly ever used and remained at a deplorably low level, with little incentive to improve it.

Geography, however, explains as much as history. Even if there had been no institutional dominance of French in Flanders for over a century after Belgium’s independence, an asymmetry would have emerged with the development of paid holidays and mass tourism.

Unsurprisingly, the Flemings’ top foreign holiday destination is France, a large neighbouring country where the sun shines more generously than in Flanders but where hardly anyone knows Dutch and where even English cannot be counted on.

This gives Flemings plenty of motivation to learn French and plenty of opportunities to practice it. By contrast, the Netherlands rank low among the Walloons’ holiday destinations. Moreover, the spoken language of the Dutch is so different from that of the Flemings that many Walloons find it less laborious to communicate with them in broken English than in any Flemish Dutch they might have learned.

An asymmetry created by history and geography could in principle be reversed by the educational system. At the moment, however, it is further reinforced. In Flanders, French is compulsory for all pupils as from the fifth year of primary school, while English starts only in the second year of secondary school. In Wallonia, a second language is also taught from the fifth year of primary school.

However, parents are given a choice between Dutch and English. In 2021, Dutch was chosen for 32% of the pupils, down from 49% in 2009. A second foreign language can be added at a later stage but is not compulsory. As a result, a large and growing proportion of Walloon pupils have only very slight exposure to Dutch, and many none at all.

This situation became embarrassing enough for francophone political leaders to agree that action needed to be taken. In October 2022, the government of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, in charge of Belgium’s French-medium education, decided that from 2026 onwards Dutch will be taught as from the third year in all primary schools in Wallonia (except in the small German-speaking area), as has been the case all along in the region of Brussels-Capital. This is a courageous decision, which is supported by a wide political consensus but goes against the preference for English over Dutch of a growing majority of Walloon parents. Will it ever become reality?

One potentially lethal obstacle has been put on hold. The OECD decided to introduce in its PISA survey, from 2025 onwards, a fourth dimension: in addition to mathematics, science and reading in the language of instruction, the knowledge of one foreign language of 15-year old pupils would also be assessed: English. The Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles has not done very well in PISA surveys so far. It would do even worse, especially compared with Flanders, if English were to be added.

In that case, given the media and political impact of the PISA rankings, one could not possibly expect future education ministers and governments to resist the temptation to give priority to English. Fortunately for the sustainability of the decision to impose Dutch, this fourth dimension of the PISA survey is optional and the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles has wisely decided not to avail itself of this option.

There is, however, a far more formidable obstacle to generalizing the teaching of Dutch in Wallonia, one that cannot be removed as easily. To teach Dutch, you need teachers, ideally native speakers. Easy, you may say, there are plenty next door. But Flanders suffers from a general shortage of teachers. Moreover, teachers are paid 5 to 10% less in Wallonia than in Flanders. And a recent reform of the Walloon school calendar makes it very inconvenient for teachers who have their children in a Flemish school to teach in a Walloon school.

As a result, Wallonia’s so-called immersion schools, where some subjects are supposed to be taught in Dutch, are in serious trouble. Finding now or later enough native speakers to fill the hundreds of slots created by the obligation to teach Dutch from the third year of primary school onwards is a sheer pipe dream.

Home-grown teachers then. But the general level of Dutch in the Walloon population is so low that it will take decennia to breed and recruit enough competent teachers to train the required number of teachers capable themselves of teaching Dutch to schoolchildren. Moreover, a recent increase (from three to four) in the number of years of study required to become a schoolteacher will further aggravate the shortage.

Even with the best top-down political will, therefore, the education system’s contribution to disseminating competence in Dutch among the Walloon population can only be desperately slow, especially as it is not pushed forward by enthusiastic bottom-up demand. The government has already decided to postpone the implementation of the reform from 2026 to 2027. This is most unlikely to be the last time.

Nonetheless, providing the political will does not evaporate altogether, the Dutch of the Walloons should improve in coming years. Meanwhile, the French of the Flemings is likely to keep declining. But the feeble instrument of language teaching at school does not have the slightest chance of offsetting the heavy weight of history and geography. Contempt for the Dutch language is no longer ubiquitous. For various reasons, little of it is left. Yet, Walloons will always be worse at Dutch than Flemings at French. So one can safely predict.

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