Five questions to philosopher Philippe Van Parijs on Brussels’ linguistic challenge

Five questions to philosopher Philippe Van Parijs on Brussels’ linguistic challenge
Queen Mathilde getting greeted by Belgian school children. A new proposal by Belgian academic institutions aims to establish trilingual public schools in Brussels, with classes conducted in French, Dutch and English as an alternative to the current system of either French-speaking or Dutch-speaking schools.

When settling in Brussels, foreigners are often puzzled by the local linguistic situation. The Brussels region and its nineteen communes are officially bilingual with French and Dutch. But this does not square with what daily contacts suggest.

For much of the 20th century, close to one out of two residents of the communes that form today’s Brussels Capital Region were able to speak both languages. This ratio was one out of three in 2000. And it is now only one out of seven.

The data in the latest edition of the taalbarometer of the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, published in December 2018, came as a shock to many. Based on a representative sample of the Brussels population, it revealed that, between 2000 and 2017, the proportion of Brusselers who say they can speak French at more than a basic level decreased from 96 to 87%, while the corresponding proportion for Dutch plummeted from 33 to 16%. Indeed, nearly all languages among the top ten in 2000, including Arabic, declined in percentage. The only exception was English, which went up slightly from 33 to 34%.

What explains this dramatic change?

The chief reason is demographic. After a long period of decline, the population of Brussels has increased since 2000 from 950,000 to 1,200,000 inhabitants. Over this same period, 1,200,000 people settled in Brussels, most of them (800,000) coming from abroad, while 1,100,000 people left Brussels, most of them (600,000) to Belgium’s other two regions.

Only a minority of the people arriving in Brussels knew Dutch or even French before coming. But many of those leaving Brussels — whether they were born here or arrived at a later stage in life — depart with a knowledge of Dutch and French they have acquired in Brussels. Hence, the reason for the decline is not that the daily learning of French and Dutch in Brussels’ crèches, schools, firms, associations or neighbourhoods ran out of steam. It is rather that it could not keep pace with the unprecedented demographic tsunami experienced by the city since the beginning of this century.

Do you see this decline of French and Dutch as a problem?

Definitely. The taalbarometer also gives figures for the languages that are being used in the work context by those among the respondents who work in Brussels. Between 2000 and 2017, the proportion of them that reports that French is used in their job remains close to 100%. But the proportion that reports an exclusive use of French went down from 73% to 34%, while the proportion that reports a use of Dutch rose from 18% to 46% and the proportion that reports a use of English from 6% to 48%.

To get a job in Brussels — and even more in the Flemish periphery of Brussels, which includes Brussels Airport —, knowing English and Dutch in addition to French is increasingly crucial. Moreover, French, Dutch and English are, respectively, the main languages of politics in Brussels, Belgium and the European Union. Managing to communicate in all three languages should therefore be a must for all those who intend to keep living here, whether in their capacity as workers, citizens or neighbours. Alas, the proportion of those who cannot speak either French or Dutch or English at more than a basic level has risen from 2.5% to 8% since 2000.

Last April, the rectors of both Universities of Brussels — the French-speaking ULB and the Dutch-speaking VUB — publicized a proposal for trilingual schools as an alternative to the current system in which French-speaking schools and Dutch-speaking schools exist side by side. Is this the best way forward?

It is certainly a proposal that must be welcomed as a contribution to shake up a perverse status quo. In the process of the transformation of Belgium into a federal state, the government-funded education in Brussels has been entrusted to the Flemish and French Communities, which also manage education in Flanders and in Wallonia, respectively. The schools of the Flemish Community use Dutch as the medium of instruction and are attended by 18% of Brussels’ pupils. Those of the French Community (also called Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles) use French as the medium of instruction and are attended by 76% of Brussels’ pupils. European and private schools account for the remaining 6%.

The original idea was that Dutch-speaking and French-speaking Belgian families living in Brussels would send their children to schools in their respective languages. But given the mind-boggling transformation of the composition of the Brussels population since the beginning of the century, a very large proportion of the children attending French-medium schools and most of those attending Dutch-medium schools do not have the school language as their mother tongue.

In this context, the record of Dutch-medium schools in terms of language acquisition is still quite good. The taalbarometer reports that among young Brusselers (18-30) who attended them, the proportion of those being able to speak a language other than the school language well or very well is 72% for English and 69% for French (down from 78% and 94%, respectively, in 2000). For those who attended French-medium schools, these proportions are much lower: 41% for English (up from 38%) and 8% for Dutch (down from 20%). This last figure is rightly regarded as particularly alarming. Against this background, the rectors’ project makes a lot of sense.

Can such projects of bilingual, trilingual or multilingual schools succeed? 

They first need to pass the legal test. This is possible, but tricky. Belgium’s 1963 language legislation stipulates that the language of instruction in Brussels’ government-funded schools must be Dutch or French. It seems possible to argue that this does not rule out schools that have Dutch and French as their means of instruction from the start, with English immersion classes at a later stage. More serious is the question of which institution would regulate and officially fund bilingual schools, given that the Communities are in charge of unilingual schools, while neither the federal state nor the Brussels region have an administration or a budget devoted to education.

However, the obstacles are not only institutional. The development of a network of bilingual schools would run up against the shortage of teachers able and willing to teach in Dutch in Brussels schools. There is an overall shortage of teachers in Flanders, and relative to Flemish towns in its hinterland, it is expensive to live in Brussels and burdensome to commute to it. Even for the existing Dutch-medium network, it is quite a challenge to attract and retain enough teachers.

The other main obstacle is of a sociolinguistic nature. If in a Dutch-medium class there are just a couple of pupils with a native language other than Dutch, learning Dutch will be unproblematic, especially if Dutch is their only common language. If instead there is a large number of pupils speaking French better than Dutch, then Dutch-medium schools will have a hard time equipping the children with a level of Dutch sufficient to keep pace in all other subjects. The risk of a drop in the overall level of learning may then induce an exodus of native speakers of Dutch, thereby worsening the problem. In officially bilingual schools, with French more massively present in the linguistic repertoire of most children, this challenge would be even greater.

None of these obstacles should be regarded as decisive. But difficulties must be anticipated and innovative solutions worked out. Where there is a will, there is a way, though possibly, in this case, an unorthodox one, and certainly one that will involve many actors, other than just the schools.

The Brussels Times

The main results of taalbarometer 4 (with data collected in 2017), compared to those of the three earlier ones, have been published (in Dutch only) in Rudi Janssens, Meertaligheid als opdracht, VUB Press, 2018)

Together with Nell Foster and Alex Housen, Philippe Van Parijs coordinates the “Marnix Plan for a Multilingual Brussels”. Founded in 2013, the Marnix Plan aims to promote the learning of French, Dutch and English in the population of the Region of Brussels and to encourage the transmission of all native languages. On 25 April, it organised a debate in the Palace of the Bourse/Beurs between the regional leaders of the main political parties.

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