Young people in Brussels should be trilingual by the age of 18, speaking the two regional languages as well as English, according to Sven Gatz, the minister in the Brussels regional government charged with the newly-created responsibility for multilingualism.
Gatz’ ambitious aim comes in a new policy paper which lays out the case that Brussels is already a trilingual city – speaking French and Dutch for historical reasons, and with a strong presence of English for economic reasons, backed up by the presence of international institutions such as Nato and the EU.
But while the city as a whole may have three de facto operating languages, its residents’ language abilities are not always up to the task. The population speaks a total of around 100 languages in all, but since the turn of the century, the number of people speaking French well or very well has fallen from 95.5% of the population to 87.1%, while Dutch has declined further, from 33.3% to 16.3%.
“The people of Brussels see multilingualism as the raw material that will ensure their future, on many levels,” the paper states. “The knowledge of more than one language is not only good for people’s experience of living together but also for their chances in life – on the jobs market, in education, economically, socially, in sport and in culture. Multilingualism in Brussels has to become something that speaks for itself. It is the guarantor of social and economic mobility, and as such a major asset.”
The aim to make the people of Brussels more fluent in the three languages targetted begins with young people, and the work of schools in teaching the first community language, either French or Dutch, then the second, and finally English – for many people in the city the vehicular language used by all manner of nationalities to communicate with each other.
There exist at present a number of varied initiatives, and their work will be examined by a new Council for Multilingualism to be set up to guide the work of the government department, made up of a selection of experts including academics and front-line school teachers.