English should be Brussels’ official language, Flemish minister says


If Brussels aspires to be an international city, it should make English an official language, the Flemish minister for education Pascal Smet has told EURACTIV.

“For the next twenty years, English will dominate as a global language. It is the language of the political world, of the diplomatic world, the tourism sector,” Smet told EURACTIV on the margins of the launch of a  project to boost multilingual education in the Belgian and EU capital.

The Flemish minister of education spoke at the launch of the so-called Marnix Plan for a multilingual Brussels, a bottom-up project to promote language learning in the Belgian capital, giving priority to French, Dutch and English.

“If Brussels wants to be an international city, it should go even further and declare English as an official language of the city,” Smet said.

Figures cited in the Marnix Plan show that 63.2% of Brussels inhabitants are native speakers of French, while less than 20% are Dutch natives. Just 2.5% have English as their mother tongue, but 29.7% of people living in the city claim to speak English well or very well.

“What I’d like to see is everyone that lives in Brussels speaking at least one common language, and that language could be English,” Smet said.

Teaching all languages

The idea may sound appealing, but could be tricky to implement as it would require reforming the education system in the Belgian capital. Half of all children born in the city do not speak any of the three national languages at home, which makes it a challenge to teach any additional language.

In fact, many Brusselois speak Arabic (21.1%) or other major languages like Spanish or German as their mother tongue.

“Brussels is an open city, an international capital. We have to work on this issue [of quality language education for children] right here and right now,” the minister-president of the Brussels region, Rudi Vervoort, told EURACTIV.

Besides, any discussion about language or education is likely to trigger controversy in a country where linguistic issues are a defining part of political life. The Belgian education system is divided between Dutch and French-speaking schools, which under the country's constitution, are respectively administered by the Flemish and Francophone "communities".

The small German-speaking community in Wallonia also organises its own education separately.

However, things get more complicated in the bilingual Brussels-capital region, where the Flemish and French-speaking systems co-exist. And since the Brussels government has no powers on education, any change to the system for the Belgian capital would require the agreement of both communities.

There are also few bilingual or multilingual schools, which is heavily criticised by the Marnix Plan’s founders. “Linguistic diversity is a curse if it is not coupled with multilingualism, or the learning of other people’s languages,” according to Philippe Van Parijs, founder of the Marnix Plan and philosophy professor at Oxford university.

>> Read: Philippe Van Parijs: A truly multilingual capital for the European Union

The Marnix Plan proposes teaching classes in different languages, including Dutch, French and English, pointing to the example of Luxembourg, where multilingual education is well-established. The Plan’s founders also argue that teaching in different languages raises children’s attention and stimulates them to learn more while preparing them for the tough job market.

According to Smet, the main issue is the lack of teachers who speak the language sufficiently well: “At this point, the question is whether there are enough teachers to teach the children Dutch, especially in the French-speaking school system,” let alone finding enough teachers to work at trilingual schools, he said.

English education

Many expats working in or around the EU institutions in Brussels are keen to enroll their children in English-language schools.

But options are currently limited to the European schools in Uccle, Ixelles, Woluwe Saint-Lambert and Laeken, which are in theory reserved exclusively for the children of civil servants working for the EU institutions.

Alternatives do exist but they are pricey, such as the British or American international private schools. Others are left with the few so-called immersion schools of the French-speaking community, where different languages are taught.

Vervoort is working to organise bilingual schools in the region and argues that apart from French, learning “Dutch is inevitable”. English would be a welcome extra – but not essential, he feels. “I have friends learning Chinese,” the head of the Brussels government says, “and it is a bit like a cherry on top of a cake. Speaking a third or fourth language is an extra."

Brussels Christian-democrat parliamentarian Julie de Groote told EURACTIV that teaching English was not the main focus of the Marnix Plan: “We have to look at the sociological situation in the city. Many of the children that are not taught in their native language, speak Arabic or Turkish at home” and not English, she said.

"Multilingualism has become a point of interest to civil society, education officials and politicians. In Belgium, the communautarian aspect is always near," she added, "but we see a rise in a Brussels' identity, in which language and multilingualism plays a big role."

Jef van Damme, member of the Brussels parliament, writes that “French as the dominant language for interactions is losing ground and the number of people who master several languages is declining. If we do not manage to bring up Brussels’ youngsters to be polyglots, the risk is that we will end up with a city divided along language lines. If we cannot communicate with one another, social inclusion, access to the job market and active citizenship are simply not possible.”

Up to 104 languages are spoken in Brussels, latest figures show. Up to 63% of Brussels inhabitants speak French as (one of their) native language(s), while Arabic speakers represent 21.1% of the population, Dutch speakers 19.6% and English speakers just 2.5% of Brussels’ population.

This multilingualism is a challenge for the capital of Belgium and the EU. But it offers great potential as well, a civil society group of Brussels intellectuals argues in the ‘Marnix Plan’ for Brussels.

The language issue is entangled with Belgium’s struggle between its French-  and Dutch-speaking communities, who take charge of their own monolingual schools in the country’s capital.

The education system has been criticised in the past for putting too much of a burden on certain schools as well as leading to a divide between the city’s different communities, the native Belgians and the foreign citizens.

Brussels statistics agency

  • 2013 statistics on Brussels’ language communities: Brussels Informatie-, Documentatie- en Onderzoekscentrum (NL)
  • Statistics on Brussels' language communities (FR) (EN)

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