A truly multilingual capital for the European Union

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

To meet Brussels’s exceptional linguistic challenge, the 'Marnix Plan' wants to mobilise Brussels’s diverse linguistic competence into an exciting collaborative project, writes Philippe Van Parijs.

Philippe van Parijs is a Belgian philosopher, professor at the universities of Louvain, Leuven and Oxford, a prominent 'Brusseler' and founder of the Marnix Plan.

The European Union praises its linguistic diversity, the multiplicity of the native languages of its citizens. But linguistic diversity is a curse if it is not coupled with multilingualism, or the learning of other people’s languages.

In Brussels, as in most European cities, linguistic diversity is growing. A representative sample of 2500 registered residents (0.2% of the population of the Brussels region) sufficed to reveal the presence of 104 distinct native languages, up from only 72 in a similar sample ten years earlier. Over the same period, the proportion of Brusselers unable to speak either French, Dutch or English at more than a basic level rose from 2 to 8% of the population (see Rudi Janssens, Meertaligheid als cement van de stedelijke samenleving). No need to explain that this generates a major challenge in terms of job opportunities, social cohesion and civic participation.

In most places, the best way to address this challenge consists of accelerating the acquisition of the single dominant and official language of the nation. In Brussels, this is not an option.

First of all, Brussels has two official languages. One of them is French, the dominant language in the city: one third of all Brusselers has French as their sole native language; one third as one of their native languages (jointly with Dutch, Arabic or other languages); and over half of the remaining third learned it at a later stage in life.

The other official language is Dutch, the native language of the majority of this country of which Brussels is the capital, and the sole official language of the region surrounding Brussels, Flanders. Moreover, Brussels is the main seat of the European institutions and the main location of the EU-wide civil society. It has witnessed the growing importance of English as the European lingua franca. Overall, 89% of the Brusselers claims to speak French well or very well, 23% does so for Dutch and 30% for English.

Against this backdrop, Brussels’s challenge is clearly exceptional and requires an exceptional response. In 2001, a group of European intellectuals was mandated by European Commission president Romano Prodi to think about how Brussels could “best fulfill the needs and role of a European capital”.

In its final report — the first quasi-official document that dared to use as a title Brussels, Capital of Europe —, the group suggested the creation of an institute for multilingualism: “Brussels is the city with the highest concentration of people speaking different languages, the highest quality and expertise in translation and interpretation services and a population that has learned to respect, learn and diffuse bilingualism as a common practice. The proposal is to create from this comparative advantage an opportunity for development that would benefit both Belgium and the European institutions,” the report read.

More than a new institution, however, Brussels needs a bottom-up initiative aimed at mobilising intelligently the linguistic wealth and goodwill available locally, not least among its many ‘Europeans’. This requires early learning and stimulating teaching of more than one language in all Brussels schools, but also drawing on an effective collaboration between all types of schools, media, social partners, voluntary associations and — above all — families. Such a bottom up initiative will be publicly launched on 28 September under the name ‘Marnix Plan for a Multilingual Brussels’.

Philippe de Marnix de Sainte Aldegonde (1540-1598) was born and grew up in Brussels. Best known as William the Silent’s chief adviser in the revolt against Spanish rule, he spoke seven languages and wrote books in French, Dutch and Latin. In one of them, he formulated what may well be the first plea for the simultaneous learning of several languages through immersion at a young age. This is the book he is shown holding in the statue that represents him at the front of a primary school built in the 1890s for the boys of the Marolles, one of Brussels’s poorest neighbourhoods. Marnix himself targeted children of princes and noblemen. Our Marnix Plan is meant for all Brusselers, not the least for the children of recent foreign origin who now form the majority of Brussels’s pupils. 

The Marnix Plan for a Multilingual Brussels aims to develop among all layers of the Brussels population the coherent learning of several languages, combining a priority for French, Dutch and English with the encouragement of the transmission of all native languages.

To make this happen will require changes in the school curriculum. But school cannot do everything. The Marnix Plan is above all an attempt to identify the many relevant existing initiatives, to stimulate new ones and to weave them all into an exciting common project. It is about spreading knowledge and enthusiasm though its website and its public events. It is about convincing all Brusselers that learning languages and helping other learn languages should be a normal daily activity, economically valuable for each of them, absolutely crucial for the lasting dynamism of the capital of Europe, and moreover enriching and gratifying in all sorts of ways.

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