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Going Dutch in Brussels

People always think that I’m a nutter or at least come from Mars when I admit that when I moved to Brussels for work three years ago I spoke Dutch  but didn’t know a single word in French. (No, I am not Dutch.) OK, it can happen that you move to Brussels and don’t speak French but there must be clearly something wrong with you if you speak Dutch.

I’ve started to explore the beauties and pitfalls of Molière’s language as well, but in the beginning I had to rely on my Dutch to find my way in the maze of Belgian bureaucracy. I did it with pleasure.

Getting registered in the city council, opening a bank account, get cable/internet installed in your apartment are just a few items on the list of chores a newcomer has to go through.

The Brussels capital region is by law bilingual (French and Dutch), but predominantly French speaking. This bilingual status means that all signs, street names are in two languages and that staff in the public administration, the police and hospitals should be able to communicate in both languages. This is not always the case.

My theory was that if I use Dutch and not English to deal with the authorities, they simply cannot ignore me. They didn’t. But some of them surely broke out in a sweat while they were trying to answer my questions or ask something. A bank clerk once even apologized for his poor Dutch. A French-speaking police officer did the same when he could not draw up a two-line document in Dutch stating that I am a registered resident of the city.

Other authorities took linguistic aspects fully into consideration and worked with military precision. After my first year here I received a hefty envelope from the tax authority with all kinds of forms in it. Everything was in French, by default. I sent them an e-mail in Dutch explaining that this is not going to work. A few days later I received another hefty envelope with the same forms. This time everything was in Dutch.

Stories and anecdotes are galore about Dutch language use and abuse in Brussels including ludicrously translated restaurant menus and the golden rule that if you speak neither Dutch or French, always go for Dutch when you call a customer service line. Chances are higher that you’ll get someone on the other end of the line who speaks English. But then bear the consequences. You will probably get all your correspondence from that company in Dutch in the future.

This can be a cardinal issue. The language of telephone bills has been recently a subject of a parliamentary question in the Belgian chamber of representatives. A member wanted to find out what the approximate percentage of Dutch speaking Belgians in the capital was. He thought that the percentage of phone bills sent out in Dutch would be a good and reliable indicator.

The telecom company concerned sends out 7% of its bills in Dutch in Brussels, answered the minister in charge. But this would then include those who once out of necessity opted for the Dutch menu when they called the customer service line. According to a study published last year, the proportion of Dutch speaking Belgians in the capital is even lower, 5,3% (55 000 people). French speaking Belgians make up 66,5% of the population, the rest is foreigners.

A handful of these foreigners are the Brussels-based correspondents and journalists. They report not only about EU affairs but also keep an eye on what is going on in Belgium. But who are these people and what sources they rely on when they write their stories about Belgium? Katrien Maerivoet, a university student, tried to profile them in her dissertation. She interviewed 20 of the 829 foreign correspondents who were officially based in Brussels in 2009.

Only two out of her interviewees claimed that they spoke Dutch: a journalist from the Netherlands and a Belorussian correspondent living in Flanders. Although we don’t know how the rest of the correspondents would have answered to this question, the proportion is indicative.

Do foreign correspondents then exclusively rely on the francophone Belgian media to follow Belgian current affairs? Many would say yes. This may also explain why Flanders Today, an English weekly (the online version is also available in French) reporting on current Flemish affairs was brought into life a few years ago. Surprisingly though, many correspondents said that they didn’t speak French either as they took it for granted that everyone in Belgium speaks English.

Language use remains a very sensitive and often political issue in several parts of Europe. Brussels and its immediate surroundings (this is another story) is one of these places. But what I’ve always found amusing in Brussels is that whenever I’ve done a Dutch or French course there were surely a few Belgians in my group. Last Monday, one of them said that she signed up for the French course so that she would feel “a bit more Belgian”. It was good to hear her say that.

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