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    Satyavrata Maciamo's Avatar
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    Post Brussels is the most cosmopolitan city in the world after Dubai

    I was reading a series of articles in the Francophone Belgian newspaper Le Soir titled Bruxelles Babeleer. I was a bit surprised to learn that Brussels is more cosmopolitan than New York, London or Paris. There are 185 nationalities represented in this city of 1 million inhabitants. As opposed to English-speaking cities where immigrants immediately adopt English, or France where the government does all it can to make people speak French, Brussels is special. It is officially bilingual French and Dutch, but the reality is far more diverse. English is more widely spoken than Dutch, and one just has to take public transports to hear Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Polish or Japanese spoken, among others. There are in fact 104 languages spoken in the EU capital today.

    What's more, more and more people are of mixed ancestry and make a point in speaking the languages of both parents + French, Dutch and/or English. The result is that a big share of the population is multilingual. It happens to me regularly to wonder what language to use when addressing someone. In gathering of several people, it is common to switch between languages during the conversation. I don't know any other city in the Western world where that is the case (but it's also common in India and parts of Africa, where so many languages are spoken). For someone who loves learning languages, that's great.

    There is now a Minister of Multilingualism in Brussels (Brussels is a city-state with its own parliament and government in the Belgian federal system). His name is Sven Gatz (he is also Minister of Finance and Budget) and he ambitions that everyone in Brussels should be trilingual by the time they turn 18 years old. The big innovation is that there is no longer a politician will to impose the learning of French and Dutch. It does not matter what languages people speak, as long as people speak three languages. Indeed the number of Dutch speakers in Brussels has been in free fall over the last two decades. In 2001 20% of Brusselers under 30 years old reported that they could speak Dutch fairly or very well. By 2018 it had dropped to 7.8%.

    A bit oddly, nowadays most families where French is the only language spoken at home are 3rd, 4th or 5th generations Maghreban immigrants, who can no longer speak Arabic.

    90% of people in Brussels are for bilingual education from primary school level. Unfortunately until now the law made it compulsory for bilingual school subsidised by the state (the vast majority of them) to teach both French and Dutch. Bilingual French-English or Dutch-English schools won't receive public funding. Such schools exist but they are expensive private schools. This has to change.

    Unsurprisingly language schools flourish in Brussels. There are 69 of them teaching French, 49 for Dutch, 45 for English, 26 for Spanish, 18 for Italian, 15 for German, 13 for Chinese, 12 for Arabic, 7 for Japanese, 6 for Turkish, 4 for Greek, 3 for Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak and Swedish... There are even places to learn Aramean, Esperanto, Tamazight (a Berber language) and Yiddish.

    The VUB (Dutch-speaking University of Brussels) keeps a language barometer for the population of Brussels. The figure below shows the evolution of reported ability to speak 8 major languages in the city. Four surveys were conducted in 2001 (TB1), 2007 (TB2), 2013 (TB3) and 2018 (TB4). We can see that French dipped from a maximum of 95% to 87% in 2018. Dutch dropped from 33% to 16%. English is stable at around 33%. Arabic fluctuates between 7% and 10% (apart from 18% in 2013 which is probably a sampling bias). Spanish, Italian and German each hover around 5 to 8%, while Portuguese is at 2-3%.




    Apart from English, all these languages see a decrease in the percentage of speakers from 2001 to 2018. The reason is simple. The European Union accepted 10 new members in 2004, two more in 2007 (Romania and Bulgaria) and Croatia in 2013. All these countries sent politicians and other staff members to Brussels, plus a large number of economic migrants (mostly manual workers), which increased the linguistic diversity. Among those 13 new member states, only Malta and Cyprus had English as their official language. None of the others had any official connection with any of the 8 major languages above. From the people I know from all these new countries, EU workers can now usually speak both French and English. Manual workers usually just learned French, but many have very rudimentary skills and would not show up in the above statistics.

    English has a good chance of becoming Brussels' new lingua franca over time. There has always been a reluctance among Belgian native French speakers to learn Dutch, which many find less useful than English. Until recently Flemings had a clear advantage in that they often made the effort to learn French. But the young generation of Flemings is increasingly seeing French the same way of Francophones see Dutch. In 2013, 92% of young native Dutch speakers in Brussels could speak French fluently. A mere five years later this had plummeted to 69%. All young people prefer to learn English and it is increasingly common for Belgian French and Dutch speakers to speak English with one another.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 22-07-20 at 14:04.
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