Brussels is the most cosmopolitan city in the world after Dubai


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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.
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I verified the claim about Brussels being the second most cosmopolitan city in the world. Actually it depends how we look at it. Is it the total number of nationalities or languages? Or the percentage that speak non-local languages? Is it the percentage of foreigners or people with at least one foreign parent?

This page says that New York is the home to as many as 800 languages and 51% of New Yorkers speak only English while at home, while 49% live in multilingual homes. 36% of its population being foreign-born the highest figure in the USA (although the New York Demographics page on Wikipedia compares it with 41% in Los Angeles based on the 2010 census).

The demographics of London shows that 36.7% of the population was foreign-born in 2011. This site counted some 250 languages spoken in London, while the BBC reported about 300 in 2014. However 77.9% of London's population aged 3 and over spoke English as a main language, with a further 1,406,912 (19.8%) speaking it as a second language or well to very well. Polish was the second most widely spoken language, but made up only 1.9% of the population. So most languages in London are spoken only by a tiny portion of the population. Clearly London is less linguistically diverse than Brussels as a percentage of the population, even though it has more languages.

As of 2019, Brussels there were 450,000 legal immigrants/residents in Brussels out of 1.2 million inhabitants. That's 37.5% of the population. However that does not include naturalised immigrants, nor the numerous people with mixed Belgian and non-Belgian parents, who are listed as Belgian. It has been estimated that about 70% of the Brussels population has foreign roots.

This means that Brussels may not have the highest number of languages or nationalities represented, but it is the most diverse in term of percentage of foreign population and percentage of people speaking foreign languages.

As for Dubai, the United Arab Emirates is home to over 200 nationalities making up 80% of the population. So there is no doubt that Dubai, or the UAE as a whole, rank top in term of cosmopolitanism.
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I just read an article in the Brussels Times announcing that a new Migration Museum opened in Brussels a few months ago. This excerpt adds to what I wrote above:

VUB cultural philosopher Eric Corijn lays out some context to just how diverse Brussels is. “Expats and immigration have changed Belgium. Brussels went from being Belgian to a small world city: 61% of households are multilingual, 5% Dutch-speaking only and 33% French-speaking only.” The Flemish and French-speaking communities are minorities in their own capital.
That does not sound cosmopolitan to me. Having lots of ethnic groups speaking their own language in the same place does not make that place cosmopolitan. Every Australian city has lots of immigrants from around the world even my small town of 25,000 people. I mean people from all over Australia, Europe, Middle East, West Asia, South Asia, Africa, East and SE Asia, and a large Indigenous population. They all speak their languages to their families and friends but outside they speak English in various accents and quality, but it is English. Those people in Belgium should be required to speak either Dutch or French, standard, not Flemish or Walloon just out of courtesy to the host nation of Belgium. Jacques Brel if he was alive would not fit well in his home city or country.

The country I was born in, you can live there for many years and never learn one word of Maltese, as a lot of immigrants and foreign workers do, they just use English and that's it.

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