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Spring - Summer 2005

Sociolinguistic Diversity and Shared Resources: A Critical Look at Linguistic Integration Policies in Belgium, by Philippe Hambye and Silvia Lucchini

This contribution (1) examines the different actions taken by Belgian authorities intended directly or indirectly to effect the linguistic integration of immigrant populations.(2) After describing migratory movements into Belgium, we present first the logic behind the Belgian policies of integration, looking in turn at the Francophone and the Dutch (Flemish) speaking areas of the country, noting the different dynamics in the two regions. Thereafter, we concentrate however on the situation in Wallonia and Brussels, our usual research area. We go on to offer a critique of the measures taken at Communities’ government level, and lastly we consider aspects of a transformation in current thinking on integration and immigration in Belgium.

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1. Immigration in Belgium: the state of play

Belgium has for long been an area of net immigration, certainly since the Second World War: first there were the agreements with Italy, in 1946, which began the immigration of male workers for the Belgian mines in exchange for a certain quantity of coal, followed by one with Spain and Portugal in 1956, with Greece in 1957, and finally with Morocco and Turkey in 1964 (Morelli 1992). The idea was to find a solution for the dearth of manpower in certain sectors. Also, a demographic increase (3) was expected, since the fertility rate was greater among such immigrant populations (Martiniello & Rea 2001).

While immigration was officially ended in 1974, the steady influx of immigrants did not stop. Factors here included the reuniting of family members, for long authorised by Belgium, the recognition of the right to asylum, work permits conceded in highly specific sectors, the authorisation of residence for study reasons, the selective permeability of frontiers spelled out in the Treaty of Maastricht (1993) and the presence of many international institutions (mostly in Brussels). These exceptions have kept the rate of foreigners present in Belgium at a stable level since 1980 despite the considerable number who have taken Belgian nationality, as a result of reforms in the nationality code of 1984, 1991, 1995 and 2000.

Latest available statistics (1st January 2004 – INS data) show 860,287 people of foreign nationality resident in Belgium, slightly more than 8.2% of the total population. However the situation varies greatly from region to region: 26.3% of the inhabitants of Brussels are of foreign nationality, 4.8% of those resident in Flanders and 9.1% of the residents in the Walloon Region. The proportion of the population of foreign origin in Belgium is in any case clearlyunderrepresented in these figures, since they only indicate the numbers of those of foreign nationality. In fact, changes in the availability of naturalisation (Belgian nationality) have considerably modified the figures in this respect, above all in the case of the youngsters. By way of example, the proportion of young people under 18 of foreign nationality in Brussels fell by 18 % in Brussels between the year 2000 (38%) and the year 2003 (20.2%)(4)

The make up of the population of foreign extraction in terms of nationalities is the result of these various stages or waves of migration over time. Table 1 presents the population statistics for the most representative minority groups (other than those of neighbouring countries – France, Netherlands, Germany) in Belgium’s three regions. It can be seen that the Italians, Moroccans, Spanish and Turks are numerous throughout. Only the Portuguese in Brussels, and the British in Flanders need to be added here to the leaders. Other than the Moroccans and the Turks, who to a large extent came before 1974, those from EU countries are numerous above all owing to the influx of civil servants and employees of international institutions (especially of course in the Brussels Region and the surrounding Flemish districts) and as a result of the free circulation of goods and persons instituted by Maastricht in 1993. Recent migrations from outside the Union, which stay minor, come from places in the world that have been shaken by changes of regime and by armed conflict.(5) In short, we would agree with Martiniello and Rea (2001 : 11) on the following observation: «Like many other Western countries, Belgium has become a mosaic of peoples and cultures, a microcosm of the world. Ensuring the harmonious cohabitation of the different ethnic groups that make up Belgian society is a necessity that requires all to do their part.»(6)

2. The linguistic integration policies in Belgium: principles and underlying conceptions

Notwithstanding the long-standing nature of migration in Belgium, awareness that one was faced with a structural phenomenon has come about only recently. Since the beginning of the 80s –only twenty-five years ago, and only thirty-five years after the start of organised immigration–policies of integration have begun to see the light of day, namely with the reforms in the nationality laws already mentioned. On the Francophone side, the first centres intended for the migrant population were created in 1981 and 1982, (7) while the first national centre (subsequently federal centre) for migration and migratory policies came into being in 1989.(8) Note that the word “immigration” tended to disappear over time, to be replaced by that of “interculturality”, an indication of a growing awareness of the new status of those of foreign origin: the authorities are no longer face-to-face with “manpower” but with individuals and citizens; this change implies an idea of equality between cultures, those being less and less associated with ethnic affiliation. More time will be necessary before this equality is translated partially into political rights: foreigners from the European Union will only have the right to vote and partial eligibility in municipal elections from 2000 onwards (as a result of Maastricht); other foreigners will have the former right from 2004 onwards, but they won’t have the right to stand as candidates.

To understand the integration policies implemented on either side of the linguistic boundary, separating the Flemish from French-speakers in Belgium, it is necessary to take on board the conceptions of society, nation, language and culture dominant in each of the two communities and which to a large extent determine the political stances adopted with regard to the immigrant communities.

2.1 Linguistic integration according to the Flemish Community

The linguistic integration policies applied in Flanders are deeply marked by the central role played by language in the Flemish collective identity. The dominant ideology in Flanders asserts the primary importance of language in belonging to a community and the fact of knowing Dutch (Flemish) as one of the conditions for effective integration (9) of citizens. The explanation for this lies in the history of the community and the fact that Flemish had to strive for recognition of their language and their rights within a Belgian state originally ruled by an elite (from Flanders and Wallonia) that was exclusively French-speaking (Beheydt 1994; Francard 1995).

This is why language has a key position in the integration policies in Flanders. In education, there are measures dating from the 90s which stipulate the allocation of extra resources to schools with more than a certain proportion of pupils of foreign origin, viewed as priority in the distribution of educational resources. Since 2002, the Flemish Government has implemented a programme monitoring and overseeing the equality of opportunity in education (Gelijke Onderwijskansen) by giving priority treatment to classes with disfavoured children. While these measures do not apply specifically to immigrant communities(10)), they nevertheless recognise the priority needs of those pupils for whom Dutch is not the home language (11) (Eurydice 2004a : 7).

Moreover, reception classes are organised for the new arrivals, and here too the goal is to ensure integration in Flemish society by means of learning the common language. When the newly arrived immigrants are over school age, and not EU citizens, they are required since 2004 to participate in an “integration process” (inburgeringstraject). Once again, the learning of Dutch is at the heart of this programme, according to which language is the first step towards full participation in society on the part of the immigrants.(12)

On the other hand, the conception that language is one of the key elements of identity has led Flemish authorities, at least in their political projects, to foster the vitality of the languages of the immigrant communities. Thus, transitional bicultural and bilingual education, bridging Italian-Dutch language (two schools currently), Spanish-Dutch language (two schools) and Turkish-Dutch language (three schools) was instituted in the years 1986-87 (Byram & Leman 1990) by the Foyer, which in 1998 would become a regional centre responsible for coordination of Flemish language policy towards minorities in Brussels. Already at that time, a programme for the teaching of languages and cultures of origin (Onderwijs in eigen taal en cultuur) had come into being in 1991. (13)This value put on multiculturalism might seem paradoxical in the light of the situation described above. In reality it can be easily understood, however, when seen in the context of promotion of linguistic and cultural identity, which will in turn justify the primary importance placed on Dutch.(14)) It is for this reason that these projects have not really been fully implemented, and have tended to become less successful as time goes on (Verlot 2002; Delrue & Hillewaere 1999; De Schutter 2001).

2.2 Linguistic integration according to the French-speaking communities of Wallonia and Brussels(15)

With the Francophone Community Government, we find the opposite of the cultural and linguistic integration policy which is dominant in Flanders. The Francophone approach avoids treating pupils with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds as a separate group, at the risk of papering over the particular problems faced by children from immigrant and disfavoured backgrounds.(16) Thus certain Francophone schools have, since 1998, been eligible for additional resources in terms of staff within the framework of “positive discrimination (D+) measures” (i.e., affirmative action), as a sequel to the creation of “Educational Priority Areas” (Zones d’éducation prioritaires) which existed from 1989 to 1999 with the objective of promoting equal opportunity among pupils. These measures are not aimed specifically at immigrant communities since the criteria for provision of supplementary resources are tied to the socio-economic level of the school population, even though these resources are concretely allocated to institutions with a large number of students of foreign origin and who are in a precarious social situation.(17) In the same way, considerable efforts have been aimed at increasing literacy (18) (Lire et Écrire 2004), while at the same time there are other measures intended to remedy, directly or indirectly, learning difficulties as they arise: special education, alternate education centres (CEFA), distance learning, ongoing education, “homework schools” (écoles de devoirs), etc.

This logic favouring a socio-economic approach to inequality in education has not hindered the setting in motion of policies more directly orientated to populations of immigrant origin. On the one hand, these involve the recognition of linguistic diversity. In the French-speaking Community, classes in the mother tongue were held at school in the seventies (in the case of Italian), but outside school hours. So the so-called integration here was little more than the “renting” of classrooms and not a real integration of the others’ language. The organised school policies also came into being in the 80s: under the prompting of the European directive of 1977, which envisaged teaching to immigrant pupils their home languages and cultures, two intercultural education pilot projects saw the light in a number of Brussels secondary schools. (19)

An institutionalisation phase followed in the 1990s, with the signing of the Chartes de partenariat (Partnership Charters), the first phase being from 1996 to 2000, the second from 2001 to 2005, between the French-speaking Community and the main States of emigration (Morocco, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, but not Spain). The aim stayed the same, that is, the organisation of classes teaching the immigrants’ mother tongues (“languages of origin”) as well as intercultural activities for migrant children, by schools that put in an explicit annual demand. (20) Since 2001, some 70 schools on average have joined in with this scheme, which has involved around 5,000 children a year, 90% of whom are of Moroccan or Italian extraction (Blondin & Mattar 2003). The recent changes in initial teacher training are another sign of the increasing awareness of the heterogeneity of the school population. (21)

On the other hand, Belgian authorities have initiated a series of actions aimed at the acquisition of language and cultural norms by means of compensatory education, which in this case will take into account the immigrant population’s linguistic background. It will involve, for example, the creation of classes-passerelles for newly arrived children, by law in 2001 (Eurydice 2004b). These classes-passerelles are intended to take children for a period ranging from several weeks to 6 months or a year, in a referral class where French is learned intensively. The classes-passerelles, which have been seen as positive on the whole (Maravelaki & Collès 2004), are currently being expanded.(22) Also, where the number of new arrivals does not permit the setting up of a classe-passerelle, a course in adaptation to the language of instruction can be organised, providing up to three hours of teaching for 20 pupils (1998 Act).


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