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Autumn - Winter 2006

Flemish language in an era of globalisation, by Barbara De Cock

In this article, I will discuss the Flemish language policy.After a short description of the position of Flanders in a globalised world (1), I will comment on some concrete challenges for the Flemish educational system (2), such as the integration of non-Dutch-speaking students (2.1). Furthermore, I will dwell on the ways the Flemish community prepares its youngsters to life in a globalised society, referring to European criteria (mother-tongue plus two) and tools (Common European Framework of Reference, Erasmus exchanges) (2.2). Finally, I will discuss the role of foreign language promotion institutions in the Flemish educational area (2.3).


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1. Flanders in a globalising world

2. The Flemish educational system
2.1. Globalisation from the inside: non-Dutch-speaking students in the Flemish educational system
2.2. Growing up in a plurilingual world: foreign language education for Flemish youngsters
2.3. Joining forces: cooperation with foreign institutions

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography


1. Flanders in a globalising world

Belgium was created in 1830 after its secession of the Netherlands.The upper-class population was French-speaking, both in Flanders and Wallonia.In Flanders, there was in addition a diglossic situation with French as the ‘high’ variant and Dutch as the ‘low’ one.As a consequence, Dutch was absent from official life in the early days of the Belgian kingdom, even though it was being spoken by half of the population (Lamarcq – Rogge 1992).This diglossic situation lies at the basis of a strong defensive attitude towards French in modern-day Flanders.

Dutch has gradually acquired more linguistic status and rights, such as its use in education, jurisdiction and legislation. In the 2nd half of the 20th century, Flanders progressed economically from an agrarian society to an economy of tertiary sector services.This economic boom has accompanied Flemish demands in various fields, including the 1968 split of LeuvenUniversity (till then rather French-dominated or bilingual) into Dutch-speaking Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (in Leuven, Flanders) and French-speaking Université Catholique de Louvain (in Louvain-la-Neuve, Wallonia).

In 1980, Belgium became a federalised state with one national and several regional governments.The subnational entities were established according to two criteria.The first subdivision has resulted in the creation of mainly economic entities, called ‘regions’: the Flemish, the Walloon (including the German-speaking area in the East of Belgium) and Brussels Capital region.It is the second division, in ‘communities’, however, which will be most important for this article.The communities have been established according to the linguistic-cultural entities: the Flemish, the French and the German-speaking community. (1) Subsequently, the Flemish community and region merged their executive and legislative forces into one Flemish government and parliament.The combination of both region and community status endows this government and parliament with a wide range of competences, including education, cultural life, environment, housing…Since such merge has not taken place in the French-speaking part, the Flemish government has more competences and seems therefore often more vigorous.

This subdivision in communities confirms to a large extent the territorial character of languages in Belgium.Nevertheless, there are some areas where the situation is less clear-cut, e.g. along the linguistic border and in the Brussels periphery.In order to solve this problem, municipalities with a considerable minority of Dutch-speakers, resp. French-speakers, have been given the status of ‘facility municipalities’; this means that the minority has the right to receive some public services in their own language, e.g. education, library, public administration (Lamarcq – Rogge 1992). (2)

With its population of 5 973 000, Flanders represents 58% of the Belgian population and has more inhabitants than most of the 2004 EU accession states.The immigrant population being distributed differently according to the regions, Flanders proportionally has the lowest number of foreign population, whereas Brussels Capital district has the highest (Hambye – Lucchini 2005, Statbel 2005).

The position of Brussels as de facto European capital has introduced a new type of immigrants in Belgium: the so-called Eurocrats.In addition to the diplomatic body which can be found in any capital, Brussels hosts a high number of EU officials or people working for organisations linked to the EU or lobbying to the EU institutions.These are generally highly educated people, who already speak different languages prior to their arrival (although rarely Dutch).The children of this specific type of migrants generally attend the EuropeanSchools or equivalent initiatives, such as the Scandinavian school.These educational systems often pay a lot of attention to multilingual education, given the diverse background of their students.As a consequence, these immigrants’ children usually don’t enter the Belgian educational system.

The economic migration from the Maghreb countries, Turkey and, more recently, the Balkans has introduced a large group of generally lower educated immigrants, who therefore obtain less-paid jobs.These children do enter into the Belgian educational system.

For all immigrants it holds that, if they know one of the Belgian languages prior to arrival, this is French.Given the international position of French as compared to Dutch, learning French seems the better option to most foreigners, especially those living in Brussels.

Flanders is a region for which import and export are highly important.It is therefore not surprising that foreign language knowledge is an important asset for Flemish employees.Research on language requirements in job applications has emphasised the role of French in small to medium-sized enterprises (Clijsters 2002).According to a 1998 inquiry by VDAB (the Flemish job assistance service), 57.4 % of the respondents in reception and secretariat functions occasionally use French and 62.1% English.However, in terms of frequency of use the picture is the reverse: French accounts for 33.4%, English only for 15.4%.The third language in business life is German.The need to speak Italian and Spanish turned out to be negligible in most SMEs.

In addition to the need for French in daily practice of SMEs, knowledge of French is required (and assessed by means of a language exam) for official functions, e.g. in the national administration or judicial system.

2. The Flemish educational system

Flemish children have compulsory training (3) from the age of 6 till 18.Most children, however, start attending kindergarten by the age of approximately 3.Afterwards, they attend six primary school forms (age 6-12) and six secondary school forms (age 12-18).In secondary school, there is general secondary education (ASO), generally leading to university or other forms of higher education, technical secondary education (TSO) and secondary education in the arts (KSO), leading directly to a job or to some non-universitary forms of higher education.Finally, there is the vocational secondary education (BSO), which is rather skill-oriented.

The highly territorial character of the Belgian official languages, as well as the communities’ competence for education, partly explain the lack of fully bilingual schooling programmes in Belgium.

2.1 Globalisation from the inside: non-Dutch-speaking students in the Flemish educational system.

In some Dutch-speaking schools, an increasingly high percentage of students are of French-speaking origin.French-speaking parents might prefer Dutch-speaking education in order to enhance their children’s plurilingualism or because the Dutch-speaking education system generally performs better in international comparisons.The presence of these French-speaking students favours the interpretation of extra French classes as a concession to non- Dutch-speaking students.This is part of the reason why some political and societal groups oppose to extending French training, especially in the first years of schooling (nursery school and primary education).

The French-speaking presence in Dutch-speaking schools is also a factor in the discussion concerning supplementary Dutch classes for non-native speakers.Whereas a fair share of the Flemish population can understand the need of supplementary Dutch classes for non-native speakers in general (especially if they are first generation immigrants or ‘newcomers’), there is less comprehension for Belgian French-speakers.These are considered to have access to their ‘own’ educational system, provided for in their mother-tongue.Furthermore, there is overall a strong defensive attitude towards the Belgian French-speakers, given the past diglossic situation.

A partial solution was found by endowing schools in the Brussels periphery or near the linguistic border with extra teaching time, in order to facilitate the integration of non-native speakers of Dutch.In view of the localisation of these schools, this policy is meant to have an upgrading effect on the integration in the Dutch-speaking school system of mainly French-speakers, representing the next generation of both the native and the migrant population, especially in the Brussels area.

The OETC (Onderwijs in eigen taal en cultuur– Classes in own language and culture) projects support the instruction of the own language and culture to children of foreign origin.This extra effort aims at making these pupils acquire Dutch more smoothly and more thoroughly.For a school to start such classes, however, the permission is needed of at least 2/3 of the migrant parents.

The 2002 decree “Gelijke Onderwijskansen” (equal chances in/for education) guarantees equal opportunities to all children, including non-Dutch-speaking children.Concretely, the decree stipulates that children have equal rights to subscription in schools, i.e. they can’t be refused on the basis of their non-Dutch-speaking origin.The decree includes additional measures, e.g. extra language courses, to remedy possible language deficit problems.

Given the considerable Dutch language competence disparities among the pupils in the Flemish educational system, Education Secretary Vandenbroucke (2005) has proposed to introduce Dutch language tests at various key moments.It is still to be determined whether these tests will be evaluative or orientating, binding or non-binding as regards to the study programme options that remain available to the student.

2.2. Growing up in a plurilingual world: foreign language education for Flemish youngsters

Flanders has since long fostered a positive discourse on plurilingualism in its inhabitants.Both the government and the Flemish citizens consider being plurilingual an asset in professional life.This plurilingualism has also been largely appreciated by foreigners.

Although the Flemish educational system reflects this positive attitude towards foreign languages, some languages appear to be more privileged than others.The main differentiating factors are the age at which pupils start to learn the language and the teaching time devoted to it.

In Flanders, the teaching of French generally starts in the 5th primary school form (at the age of 10-11); since 2004 this is obligatorily so. Moreover, extra French classes are taught from the 3rd form on in schools at the linguistic border or in so-called ‘facility’ municipalities.

The teaching of English is generally integrated in the programmes from the age of 13-14 on.German, on the other hand, is much less present, although in most schools it is being taught for one year to 15-16 year olds.Afterwards, only programme options with an important language component carry on with German.Recently, Spanish has been introduced in some secondary schools, especially in the last two years of the programme (2585 students took Spanish in the 5th and 6th form, while only 271 did so in the 3rd and 4th form) (Kenniscentrum Statistiek 2004).

The European ‘mother-tongue plus two’- goal (White Paper on education and training) is thus fulfilled by a considerable part of Flemish students.However, especially in rather technical and skill-oriented vocational training (TSO and BSO type, cf. note 3), students do not comply with the ‘mother-tongue plus two’-goal.

The alternation of compulsory versus non-compulsory languages has its repercussions on the number of students learning a language.

Number of students in secondary education
390 259
294 001
83 135
2 856

Number of students in secondary education studying French, English, German or Spanish in the Flemish-speaking community. Data for the school year 2003-2004 (Kenniscentrum Statistiek 2004)

Foreign language promotion institutions, such as the Consejería de Educación y Ciencia of Spain indicate that, given the officially enshrined position of Belgian’s official languages, it is particularly hard for other languages to enter ‘the system’ (De Cock 2003: 60).

The ‘hierarchy’ imposed by the official authorities might seem discordant with the spontaneous order for many Flemish youngsters.Indeed, given the predominance of English as a lingua franca in politics, media and cultural life (music, films), teenagers feel more acquainted with English than with French.Some consider English more useful in business settings.However, as signalled in part 1, French is still the most important foreign language for the majority of Flemish employees.

If we turn to non-compulsory education, however, we see a slightly different picture.About one sixth (15%) of the extra training taken by working population is dedicated to language.This confirms the importance of foreign language learning, even at a later age (Kenniscentrum Statistiek 2002).

The data collected by the Spanish education and culture service show a high interest for Spanish in evening classes or as an optional course in higher education.Approximately half of the students of Spanish in Belgium, learn the language in non-compulsory education (Consejería de Educación y Ciencia en Bélgica 2002).Furthermore, a considerable amount of students chooses Spanish as an optional course within their higher education.

Quite some adults take English or French classes in order to refresh or improve their school-based knowledge.Unfortunately, there are no data available for these languages.

The defensive attitude sometimes adopted vis-à-vis French, is also adopted vis-à-vis English in higher education.The Flemish educational decrees have established that English cannot be used as the main teaching language for a bachelor program (unless an equivalent Dutch-speaking bachelor is being organised as well by the same institution).Furthermore, English-speaking master programmes need special approval.


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