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


The anglicisation of higher education is sometimes compared with the earlier situation when Leuven university was bilingual and, before that, monolingually French.Extreme-right opponents even ‘recycled’ the slogan ‘Leuven Vlaams’ (Louvain Flemish) during a 2003 manifestation.Originally, this slogan was used during the 1966 manifestation searching a more Flemish character of the University of Leuven, which resulted in its 1968 split.However, the overall setting has changed significantly since the first use of this slogan.Dutch has become firmly anchored in higher education and the economic welfare of Flanders has resulted in a stronger stance both in the national and international scene.Secondly, the position of French is different from that of English.English is not an official language in Belgium and it does not rely on a group of native speakers.Furthermore, it is the international character of English, especially in academia, which has given rise to higher education in English, rather than a strong national position, as was the case for French. (4) Finally, the higher education area itself has evolved, becoming increasingly international, at the level of both researcher and student mobility.

Recently, the Flemish education Secretary, Frank Vandenbroucke, has warned not to become overconfident concerning Flemish plurilingualism. On the contrary, caution should be paid to maintaining the level of plurilingualism or even increasing it.This cry for caution is a reaction to the publication of international reports, which revealed that Flanders, although teaching by average 2.6 foreign languages per student, is outstripped by Luxemburg (3.3) and Finland (2.8). (5) Over the past few years, other European countries (and the French community) have considerably raised their foreign language learning initiative efforts, especially in primary education.

Flanders’ position regarding foreign language acquisition at a young age is probably about to change since French has officially become compulsory in primary education (by September 1st 2004) and since the possibilities for teaching another foreign language at this level are increasing.

Indeed, kindergarten or primary schooling including foreign language immersion have long been a taboo topic in Flanders. However, recent success of similar initiatives in the French community (the very vast majority chose Dutch as language of immersion) has reactivated the debate on foreign language immersion or initiation in Flanders as well.Various liberal parliament members, including the former Education Secretary, have asked to encourage multilingual training at all levels, in order to maintain a European top position in foreign language proficiency (Vanderpoorten et al. 2005).

Since September 2004, Flemish schools can organise language initiation (not immersion) from an earlier age on for French.They can also organise similar initiation for other languages, provided that there is also at least French language initiation.The goal of these projects is not primarily to actually teach the language but rather to make pupils acquainted with it.No extra means are given to schools offering such language initiation to their pupils. The schools organising these courses consider them to be an extra asset for their pupils’ future.

2.3. Joining forces: cooperation with foreign institutions

In order to face the challenges of language education in a globalised world, Flanders seeks adhesion to some existing initiatives for language learning or mobility, especially at the European level.

The most obvious one is the Erasmus-Socrates student exchange framework of the European Union.Different subprogrammes create exchange opportunities at all schooling levels.An additional Belgian initiative is the Prins Filipsfonds, (6) which supports exchange programmes between the three Belgian communities, thus encouraging the interaction among them. The very existence of such an exchange programme illustrates to which extent education has become a federalised competence in Belgium.

In addition to the exchange frameworks, several foreign language institutions offer support to Flemish foreign language teachers, by means of teacher training or by making course materials available.

For the organisation of the 2005 European Day of Languages (September 26th), a protocol was signed including cooperation with foreign language promotion institutes such as the British Council, the Goethe Institut, the cultural service of the French embassy, as well as teacher associations of French, English and German and Roeland, a non-profit organisation for creative language teaching and learning (Vlaamse Gemeenschap 2005).This protocol is intended to be a starting point for reflection with the three language communities on issues such as the Common European Framework of Reference (proposed by the Council of Europe), the language portfolio or exchange programmes for native speaker teachers.

Furthermore, there are some agreements with specific countries, i.a. Morocco.This includes on the one hand facilities for the Moroccan children (or children of Moroccan origin) in Belgium and on the other hand, exchange of ‘good practices’ in terms of, for instance, ICT in the classroom.The OETC (Onderwijs in eigen taal en cultuur – Classes in own language and culture) was one of the topics discussed.To carry out this programme, as well as similar initiatives for other languages, the government prefers Belgian teachers of foreign origin, rather than foreign teachers.Teachers who have been living in Belgium for a long time are considered to have better assets to guide the students, given their acquaintance with Belgian society, culture and the educational system.

3. Conclusion

Flanders’ attitude towards language learning may seem complex to the outside world.Because of political and geo-economic reasons, Flanders is rather protective about its mother-tongue, Dutch, while at the same time it has a solid tradition in foreign language learning.It is important to take both aspects into account for a correct understanding of Flanders’ attitude.

In order to maintain high foreign language learning standards, Flanders is gradually adapting its educational system.This includes the cooperation with foreign institutions and the earlier start of foreign language teaching.

As a multicultural region, situated in the centre of Europe, Flanders has to find adequate ways to help students of foreign origin to live in a Dutch-speaking society, while respecting their background and specific language needs.

The foreign language education of Flemish youngsters, on the other hand, evolves in response to the European expectations and possibilities.It does so within the framework of the Belgian language legislation and against the background of a changing relationship with the French community as well as with the international community.

4. Bibliography

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Vandenbroucke, Frank. Meertaligheid, gelijke kansen en kwaliteit. Hoe ook inzake talen goed zijn voor de sterken en sterk voor de zwakken? Maandag 28 september 2005, 2005. http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/schooldirect/BL503/taalplanspeech.doc (last accessed on 30/09/2005).

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Barbara De Cock
Departments of Linguistics, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Leuven, Belgium)


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