Language

Leuven Travel Blog

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Lydia and I are language impaired. I am learning Dutch and she is learning French, but we only speak English and that is likely to take years to correct. The Australian education system simply doesn't produce multi-lingual people, an hour of Chinese a week when I was 12 and 13 never stood a chance when compared to the multi-language immersion from birth that the Dutch and Scandinavians receive. So far it hasn't been a problem in Belgium. In Flanders, everyone speaks English and nobody minds in the slightest talking to you in your language. The Dutch have survived for years on trading and were always prepared to pick up the trading language and use it - and despite all the dire warnings Dutch has never been threatened as the mother tongue in their homeland. In Brussels and Walloon, the French speakers are less comfortable in English (or even completely incapable), still, nobody takes offense when we speak in English. If we can communicate with a few words and points they are happy to play along, if we can't we both smile and shrug and no harm done.

Except this one guy, in Brussels, who approached Lydia with a question in French. She understood the gist but had to reply in English. He switched to English to respond, but when she asked a question in return he said (in perfect English) "I only speak French". I understand the resentment people must feel when English is expected to be understood in non-English countries, and I agree it is a short-coming in English countries that we don't place importance on learning other languages. I understand perfectly well that if he visited Australia or America he would speak English and not expect us to understand French. I understand the particular loss that must be felt by French speakers, as once it was French that was the global language of the elite, and someone could not be anyone in England, Germany or Russia unless they could speak French. I especially understand the irritation that must be felt in France, since their neighbours across the channel never bothered to learn French but expect to be understood in English - to someone just trying to live their life in Paris the influx of English-only speaking tourists could be a torment.

But, rude sir, you do not live in France, you live in tri-lingual Belgium, rift by language wars after forced language imperialism. And in short, that means you were just an arrogant jerk to my wife. I would love to speak French but I can't - the kid of low income parents in Australia just doesn't get that opportunity. I'm not even learning French, since I work in a Flemish institution and one language at a time is hard enough. But let's be clear - I don't expect you to speak English, I only use it because it is our only opportunity for communication. If you don't speak English I chide myself for not speaking French. Yet I am fairly certain you don't speak Flemish or German, since very few French Belgians do. You are living in an officially bilingual city (only because of relatively recent influx of French into a historically Flemish city), the person down the street to you may be Flemish and have family stretching back far longer than yours. Yet you almost certainly didn't learn Flemish to talk to your fellow commune members or German to talk to fellow citizens - most French Belgians learn English as a second language because it is more practical than Flemish or German, and few learn a third language. So if you expect your fellow Flemish and German-speaking citizens to either learn your language or English, you don't really have a leg to stand on when snubbing someone simply for the sin of not speaking French. In fact, you are guilty of the very crime you rail against.

To everyone else in Belgium - thank you for being so kind and understanding to us while we learn your languages. If you knew English you acted like it wasn't a problem to switch languages. If you didn't know English you were still successful in communicating your best wishes to us, no harm done. More than most people, you understand that language competency is more a function of where you were born than any deliberate choice. Hopefully one day we will be able to express our gratitude in your native tongue.
Adrian_Liston says:
It is pretty amazing how multi-lingual the Flemish are.
Posted on: Mar 10, 2009
lamadude says:
Veel succes met je Nederlandse lessen!
I try to keep an open mind about the language issues in Belgium, after all it's just a way of communicating, and it has already caused so many problems in our country. But I must admit it's sometimes hard when walking in Flanders and somebody asks me something in French without even bothering to ask if I speak it, just assuming that all Flemish people should be able to speak French. If they do ask if I speak it I gladly help them out in French of course.
Posted on: Mar 10, 2009
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