Violence over language

Brussels Travel Blog

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Hallepoort
There is an interesting article about the ferocity (and pettiness) that can rage over language in Belgium, using the contentious example of Voeren. Briefly, it goes something like this:

Voeren is a small town wedged between French-speaking Liege (in Belgium) and the Netherlands. When Belgium introduced language laws in 1932 splitting the country into Flemish and French-speaking areas, the tiny enclave was designated Flemish based on the 1930 census, being placed in the province of Limburg (which it is not connected to). However, a census in 1947 showed that the majority of the residents now spoke French.

This resulted in the situation where a small mostly French-speaking town, surrounded by French-speaking Liege, were actually part of Flemish-speaking Limburg.
Palace of Justice
Of course this meant political problems, including violent riots in 1979. The absurdity of the situation was shown when French-speaking Jose Happart was elected the mayor of Voeren by the French-speaking majority in 1983, but was dismissed from his position for not being able to speak Flemish (the consequences of which ended up toppling the national government). Just a few years ago, in 2006, the Flemish government decided to abolish all official French translations, so now this region only has signs in Flemish, despite all the French speakers.

Ah well, it all sounds crazy and I really think it is, but despite the bickering the French and Flemish populations of Belgium get on better than most mixed cultures. Flanders has the highest proportion of French-as-a-second-language in the world and Walloon has the highest proportion of Dutch-as-a-second-language in the world, and the Flemings and Walloons have never fought a war against each other, even banding together against both France and the Netherlands when it came to it.
lamadude says:
The reason for this I think is that the flemish have a sort of minority complex, mostly because of historical reasons and are very defensive about their language, which leads to silly regulations like this.


For that mayor it is not the fact that learning dutch is hard that was his problem, people have no problem understanding that, but in everything he said it was clear that he despises the language and therefor he could not count on any goodwill.
This is about him not wanting to speak dutch rather than not being able to learn it.
And it's not just a technicality, he would actually need the language, I don't see how else he could head the town council, apply flemish laws in his town etc

I don't understand why you would have to learn dutch if you don't need it, but I do think it's normal that language requirements are a part of a job contract, for a lot of the jobs I'm applying for I need to know french, dutch and english. I could apply for a job as an economist and get fired over not being able to speak french well enough.

There is a big debate about the use of english at universities, I agree with most of what you wrote but I'll get back to you on that, I have 4 Swedes visiting and I need to keep them entertained, ciao! ;-)
Posted on: Aug 05, 2009
Adrian_Liston says:
I agree 100% that you get rid of silly laws by changing the law, not by violent action. Also, refusing to try and learn Dutch when 50% of the population you govern speaks Dutch is obviously offensive and deliberately provocative. Still... learning Dutch isn't easy, even if you have a year to do it. Something is just seriously wrong with the law if a person could be elected by a majority of people, fail to learn to speak Dutch just due to poor affinity with languages, and then get expelled from elected office. If you are unable to perform your duties due to an inability to speak a language, that is obviously grounds for getting rid of you, but if you don't need the language to do your job?

This strikes a bit of a personal note for me. In my job I am legally obliged to become fluent in Dutch within three years, to the level of lecturing students in Dutch. I am trying to learn, listening to tapes, working my way through books and I'm starting classes in October. But it is really not easy for someone to learn their second language later on in life. Also, it isn't necessary for my job - everything is in English, I teach in English, the research is only written in English and I can translate the odd bit of paperwork that is in Dutch. The idea that I can work really hard for the next three years, performing my job at the highest level, and then get fired for not being good at languages - it just seems stupid. It is also a recipe for condemning Flemish universities to international irrelevance - with a Dutch fluency test requirement, the vast majority of researchers and lecturers will come from two small countries. In a time of international learning and ideas, that just isn't smart policy.
Posted on: Aug 05, 2009
lamadude says:
It seems that the language struggle in the 50's till 80's was a lot more violent than it is now. Voeren is an obvious example, but I recall very violent protests in Schaarbeek as well, not to mention the huge protets that led to the division of the Leuven university. I think the change to a federal state in the early 90's relieved much of the tension, and now only the real hard-liners participate in demonstrations etc about the language issue, whereas before, a much larger part of society participated.
Posted on: Aug 05, 2009
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