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Language barometer shows more Brussels residents do not speak French, Dutch or English

14:17 18/05/2024

The latest Brussels language barometer has revealed that a rising number of residents know neither French, Dutch nor English.

The language barometer is an initiative from VUB that studies the language use and language knowledge of Brussels residents.

Its fifth edition showed a sharp increase in language diversity, Bruzz reports, with 107 different languages spoken in the Belgian capital – an increase over the 2000 edition which reported 72.

Researchers note that the high number is still likely an under-reporting of reality.

As many as 47% of Brussels residents say they speak English, compared to 33% in the year 2000.

And while the first language barometer showed that French was known by almost every Brussels resident, today it is known by 81%, meaning nearly a fifth of the capital’s residents do not speak French.

Knowledge of Dutch is also deteriorating: 33% reported fluency in Dutch in 2000 but just 22.3% can say the same today.

Still, researchers point out that the number is higher than it was in the last barometer in 2018, when only 16% of residents reported being Dutch-speakers.

Additionally, the number of households in which Dutch is spoken remains stable, “indicating a degree of language retention”, the researchers said.

Those figures are helped by the fact that many Dutch-speakers continue to move from Flanders to Brussels and the Dutch-language education system has become more robust.

But the acquisition of Dutch by pupils in French-language education in Brussels remains poor. Of the Brussels residents who went to school in the French-speaking education system in the city, only 6.5% said they knew Dutch. In 2000, that figure was 20%

Conversely, 83% of pupils in Dutch-speaking schools say they can speak French.

Multilingualism of Brussels residents is on the rise, especially the combination of French and English. The number of Brussels residents speaking all three major languages doubled compared to the previous language barometer, though the number of only-French speakers has fallen.

Yet at the same time, the number of Brussels residents who speak neither Dutch, French nor English is on the rise, climbing to as much as 10.5% compared to 3% in 2000.

This is especially the case among non-EU nationals, a quarter of whom say they do not speak any of those three languages.

“Should this movement continue, it poses a substantial challenge for the future of Brussels,” the researchers write in their report.

“This group will most likely experience barriers in contact with public and private services.”

They are also at risk of social exclusion, the researchers warned.

Flemish minister for Brussels, Benjamin Dalle (CD&V), who funded the language barometer, said there are also encouraging figures, such as the relative constancy of Dutch in Brussels, but multilingualism should also be underlined.

“We need to be aware of this richness and strengthen it even more, although not at the expense of Dutch,” Dalle said.

“Today we invest €1.3 billion a year from Flanders in Brussels. We must not cut back on this. What we are responsible for in Brussels today, we must not give that up, in spite of what some Dutch-speaking parties proclaim.”

Dutch language classes are subsidised for Brussels residents – a policy that Dalle said has been permanently enshrined in legislation.

“We should further promote that, so that municipal officials and staff in care institutions can use it,” Dalla said, adding that the exchange of teachers in French-speaking and Dutch-speaking education is also beneficial.

Written by Helen Lyons