1. What is the official language regime in the Brussels Region and its surroundings ?

The nineteen municipalities of Brussels Capital Region are officially bilingual, which means that both Dutch and French enjoy the status of official language. In these communes, all official documents, public announcements, street names and road signs must be provided in both Dutch and French. In its relations with individual citizens, the public administration must use French or Dutch, as the citizen prefers. And compulsory public education, both primary and secondary, must take either French or Dutch as the medium of instruction. By contrast, with a few exceptions, each commune in Flanders and Wallonia has only one official language, Dutch in Flanders and French in Wallonia. This is the language in which all official relations between the citizens and the public authorities must be administered and in which public education must be organised. The exceptions are 9 Walloon communes in which German is the official language, 2 more Walloon communes with “linguistic facilities” for German, 4 with “linguistic facilities” for Dutch, and 12 Flemish communes, including six adjacent to the Brussels region, with “linguistic facilities” for French. The linguistic facilities consist in some limited rights for a second language in administrative and educational matters.

2. What are the native languages of the Brussels population ?

Ever since the middle ages until the 19th century, the overwhelming majority of the people living in what is now the region of Brussels had as their native language some dialect of Dutch. French came in as the language of court of the Duke of Burgundy in the 15th century and remained mainly the language of the Brussels elites throughout the following centuries. The situation changed after 1830, when Brussels became the capital of an officially unilingual Francophone state and primary education became accessible to a growing proportion of the children. This triggered a gradual Frenchization of both the original population and Flemish immigrants. Even after the recognition of Dutch as Belgium’s second official language in in 1898, the process continued and led to a large majority of the population having French as its native language. In recent decennia, however, massive immigration from both European and non-European countries has triggered a dramatic increase in linguistic diversity.

The most reliable recent data available are based on a representative sample of 2500 officially registered adult Brusselers surveyed in 2017 for the fourth Taalbarometer of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel . They can be compared to similar data collected in 2001, 2006 and 2011, as well as to data collected in 2018 in the ‘Vlaamse Rand’, the 19 Flemish communes which surround Brussels (including the 6 ‘communes à facilité’) and totalling around 400,000 inhabitants. The following table gives the proportions of respondents who mention the various languages when asked which languages they spoke at home when they were children, whether exclusively or in combination. 

Mother Tongue 2001 2006 2011 2017 Rand 2018
FRANCAIS 71 76.4 63.2 73 37.4
NEERLANDAIS 19.3 15.6 19.6 16.3 55.9
ANGLAIS 2.9 2.3 2.5 2.6
ARABE 9.7 6.9 21.1 8.9
ESPAGNOL 2.5 2.9 3 3
ALLEMAND 1.6 1.8 0.9 2.2
ITALIEN 2.5 3.2 2.5 2.2
TURC 3.3 1.4 4.5 1.3

Sources: Rudi Janssens, Meertaligheid als opdracht. Een analyse van de Brusselse taalsituatie op basis van taalbarometer 4, VUB Press, 2018, table 21; Rudi Janssens, De Rand vertaald. Een analyse van de taalsituatie op basis van taalbarometer 2 van de Vlaamse Rand, VUB Press, 2019, tableau 23; and Rudi Janssens, personal communication for the languages others than Dutch and French.

Almost 30% of Brussels inhabitants (and even more amongst the younger end of the population) says they spoke several languages at home during their childhood, for example Dutch, Arabic or Turkish combined with French1. 52.2 % of respondents said that French was the only language spoken at home when they were a child, and 5.6% only had Dutch. . In the ‘Vlaamse Rand’ (2018), these figures are 20.4% and 45% for French and Dutch respectively 2.

1 R. Janssens, Meertaligheid als opdracht, VUB 2018, tables 22 and 23.
2 R. Janssens, De Rand vertaald, VUB Press, 2019, table 23.

3. What languages do Brusselers know ?

It is impossible to know how many languages are known by Brussels citizens, but there must be hundreds. In their survey of around 2500 people, the Taalbarometers identify more than one hundred. However, given that there are people from over 180 countries in Brussels and that many countries are multilingual, this number is doubtless considerably higher.

The following table gives the proportion of the adult population of Brussels who claim to speak Brussels’ main languages well or very well. It shows data from the four Taalbarometers and the Taalbarometer 2018 for the Vlaamse Rand.

Good or very good knowledge
  2001 2006 2011 2017 Rand 2018
FRENCH (FR) 95.5 95.6 88.5 87.1 79.6
DUTCH (NL) 33.3 28.3 23.1 16.3 68.5
ENGLISH (EN) 33.3 35.4 29.7 34.4 50.0
ARABIC 10.1 6.6 17.9 9.1 4.6
SPANISH 6.9 7.4 8.9 4.9 11.7
GERMAN 7.1 5.6 7.0 3.2 19.1
ITALIAN 4.7 5.7 5.2 3.5 6.6
TURKISH 3.3 1.5 4.5 1.4 1.8
FR+NL 32.8 27.0 20.8 13.6 51.7
FR+NL+EN 16.4 15.1 11.6 6.2 33.2

In terms of the different levels of proficiency in the three main languages, the Taalbarometers for Brussels -Capital Region (2017) and (in brackets) for the Vlaamse Rand (2018)1 give the following figures :

Very good level 67.8 (55.1) 9.2 (56.5) 12.0 (19.7)
Good level 19.3 (24.5) 7.1 (12.0) 22.4 (30.3)
Gets by 12.0 (15.0) 20.3 (15.4) 26.0 (24.6)
Knows a few words 0.7 (4.1) 43.0 (10.9) 18.7 (12.4)
No knowledge 0.1 (1.3) 20.5 (5.1) 20.8 (13.1)

Looking at this data we can say that if there is a place in Belgium which is bilingual French-Dutch it is the Vlaamse Rand (51.7%) and not Brussels-Capital (13.6%). The rapid decline of knowledge of both official languages in Brussels since 2000 is only partially balanced by a slight rise in the knowledge of English, often used as a lingua franca. In 2017, 7.6% of the population could speak neither French, nor Dutch, nor English, compared to 3% in 2000. This diversity can be explained by the diversity and the increasing fluid mobility of the population of Brussels. Between 2000 and 2017, the population grew from 950,000 to around 1, 200 000 inhabitants. In the same period of time, around 1, 200 000 people moved to the city, most of whom (800 000) came from abroad and around 1, 100 000 left the city, most of them (600 000) moving to another location in Belgium. The decline in the number of Brusselers speaking French and/or Dutch does not exclude the fact that during their stay in Brussels, they doubtless improved their knowledge of French and Dutch.

1 R. Janssens, Meertaligheid als opdracht, VUB Press,, 2018, table 4 ; De Rand Vertaald, VUB Press, 2019, table 8.

4. What is the place of languages in the curriculum of French-language schools in Brussels ?

The publicly funded schools of the Brussels Region consist of six years at primary level and another six years at secondary level. For about 76% of Brussels’s pupils, they are run either by the French Community (the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, , also in charge of Wallonia’s education system) or for 18% of the pupils, by the Flemish Community (Vlaamse Gemeenschap, , also in charge of Flanders’ education system). The remaining 6% attend either European Schools or private international schools. By virtue of a national law dating back to 1963, some teaching of the second national language is compulsory at both primary and secondary level in all schools of both Communities located in the Brussels Region or in bordering communes with “linguistic facilities”.

In terms of education in the French-speaking network, it is important to make a distinction between the present situation and the changes that will gradually be put into place following the adoption of the Pacte d’Excellence in April 2019. These will begin from 2021 for primary education and from 2026 for secondary education. In Brussels’ French-language primary schools, Dutch is supposed to be taught for 3 hours a week in years 3 and 4 and for five hours a week in years 5 and 6. In francophone schools in Wallonia, the second language can be Dutch, English or German and is currently taught for 2 hours a week to pupils in years 5 and 6. The Pacte d’Excellence will have no impact on the current regime in Brussels, but will introduce the second language in years 3 and 4 in Wallonia (taught for 2 hours a week). However, in a foreign language is not taken into account in the test for the primary school certificate (Certificat d’études de base or C.E.B.).

In the first two years of Brussels’ French-language secondary schools, all pupils currently have 4 hours of Dutch per week and but in Walloon schools, pupils can choose between four hours of English or Dutch. From the third year onwards, there is a big difference between the different education tracks (general, technical or professional). Under the Pacte d’Excellence, the common programme has been extended from 2 to 3 years. In the first year of secondary, there will be 4 hours per week of the second language, similar to primary ; this language is by definition Dutch for pupils in Brussels. In the second year, the second language is studied for 3 hours a week, and a third modern language is added (in Brussels, this is English), also taught for 3 hours per week. For the last three years of secondary, pupils either follow ‘transition education’ (i.e. preparation for higher education) or ‘qualification education’ (known previously as ‘professional’ education). In some schools and some transition programmes, it is also possible to add other languages for example, German, Italian, Spanish or Russian. In the ‘qualification’ track, the new programme aims to ensure that pupils will be able to follow language lessons that are adapted to the specific needs of different professional domains and to put an end to the current situation whereby a significant number of pupils in these tracks leave school without having had any language lessons at all in their four final years.

According to the 2017 Taalbarometer figures, 8% of Brussels residents under the age of 30 who have studied in the francophone education system claim to speak Dutch ‘well’ or ‘very well’ 1. In 2000, this figure was 20%. Although it claims to aim put a high priority on the learning of languages, the Pacte d’Excellence stands little chance of improving this figure. The number of hours per week of Dutch lessons has been doubled in Wallonia but remains unchanged in Brussels and the second language doesn’t count towards the CEB qualification. Furthermore, the difficulty of recruiting suitably qualified teachers in Brussels will be accentuated by the increase in teaching hours in Wallonia. Added to this, given that latin will be obligatory for all pupils in the first three years of secondary education, the number of hours available for Dutch will be reduced in the second year from 4 to 3 hours per week. The Communauté Française has shown little enthusiasm for developing and valorising the learning of Dutch in Brussels and is sometimes overly motivated by their concern that pupils arriving in Brussels from Wallonia should not be at an educational disadvantage. Regrettably, doubling the number of hours of second language instruction in Wallonia will not have a significant impact, particularly given that schools can choose between Dutch or English, and the majority opt for English.

1 R. Janssens, Meertaligheid als opdracht, VUB 2018, table 46

5. What is the place of languages in the curriculum of Dutch-language schools in Brussels ?

In the Dutch-language schools located in Brussels, French as a second language is compulsory from 3rd grade primary onwards (it only starts in grade 5 in Flanders), but many Brussels schools already start teaching French in the first year of primary school. The target level in French at the end of primary education is the A1 level of the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference).

At secondary level, all pupils in Brussels’ Dutch-language schools are required to learn at least two languages. Depending on the school track they are in, pupils in first and second grade secondary have two, four or five hours of French per week. They also have two or three hours of English per week (from first year onwards in the ‘official’ school system, but from second grade in the ‘free’ school system). From third grade onwards, and again depending on the school track in question, pupils study French and English for at least two hours per week, but in most cases it is more like three or four hours. A fourth language (i.e. not Dutch, French or English) can be studied in fifth and sixth grades, depending on the school track or specialisation (e.g. modern languages or tourism). This fourth language (taught for one hour per week, sometimes more) is invariably German or Spanish.

In secondary education in the Dutch-speaking system, about 20% of the timetable is dedicated to the teaching of languages. The goal is for students to reach B1 on the CEFR scale in both French and English at the end of their studies.

According to the Taalbarometer 2017 1, 69% of Brussels residents who are below the age of 30 and have been educated in the Dutch-speaking system state that they speak Dutch either well or very well, with 72% reporting the same levels in English. These figures indicate a perceptible decrease since 2000 (94% and 78% respectively) but they remain much higher than the corresponding figures for the French-speaking system (8% for Dutch and 41% for English). The goal of generalised trilingualism is clearly a more realistic goal for the Dutch-speaking system than the French-speaking system in Brussels, that is, unless the teaching of Dutch is radically reformed in the near future.

1 R. Janssens, Meertaligheid als opdracht, VUB 2018, table 46.

6. What is the place of languages in the curriculum of European schools in Brussels ?

There are currently four permanent European Schools in Brussels, at Uccle (Brussels I), Woluwé (Brussels II), Ixelles (Brussels III) and Laeken (Brussels IV), and one annex at Forest (Berkendael). One of the objectives of the European Schools is to provide a multinational, multicultural and multilingual environment to a linguistically and culturally diverse population. Consequently, the teaching of languages plays a prominent role in the European School curriculum. All European School pupils learn at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue.

After a two-year nursery cycle (ages 4 to 6), education in the European School system consists of a five-year primary cycle (ages 7 to 11) and a seven-year secondary cycle (ages 12 to 18). All 24 of the official languages of the European Union are taught as a first language (L1).

Language sections of the European Schools in Brussels - 2018/2019
Bxl I     x x x   x     x x x       x         8
Bxl Berkendael                   x       x         x    
Bxl II     x   x       x x   x x   x   x     x 9
Bxl III   x x   x x x     x         x           7
Bxl IV x   x   x     x   x   x     x     x     7
Total 1 1 4 1 4 1 2 1 1 5 1 3 1 1 3 1 1 1 1 1 35

There are 20 different language sections in the Brussels Schools. All four European Schools in Brussels have English, French and German sections and the other language sections are divied out amongst the schools, as can be seen from the table. Pupils with a dominant language that is an official language of the European Union but do not yet have a separate language section (e.g. Croatian, Estonian, Latvian, Slovenian) can be enrolled in one of the vehicular language sections (DE, EN and FR). Students Without A Language Section (SWALS) are provided with L1 tuition in dedicated language classes. In addition, Maltese and Irish pupils have the possibility of studying Maltese or Irish as Other National Language (ONL), starting from the nursery cycle.

The study of a second language or L2 (English, French or German) is compulsory throughout the school, from the first year of primary education. From primary year 3 onwards, L2 is also used as a medium of instruction in European Hours and sometimes also as a language of tuition for Art, Music and Physical Education lessons. From secondary year 3 onwards, History and Geography are studied in L2, as is Economics and several other optional courses which may be taken as an option from secondary year 4. In the final two years of secondary school, depending on the options they have chosen, some pupils may have up to 50% of their teaching time in L2.

All pupils must study a third language (L3) starting from secondary year 1. They may choose to study Latin as an option from secondary year 3 onwards and a fourth language (L4) from secondary year 4 and even a fifth. In principal, the L3 and L4 can be chosen from any of the 24 official languages, taking into account the local language situation. The L5 can be any language (for example Chinese), as long as there is sufficient demand. The L3 and L4 languages can also be used for certain optional courses at the end of the secondary cycle.

Language classes which are not given in the L1 are composed of mixed nationalities and are taught mainly by native speakers. Everyday interaction in the playground, the corridors and common spaces enhances the acquisition of other languages and the realisation that using them is not only vital but natural.

In 2019, the Conseil Supérieur des Ecoles Européennes approved in principle a wide ranging programme of reform to the language curriculum in the schools. For example, it will ensure that the teaching of L3 will begin earlier (in fourth grade primary, rather than first grade secondary). It also aims to offer a wider selection of L2s, beyond the current possibilities of German, English and French to encompass the language of the host city (if it is not one of these three languages). If the reforms are adopted, they will be put into place in 2020-21.

7. Are there bilingual schools in Brussels ?

Genuine bilingual schools. The European Schools are officially multilingual. Surely it would seem logical that in an officially bilingual city, all of the schools in the city would be bilingual? This is the case for example in Barcelona with Catalan and Spanish, or in Singapore with English and (depending on the situation) Chinese, Tamil and Malay. In Luxembourg, German and French are used as languages of instruction to varying degrees depending on the stage of the curriculum, in addition to Luxembourgish in the kindergarten. The demand for schools of this kind clearly exists, as suggested by the growing number of non Dutch-speaking parents who send their children to Dutch-language schools and by opinion surveys that consistently show that a considerable majority of the Brussels population would like to have bilingual schools (90% according to the Taalbarometer 2017). In May 2013, Brussels’ Minister-President Rudi Vervoort declared that he was determined to “fight for bilingual schools”. In September 2017, Minster Guy Vanhengel facilitated the creation of a bilingual teacher-training course, run through a collaboration between the Haute Ecole Franciso Ferrer and the Erasmushoogeschool. This programme aims to address the shortage of primary school teachers with strong competence in both languages. In April 2019 the rectors of the Université libre de Bruxelles and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel published their plans to create multilingual secondary schools in which French, Dutch and English would be used as languages of instruction. The project was warmly welcomed by some but was not added to the Brussels-Capital legislative programme for 2019 – 2024.

Nonetheless, the debate generated by the rectors’ project has meant that certain institutional and legal conditions associated with the creation of bilingual schools have been clarified. The Flemish and French Communities currently exercise a monopoly in publicly funded education in Brussels, with each using, respectively Dutch and French as the sole language of instruction. The 1963 legislation regarding languages does not, however, completely exclude the possibility of schools functioning in French and Dutch as languages of instruction, and several Communes have expressed an interest in setting themselves up as the governing authorities for such schools. The main difficulties lie in constructing establishing bodies that would have the capacity to regulate such schools, as well as to finance them. The federal government has the right to do so, but is not currently set up to take this on, nor is it keen to delegate this competence to the Brussels Region authorities. Regardless of these challenges, they would also face the challenge of recruiting and retaining enough teachers with the requisite qualifications to teach subjects in Dutch.

Immersion in French-language schools. “Immersion” schools can be regarded as a modest variant of bilingual schools. Since 1998, however, the French Community has allowed some of its schools to become immersion schools. In order to conform to legislation about language, this means they offer the teaching of some subjects in a language other than French (i.e. in the language of immersion) as a way of teaching that language rather than as the use of a second medium of instruction. In 2019-20, there were 185 immersion primary schools (of which 20 in Brussels) offering the main curriculum in French but with up to 70% taught in Dutch or English (see list) . In 2017-18, there were 128 immersion secondary schools (of which 23 in Brussels) (see list). In Brussels, immersion is always in Dutch at primary school and in the first two years of secondary school. It can in principle also be English in later years, but the offer, so far, has been very scarce. Teaching in the second language varies from 8 to 18 hours per week. Despite the publicity surrounding it, immersion remains a marginal phenomenon in the schools of the French Community, particularly in Brussels.

Immersion in Dutch-language schools. The official position of the Flemish Community has generally been less favourable towards immersion schools, especially in and around Brussels; currently there are no immersion nursery or primary schools. The reason given is that a large proportion of the pupils in the Dutch-language schools of the Brussels area do not have Dutch as their home language. For them, attending school in Dutch is already a form of submersion (see below). In particular, using French as an additional medium of instruction when a significant proportion of the pupils has French as its native (or street) language risks impairing the learning of Dutch to such an extent that pupils will never achieve the level of Dutch required for success in secondary and higher education. Research shows that this is not necessarily the case. Despite these reservations and the cautious position adopted by the authorities, immersion education in Italian, Spanish and Arabic was offered in a few Brussels schools until 2011 at the initiative of the Molenbeek-based association Foyer. It aimed to enable pupils who used one of these languages at home to learn it in school and as such wasn’t open to those from other language backgrounds. Experimentation has continued in a handful of schools as part of the Stimob project (Stimulating Multilingual Education in Brussels) whereby the schools provide certain extra lessons in French (e.g. maths revision sessions).

Immersion education was given a real boost by the Flemish Parliament’s decision on 10 July 2013 to allow for immersion (referred to as CLIL, Content and Language Integrated Learning) under certain conditions, both in Flanders and in Brussels. The language of immersion can be French, English or German and the maximum number of hours of teaching that can be delivered in the additional language (outside of language lessons) is set at 20%. In 2019-20, 123 schools began teaching through this immersion model, 4 of which were in Brussels and use either English or French (Meertalig Atheneum Woluwe, GO Atheneum Etterbeek, Comenius Campus Koekelberg and Atheneum GO for Business in Molenbeek).

8. Are there multilingual media in Brussels ?

Audiovisual. The local TV channels are the French-language BX1 (known as TéléBruxelles from 1985 to 2016) and the Dutch-language BRUZZ (known as TV-Brussel from 1993-2016). BRUZZ operates to some extent trilingually. Its programmes in Dutch are subtitled in French and English, and interviews in French or English are subtitled in the other two languages. There are various Brussels-based radio channels in French, Dutch and other languages. FMBrussel offers programmes in both Dutch and French. The radio station BXFM is aimed at “Eurobrusselers” and offers radio programmes in French, English, Italian and Spanish.

Print. La Capitale is a popular French-language daily newspaper which covers Brussels and the Brabant Wallon. The French-language national dailies have all pages dedicated to events and life in Brussels. The Dutch-language Brussels weekly Bruzz has a weekly cultural supplement (Agenda) and a quarterly cultural supplement for Brussels children (Kidsgazette) and is written in Dutch, French and English.

Online. In Brussels, as elsewhere, traditional printed and audiovisual media are being supplemented and partly replaced by websites and blogs, many of them operating in two, three or more languages. In English, the main websites are now The Bulletin (available as a print magazine until 2012) and The Brussels Times (printed bimonthly). Daardaar provides a selection of articles from the Flemish press, translated in French.