Multilingualism in Brussels

Brief Report

by Nell FOSTER (ULB)


By way of introduction, the two moderators set out the objectives of the Marnix Plan, namely to promote language learning and multilingualism for all inhabitants of the Brussels-Capital Region, with the conviction (based on scientific research) that individual multilingualism is the glue which holds together hyperdiverse communities such as Brussels and which delivers multiple benefits (social, cognitive, cultural, economic) that multilingualism and linguistic diversity can confer. The points to the importance of the next Parliament implementing explicit language policies and measures to support multilingualism.

To this end, for the third time, the Marnix Plan organised a debate between the heads of the eleven main Brussels political parties in order to hear their opinions on these issues. Each participant was invited to choose three proposals from a selection of fifteen proposals (extracted from the thirty-six recommendations proposed by the Brussels Council Memorandum on Multilingualism) that they considered to be priorities for the next legislature and one proposal that they considered less important, counterproductive or unfeasible.

All participants could express themselves in French or Dutch. Several representatives of the French-speaking parties also spoke in Dutch and several representatives of the Dutch-speaking parties in French. The following is an expanded version of the concluding remarks delivered at the end of the meeting by Philippe Van Parijs, President of the Brussels Council for Multilingualism.

Predictable convergences
While the (fruitful) format of the meeting did not allow us to identify with certainty the proposals that are unanimous, the resolute choice of some panelists, not contradicted by others, suggests the existence of a broad (quite predictable) consensus on the following points:

  • the importance of promoting multilingualism in general, and in particular the knowledge of French, Dutch and English among jobseekers,
  • the decisive importance of the acquisition and positive appreciation of all mother tongues,
  • in terms of language learning from an early age, the effectiveness of immersion/CLIL formulas including in the technical/vocational sections. This also includes including consideration of the many pupils who attend Dutch-speaking and French-speaking schools and whose mother tongue differs from the language of the school.
  • on the advisability of twinning Brussels, Dutch- and French-speaking schools with schools from the other language regime (possibly located in Flanders and Wallonia),
  • on the usefulness of teacher exchanges between Dutch-speaking and French-speaking schools (currently severely hampered by the desynchronisation of school calendars),
  • the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers, particularly Dutch-speaking, in Brussels schools (even more so since the desynchronisation of school calendars),
  • the difficulty of training enough Dutch teachers in the FWB’s primary schools (a difficulty that is expected to increase further due to the introduction of Dutch from the 3rd year in Wallonia in 2027),
  • the potential usefulness of a French-speaking equivalent of the Onderwijscentrum Brussels.

Perhaps more surprising
Perhaps less predictably, there was also a broad consensus on the need to realign the French and Dutch school calendars, either to reduce the loss of language skills (and the loss of other school skills) during the summer holidays (Van Achter) or to facilitate collaboration between French- and Dutch-speaking institutions (including for free time activities during the holiday periods), as well as for symbolic reasons (Van den Brandt).

A broad consensus also seemed to exist on extending the provision of public services in languages other than French and Dutch, and not only English, possibly with stickers indicating all of the languages that a public service employee can speak (Persoons). This might (Deneef) or possibly not (Gatz) also encompass extending the bilingualism bonus to all languages, and the necessary revision of federal legislation (Casier, Gatz).

The ideal of true "bilingual schools" (even if they do not imply the regionalisation of education) was probably the most controversial topic, with the French-speaking panelists mostly in favour (except Défi) and the Dutch-speaking panelists mostly against it (except Groen and PVDA).

New ideas
Beyond the recommendations of the Brussels Council for Multilingualism, a number of other ideas were proposed by the panelists, including

  • offer "French as a language of learning" (FLA) in all French-speaking schools, and not only in those that benefit from "positive discrimination", i.e. those that benefit from additional resources because of the socio-economic characteristics of their students (Deneef),
  • introduce tests at the community level in all French-speaking schools, as is the case in all Dutch-speaking schools, which would provide more reliable information than the PISA-PIRLS (Van Achter) surveys,
  • Demand a commitment to the promotion of multilingualism in public media management contracts (Miller),
  • Organize eloquence tournaments in the second or third language of pupils and students (Vanden Burre)
  • link the Brulingua tests to a Brussels language passport to be used for job applications (Gatz).

A Brussels week of multilingualism
Brulingua is an excellent instrument for language learning, but it is dramatically underused (Clerfayt, Gatz). All parents should be encouraged to adopt an effective "family language policy", but many of them do not know what this can mean and do not know what the many libraries in Brussels offer to help them. Schools and nurseries should be encouraged to adopt an attitude towards family languages that is beneficial both for maintaining family languages and for learning the school language, but they often lack guidance on how to do this. And many outstanding role models could be recruited to make learning Brussels’ two official languages at least as cool as learning English.

In order to serve these different objectives, the Brussels Multilingualism Council proposes the organisation of an annual multilingualism week in Brussels: a largely bottom-up initiative, which should not cost much and which can start very modestly. There seemed to be a consensus on this idea. But its coordination requires institutional support.

The sustainability of a ministerial portfolio for the promotion of multilingualism is essential to this end, according to some (Miller), while for others, it is the commitment of the entire Brussels government that is of crucial importance (Bauwens). Another formula would be to create a small dedicated administrative unit, which could also take charge of other relevant initiatives such as a user-friendly platform for language learning options in Brussels. Several, however, consider it excessive at this stage (Casier, Dalle, Vanden Burre). Other formulas are possible. In any case, official coordination, even if very light, is essential to ensure the lasting creation of this annual highlight that would constitute the Brussels Multilingualism Week and thus the effective pursuit of the various objectives mentioned above.

Civilized debate through reliable knowledge
It is striking to see how a civilised political debate can take place on what was once one of the most emotional political issues in Brussels. This is an exciting development that is credited to panelists who are willing to listen to each other and learn from each other. But it is also largely due to the fact that such a debate can now be based on objective knowledge of the linguistic situation in Brussels. Despite the inevitable limitations of the use of random samples and the use of self-assessment, the contribution of the VUB Taalbarometers to this knowledge was decisive.