Language Policy in the Brussels Capital Region

Five governments

Language policy in the Brussels Capital Region lies within the competences of several governments. Dutch-language and French-language education and culture are under the authority, respectively, of the Vlaamse Gemeenschap (VG) and the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (FWB). However, language policy is not only a matter of education and culture. Moreover, in a region that is increasingly diverse linguistically and whose population is increasinly multilingual, the French-Dutch dichotomy has become less and less adequate for apprehending Brussels’ linguistic reality and addressing its linguistic challenges. Therefore, the government of the Brussels Capital Region (RBC/BHG) started stepping in the 2014-2019 legislature and has adopted an increasingly voluntaristic attitude. Within the limits of their own competences, the Brussels sub-governments of the Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie (VGC) and of the Commission communautaire francophone (COCOF) are also playing some role.

We briefly summarize below the most relevant elements in the declarations of each of the five governments concerned, with a short additional note on the declaration of the Walloon Region. The appendix cites all the passages that touch on languages, with the most significant ones highlighted. It also contains links to the full texts of all the declarations.

1. Région de Bruxelles-Capitale/ Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest

Despite the Brussels Region having no competence in the field of education and culture, the declaration of the Brussels government adopts an unprecedently strong stance on multilingualism. This is spectacularly manifested by the creation of an explicit ministerial competence : Sven Gatz (Open VLD), finance minister in the Brussels government is also Brussels’ (and possibly the world’s) first minister for the promotion of multilingualism. His policy note (available in Dutch, French and English) was presented to the Brussels Parliament on 9 December 2019 and received strong support from all parties.

The governmental declaration emphasizes the importance of competence in French, English and French for finding a job in Brussels. The Flemish and French communities and the federal state will be invited to make a cooperation agreement with the Brussels Region in order to better organize the teaching of languages in Brussels schools. Support for the training of bilingual primary teachers will be continued, and the learning of profession-related languages will be strengthened in professional and technical schools. The multilingualism of public officials in contact with the Brussels population will also be encouraged and made more visible.

2. Communauté française (FWB)

Unlike its predecessor in 2014, the declaration of the French Community (or Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles) is particularly explicit on language learning. Its government declares that it « will introduce language awareness class from the kindergarten owards, support the creation of bilingual schools in Wallonia and in Brussels, develop immersion teaching and negotiate exchanges of teachers and pupils between the Communities ». As regards the public TV channel RTBf, it will develop the systematic subtitling (as opposed to voice over) of interventions in Dutch, English or German and expand the broadcasting of films in their original language.

This declaration must be interpreted against the background of the Pacte d’excellence, a profound reform of the education system of the French Community decided by the previous government and supposed to be phased in the course of the next few years. This reform includes the introduction of a second language — either Dutch or English, with each school allowed but not obliged to give a choice — from the third year of primary school in Wallonia, and the introduction of a third language for all pupils from the first year of secondary school. This implies no change at the primary level in Brussels, where Dutch is already compulsory from the third year of primary school and still does not count for the « Certificat d’études de base ».

3. Vlaamse Gemeenschap

The Flemish government operates as the government of both the Flemish Region and of the Dutch-language Community. In the latter capacity, it exercises competences within the Brussels Region. Throughout its declaration — from kindergarten to social housing — the accent lies on the acquisition of a « rich Dutch language » by both native and non-native residents of Flanders. The learning of « other modern languages » is only briefly mentioned as an important asset.

As regards specifically Brussels, the declaration insists on the enforcement on the language legislation governing the availability of public services in Dutch as well as French. It promises to keep paying attention to the need for places in Dutch-medium schools at all levels for families who wish to send their children to these schools, while maintaining the current priority rules for Dutch native speakers, so as to guarantee a critical mass of Dutchs-speaking pupils. Making the children multilingual is an objective that must be pursued, but without infringing the legislation of the Flemish Community. The exchange of (language and other) teachers between Dutch-medium and French-medium schools must be encouraged.

4. Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie (VGC)

The Flemish Community Commission views the learning of Dutch and other languages as part of an ambitious project for the Region that will strenthen its citizens. The VGC supports the creation of bi- or multilingual schools, the exchange of teachers between French- and Dutch-medium schools, the training of bilingual teachers, the use of CLIL (immersion) for language learning in Dutch-medium schools, the setting up of a permanent forum for mutual consultation involving the French-medium, Dutch-medium and European schools, the organization of Staten Generaal of Brussels education as a collaborative venture involving the Brussels Region and both Communities, and the collaboration of the VGC’s 22 gemeenschapscentra with cultural centres operating in French and other languages.

5. Commission communautaire française (COCOF)

The French Community Commission will keep supporting initiatives that aim toreduce illiteracy and to improve the knowledge of French, as well as to develop the offer of language classes in conjunction with the Cité des langues. It will also develop integration trajectories for newcomers (now obligatory also in Brussels for non-EU immigrants) with a French language component.

6. Walloon Region

Being distinct from the government of the French Community, the government of the Walloon region has no competences in Brussels nor in the field of education. It is nonetheless worth noting that its declaration stresses that the learning of Dutch must be supported, in particular through study exchanges, internships and work experience in Flanders. It also mentions that the learning of languages in Wallonia will be evaluated and improved on the basis on this evaluation.

Read the full text with appendices here.