|Languages of Belgium|
French (1st: ~38%, 2nd: ~48%)
German (1st: ~1%, 2nd: 27%)
|Regional language(s)||West Flemish, East Flemish, Brabantian, Limburgish, Walloon, Picard, Champenois, Lorrain, Low Dietsch|
|Main foreign language(s)||English (2nd: 59%), Spanish (2nd: 6%), Italian (1st: 2%, 2nd: 3%), Arabic (1st: 1%, 2nd: 1%), Turkish (1st: 1%), Portuguese, Yiddish|
|Sign language(s)||Flemish Sign Language, French Sign Language|
|Common keyboard layout(s)||
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The Kingdom of Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. A number of non-official, minority languages and dialects are spoken as well. English is widely spoken throughout the country as a second or third language by native Belgians.
The Belgian Constitution guarantees since the country's independence freedom of language in the private sphere. Article 30 specifies that "the use of languages spoken in Belgium is optional; only the law can rule on this matter, and only for acts of the public authorities and for legal matters." For those public authorities, there is extensive language legislation concerning Dutch, French and German, even though the Belgian Constitution does not explicitly mention which languages enjoy official status. Article 4 does however divide the country into linguistic areas, which form the basis of the federal structure: "Belgium has four linguistic areas: The French-speaking area, the Dutch-speaking area, the bilingual area of Brussels Capital and the German-speaking area."
Before the federal structure and the language legislation gradually introduced in the 20th century, French was generally the only language used by public authorities. For example, only since 1967 the Dutch version of the Constitution has equal status to the original French one, and since 1991 the German version is official as well.
Of the inhabitants of Belgium, roughly 59% belong to the Flemish Community, 40% to the French Community and 1% to the German-speaking Community, though these figures relating to official Belgian languages include unknown numbers of immigrants and their children speaking a foreign language as primary language, and of Belgian regional migrants which may be assumed to largely balance one another for natively French and Dutch speakers. Though the standard form of Dutch used in Belgium is almost identical to that spoken in the Netherlands and the different dialects spread across the border, it is often colloquially called "Flemish".
Dutch is the official language of the Flemish Community and the Flemish Region (merged to Flanders) and, along with French, an official language of the Brussels-Capital Region. The main Dutch dialects spoken in Belgium are Brabantian, West Flemish, East Flemish, and Limburgish. All these are spoken across the border in the Netherlands as well, and West Flemish is also spoken in French Flanders. Some sub-dialects may be quite distant from standard Dutch and not be readily intelligible for other Dutch-speakers. Words which are unique to Belgian Dutch are called belgicisms (as are words used primarily in Belgian French). The original Brabantian dialect of Brussels has been very much influenced by French. It is now spoken by a minority in the city since the language of most inhabitants shifted during the Frenchification of Brussels.
The second-most spoken primary (Belgian) language, used natively by almost 40% of the population, is French. It is the official language of the French Community (which, like the Flemish Community, is a political entity), the dominant language in Wallonia (having also a small German-speaking Community) as well as the Brussels-Capital Region. Almost all of the inhabitants of the Capital region speak French as either their primary language (50%) or as a lingua franca (45%). There are also many Flemish people who speak French as a second language. Belgian French is in most respects identical to standard, Parisian French, but differs in some points of vocabulary, pronunciation, and semantics.
German is the least prevalent official language in Belgium, spoken natively by less than 1% of the population. The German-speaking Community of Belgium numbers 77,000, residing in an area of Belgium that was ceded by the former German Empire as part of the Treaty of Versailles, which concluded World War I. In 1940, Nazi Germany re-annexed the region following its invasion of Belgium during World War II; after the war it was returned to Belgium.
In national politics, politicians can choose which of the three official languages they want to speak. In Belgian parliament, simultaneous interpretation is available for those who require it.
Education is provided by the Communities, Dutch in the Flemish Community (Flanders and Brussels), French in the French Community (Wallonia and Brussels), German in the German-speaking community. Education in other languages is prohibited in government-funded schools (except for foreign language subjects of course, and in higher education where English is increasingly used).
Also all official communication with the government (Tax papers, local politics, id/passport requests, building permits, ...) must be in the official language of the region or community. Inhabitants of a few municipalities are granted an exception to these rules.
In 2006, the Université Catholique de Louvain, the country's largest French-speaking university, published a report with the introduction (here translated):
"This issue regarding economies is devoted to the demand for knowledge of languages in Belgium and in its three regions (Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia). The surveys show that Flanders is clearly more multilingual, which is without doubt a well known fact, but the difference is considerable : whereas 59% and 53% of the Flemings know French or English respectively, only 19% and 17% of the Walloons know Dutch or English. The measures advocated by the Marshall Plan go towards the proper direction, but are without doubt very insufficient to fully overcome the lag." (This particular 2006–2009 'Marshall Plan' was devised in 2004 and published in 2005 to uplift the Walloon economy.)
Within the report, professors in economics Ginsburgh and Weber further show that of the Brussels' residents, 95% declared they can speak French, 59% Dutch, and 41% know the non-local English. Of those under the age of forty, 59% in Flanders declared that they could speak all three, along with 10% in Wallonia and 28% in Brussels. In each region, Belgium's third official language, German, is notably less known than those.
In addition to the three official languages, others are spoken in Belgium, like in Wallonia, where French became dominant only relatively recently. Sometimes seen as dialects, the varieties related to French are now recognised as separate languages by the French Community, without, however, taking any further measures to support those varieties.
Flanders too has a number of dialects, but linguists regard these as varieties of Dutch rather than a separate Flemish language. The main Dutch dialects in Belgium are Brabantian, Limburgish, East Flemish, and West Flemish. Standard Dutch, as spoken in Belgium, is mostly influenced by Brabantian. There are literary traditions in both the East Flemish and West Flemish dialects.
Walloon, a language very closely related to French, is the historical language of southern Belgium, and most of the areas where French is now spoken were Walloon-speaking. It is also the traditional national language of the Walloons. Though it has been recognized, like other vernaculars in Belgium, since 1990, it is mainly spoken by older people, though younger Walloons may claim some knowledge. It is mainly used in rural regions, and is used in theaters and literature, though not in schools.
Another language very closely related to French, and an historic language of the region, Picard was recognized by the government of the French Community in 1990. Picard has its core area in France, stretching into the western part of Wallonia.
Low Dietsch is a Germanic language or dialect in the north-east of the Belgian province of Liege, in the kernel area of the historical (and linguistically mixed) Duchy of Limburg. It is spoken in towns and villages such as Plombières (Bleiberg), Gemmenich, Hombourg, Montzen and Welkenraedt. By linguists, the variety is classified as a transition between Limburgish and Ripuarian. It has been defined as either varieties of Dutch or of German. Low Dietsch is acknowledged as an internal regional language by the Walloon authority since 1992. Low Dietsch is practically identical to the German dialect in the northern part of the neighbouring official German-speaking region of Belgium. The different definition is due to the fact that the German-speaking region was annexed by Belgium in 1919, whereas the "Low Dietsch" area has been part of Belgium since 1830.
Luxembourgish, a Moselle Franconian language formerly regarded as a variety of German, is native to Arelerland, the eastern part of the Belgian province of Luxembourg, including the city of Arlon (Arel). Here it has largely been replaced by Belgian French in recent decades, contrarily to its flourishing on the other side of the border, in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The language has since 1990 been recognised by the Walloon authorities as Francique (Franconian).
Yiddish is spoken by the 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews living in Antwerp. The community there is among the strongest in Europe, and one of the few Jewish communities worldwide in which Yiddish remains the dominant language (others include Kiryas Joel, New York, and similar Ashkenazi neighborhoods in the United States, London, Paris, Montreal and Israel).
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