language spoken in belgium

The 9 Official and Regional Languages Spoken in Belgium [Updated 2022]

Belgium’s three official languages are Dutch, French and German, with six regional and minority languages fast following their linguistic trail.

With Belgium being so rich in languages, you know there’s some fascinating history to explore. 

Read on as we dive more deeply into the linguistic diversity, history and geography of Belgium—a language learner’s dream come true!

Please note: The number of speakers of each language are expressed as a percentage of the population of Belgium, which is roughly 11,700,000.

Contents

Official Languages of Belgium

1. Dutch

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): 55% of population

Number of speakers in Belgium (second language): 16% of population

Dutch is primarily the mother tongue of Belgium, with approximately 55% of the Belgian population speaking Dutch as a first language.

Even more striking, Dutch and its variants dominate Flanders, the northern region of the country. But when Belgium first became a nation, Dutch-language domination in Flanders wasn’t guaranteed.

Due to both centuries of history and contemporary politics, it seemed at the time of its revolution that Belgium would be a primarily francophone country.

Slowly, though, the 19th century saw the rise of the Flemish Movement.

Some city-dwellers in the middle class began to promote the idea that the Flemish language and culture should be recognized and accepted by the new government.

However, Dutch—as a language—carried its political stigma. It was the language of King William I, the Protestant monarch from whom Catholic-majority Belgium had recently gained its independence.

That said, the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of Dutch spoken in Belgium—often called Flemish—diverged somewhat from the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands.

In this way, Flemish Dutch was becoming more of a symbol of the culture of independent Belgium. It wasn’t until nearly the 20th century that the official government use of Flemish Dutch was discussed in the Belgian senate.

This, and the linguistic reforms that followed, began to turn the tide for the status of Dutch as an official Belgian language.

2. French 

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): 39% of population

Number of speakers in Belgium (second language): 49% of population

The Brussels-Capital Region and the City of Brussels are Dutch-French bilingual.

Although there’s still a strong Dutch influence in Brussels—as of 2009, it was nearly mandatory for employment there—visitors can get by with a good command of French.

The distinct flavor of French spoken in Belgium is considered one of the major varieties of modern French.

In the southern part of Belgium (also known as Wallonia), French is natively spoken by approximately 39% of the population.

This is not surprising, given the political and military history: Only 35 years prior to the dawn of Belgian independence, France had annexed much of modern-day Belgium under Napoleonic rule.

It wasn’t until 1815 that the French government within Belgium enforced the use of the French language in public life.

At the time of the Belgian revolution, French was deemed the official language of the court and the common language of the well-educated elite.

In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht essentially established the southern border of modern Belgium. Speakers of mainstream French and related regional languages remained on both sides of the new border.

The Napoleonic rule in the 18th and 19th centuries further strengthened the prominence of the French language in Belgium.

Centuries after the first French expeditions into present-day Belgium, the French language—and several variations thereof—is still spoken in the southern half of Belgium, as well as a few other areas of the country.

The French-speaking Community in Belgium was unofficially renamed la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (Wallonia-Brussels Federation) in 2011.

Happily though—for French speakers traveling to Bruxelles (Brussels)—French is the predominant language in this very international city, with about 80% of its population speaking the language.

3. German

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): 1% of population

Number of speakers in Belgium (second language): 22% of population

Modern German is the third official language of Belgium. Surprisingly, and statistically, it’s only spoken natively by 1% of the Belgian population.

Geographically, German speakers in Belgium are centered in the East Cantons, a sliver of land bordering Germany.

Nine communes in this part of Wallonia proclaim German to be their official language: two more offer accommodations for educational and administrative purposes.

The influence of German languages in Belgium traces all the way back to the Frankish tribes who dominated the northern area of the country: supplanting Roman rule around 300 AD/CE.

After numerous foreign governments won and lost sovereignty in Belgium over the course of the next several centuries, the Germans took power in Belgium again near the start of the 20th century, bringing their language with them.

The Battle of Liège took place on August 5, 1914: heralded by the German occupation of Belgium in the early 20th century. After WWI, the area now generally known as the East Cantons—also known as Eupen-Malmedy—was ceded to Belgium as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

With this annexation, Belgium officially gained a small community of German speakers.

Since 1973, their descendants have been governed by the Parliament of the German-speaking Community, headquartered in Eupen (Liège province).

Regional and Minority Languages of Belgium

Here’s where Belgium’s linguistic tapestry becomes more intricate.

Belgium is home to numerous regional and minority languages, which tend to be closely related to its major, official languages of Dutch, French and German.

Belgian, regional languages related to French include Walloon, Champenois, Lorrain (Gaumais) and Picard.

While minority, language variants on the Germanic side in Belgium include Yiddish and Moselle Franconian (with relative dialects in Low Dietsch, Ripuarian and Southeast Limburgish).

4. Walloon

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): 6% of population

Primarily spoken in the province of Liege—with only 6% being spoken within the provinces of Brabant-Wallon, Namur, northern parts of Luxembourg and the eastern part of Hainaut—Walloon is considered “definitely endangered” by the UNESCO “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger,” as a minority language.

5. Champenois

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): <1% of population

Less than 1% of Champenois is spoken primarily in Vresse-sur-Semois, in the Namur province of Belgium. As the name indicates, it’s also spoken in the province of Champagne in France. (It can be found in Île-de-France, as well.)

Sadly, UNESCO rates Champenois as a severely endangered language.

6. Lorrain (Gaumais)

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): <1% of population

Less than 1% of speakers of Lorrain are found in the far southeast corner of Belgium—primarily in a town called Gaume—where it’s a recognized, regional language referred to as Gaumais.

7. Picard

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): 2% of population

As of 1990, Picard was recognized in Belgium’s French community as a regional language.

Unfortunately, like several of its sister languages—and numerous minor Romance languages in the region—Picard is classified as seriously endangered with only 2% of the population speaking the language.

Even in la région Picardie (the Picardy region) of France, there are relatively few speakers left.

8. Moselle Franconian

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): <1% of population

Named partly after the river shared by France, Germany and Belgium—Moselle Franconian is related to Luxembourgish, which is an official language in Luxembourg and a recognized minority language—less than 1% spoken—in the controversially named, Wallonia-Brussels Federation.

Relative Dialects and Variants:

    • The Ripuarian dialect (spoken in Liège)
    • Low Dietsch variant (from the Duchy of Limburg)
    • Southeast Limburgish dialect (heard in the town of Eynatten, in the far northeast corner of Belgium)
    • Eifelisch is a variety of Moselle Franconian that towers above the others spoken in Belgium

9. Yiddish

Number of speakers in Belgium (first language): <1% of population

The minority language of Yiddish has been spoken in Belgium for over 750 years where it plays a prominent role in the Jewish community and has deep roots in Antwerp: Belgium’s second-largest city. 

Beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing on through the travails of life under Spanish, Austrian, French and Dutch rule, the Yiddish speakers of Belgium continue to operate schools, synagogues, professional associations and political groups.

However, less than 1% of the population are now speaking the language.

Additional International Languages Spoken in Belgium

The new century has brought an even mix of European and non-European immigrants—and their languages—to Belgium.

Like many countries, Belgium has gone through phases of more liberal immigration policies, followed by immigration restrictions.

During the 1960s, Belgium’s work-permit policies attracted immigrants from Turkey and North Africa, as well as Southern Europe.

By the end of the 1960s, however, the Belgian government began closing its doors to immigrant workers.

By the mid-1970s, a combination of increased unemployment and the economic recession forced Belgium to limit the number of immigrants it could accept.

Fast forward 10 years and Belgium—by the mid-1980s—was once again freely welcoming immigrants and naturalizing citizens.

Belgium has accepted more and more economic immigrants and asylum-seekers as the decades have passed. As a result, the ethnic and linguistic mix of the country has changed dramatically in recent years.

With a population of over 11.6 million people (as of 2022), over 1.5 million people are registered foreign nationals in Belgium.

Modern immigrant languages spoken mostly as a second language—with a small percentage spoken as a first language in Belgium—now include:

  • English (first: 2%, second: 55%)
  • Spanish (first: 5%)
  • Italian (first: 2%, second: 1%)
  • Arabic (first: 3%, second: 1%)
  • Turkish (first: 1%)

The increase of Brussels-dwellers speaking English as a second language has risen to 38% as of 2022, due in part to Brussels minister Rudi Vervoort’s suggestion in 2013 that English should be made the Brussels-Capital region’s official language.

Taking a different approach, administrators of Brussels’ Plan Marnix (Marnix Plan) propose that city-dwellers should make a concerted effort to learn each others’ languages, bridging gaps of understanding by becoming multilingual.

Belgium’s Linguistic History and Geography

Many areas of Belgium’s linguistic map are associated with adjacent areas on the geopolitical map. Belgium is a relatively small country that happens to border France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands.

Belgium’s diverse languages aren’t a matter of simple geography, though.

The country’s long and complex history intermixes with its geographical crossroads, creating a special kind of linguistic alchemy.

Long before Belgium existed as a modern nation, it was part of the Low Countries.

The history of the Low Countries stretches back to the Roman empire. The seaside geography of the region made it conducive to commerce and cultural co-mingling.

Port cities like Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent were important centers of trade throughout the Middle Ages, with a well-established mercantile infrastructure.

Through their bustling sea trade—carrying everything from woolen items to diamonds—they established commercial ties with other countries.

These Belgian port cities welcomed tradesmen, artists, bankers and merchants from many foreign lands—and, with them—their languages.

It’s easy to look at a modern map of Europe and think of it as a snapshot of countries and their cultures.

One language corresponding to each country, all neatly packaged inside their respective borders: French is spoken in France, German in Germany, Italian in Italy, Spanish in Spain, and so forth.

However, the lines on today’s maps represent only the latest revision of each country’s borders and, if you go back a few hundred years, many of those countries didn’t even exist as we know them today.

Borders are arbitrary—but history persists and they can’t be wiped completely clean.

When Belgium became an independent country in 1830, its borders included regions where numerous languages—including Dutch and French, and variations of both—were being spoken.

Many descendants of the people inhabiting these border regions still speak their ancestors’ languages, albeit in more contemporary forms.

From the Battle of Waterloo to the Battle of the Bulge, Belgium has experienced centuries of incursions and immigrant settlements from neighboring countries.

Belgium was often the battleground in the power struggles of early modern Europe. This tradition continued well into the 20th century.

Being so strategically placed between major military, economic and political powers—like France, Germany and the Netherlands—Belgium’s neutrality didn’t spare it from the devastation and cultural changes imposed by warfare.

It was invaded by Germany in World War I—and then again 36 years later, in World War II.

Although these trying times were often disastrous for Belgium, they helped shape the unique linguistic interplay that characterizes this modern nation today.

 

 

This small country holds astonishing treasures of history and culture.

Belgium might have three official languages, but the full story of the languages spoken within its petite frame is so much more complex.

If you find yourself in Belgium, immerse yourself in its language and diverse history. Its future is still unfolding, and its tales—old and new—are told in a myriad of tongues. 

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