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Sociolinguistics Symposium 19: Language and the City

Sociolinguistics Symposium 19

Freie Universität Berlin | August 21-24, 2012

Programme: accepted abstracts

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Abstract ID: 1109

Part of General Poster Session (Other abstracts in this session)

Brussels: a portrait of the multilingual capital of Europe

Authors: Somers, Thomas; Magis, Ester; Van de Craen, Piet
Submitted by: Somers, Thomas (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)

Geography. The capital of Belgium, Brussels is situated as an officially Dutch-French bilingual enclave within the officially Dutch monolingual region of Flanders, though only a few km removed from the officially French monolingual region of Wallonia. Within its mere 161 km2, Dutch and French, and a multitude of other European, African and Asian languages all cross and intermingle.

Historical demography. Due to its close proximity to both, Flanders and Wallonia have always accounted for a regular influx of Dutch and French speakers. However, especially from WWII onwards, Brussels has seen an influx of guest workers from south European nations, and later from Morocco and Turkey. Brussels’ role in the European enterprise has also triggered a wave of immigration from Western European nations, as well as many refugees from Eastern Europe. Belgium’s colonial history has left its mark too. These immigrant languages are all still very much present in Brussels and continue to grow in numbers.

Linguistic diversity. While Brussels is politically bilingual, it has long since ceased to be just that in sociolinguistic terms. We can distinguish five language groups on the basis of the home language(s): those from a monolingual French background; those from monolingual Dutch families; the traditional Dutch-French bilingual citizens; those families which combine French with another language; and those where neither French or Dutch is spoken. French is by far the best known language in Brussels, next to over 50 other languages including English and French, and Spanish, Arabic, Italian, German, Turkish (Janssens 2008).

Functional distribution. Dutch and French both share official status. However, French (exclusively) is currently the lingua franca and fulfils many H- and L-functions for a large majority of the population, leaving both Dutch and immigrant languages including English far behind. In the economic sector, Dutch and French share equal importance. Education in Brussels is split between Dutch and French-speaking schools. However, Dutch-speaking education is very much on the rise. English keeps its international ‘feel’: it is seen as a neutral language, and sometimes serves to bridge gaps between speakers of two different languages. Immigrant languages are only used in L-functions (Janssens 2007).

Social networks. Monolingual French-speaking inhabitants of Brussels share one thing: both in private and public they speak French, except perhaps at work where they might be forced to switch to Dutch. Dutch-speaking inhabitants born in Brussels mainly speak Dutch in private but in public easily switch to French. The reverse can be seen for Dutch-speaking immigrant from Flanders. Brussels Moroccans usually speak French in public, even despite their ethnic commercial links. The Turkish community, on the other hand, is more closed and does not easily switch to French. Southern European migrants are very open to the French language, although in private they hold on to their language (Janssens 2008).


JANSSENS, R. (2007). Van Brussel gesproken. Taalgebruik, taalverschuivingen en taalidentiteit in het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest (Taalbarometer II). Brussel, VUBPRESS.


JANSSENS, R. (2008). Taalgebruik in Brussel en de plaats van het Nederlands. Enkele recente bevindingen. Brussel, Brusssels Studies 13.

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