Last updated: March 24, 2019
Topic: ArtTheatre
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Language Policy

In this paper I’m going to explore the extent to which social identity has been a motivating factor in the implementation of language policies in Belgium, where Dutch, French and German languages are actively used.

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Belgium is a federal state, with Dutch-speaking Flanders as the northern half, French-speaking Wallonia as the southern half, and a German-speaking minority in the East. So we observe a situation, when three linguistic communities – French, Flemish and German – function in one state. As for the administrative division, Belgium is divided into 10 provinces and 589 municipalities. (Braun, “Language Research”, p.3 “Language issues: Where does one observe language to be a problem in the country?”, para.1)
The administrative organization of Belgium has always been notorious for its complexity and asymmetry. The country “has three regions, designated on a territorial basis: Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels capital. The regions primarily make decisions regarding affairs within their territory, such as on transportation and economic policy. Another set of units are the three linguistic communities: the Francophones, the Flemings and the Germans. These non-territorial units control educational and linguistic matters.” (Stroschein, 2003, p.12)

In this paper I’m going to concentrate on the function and powers of Communities, because they are more relevant to the analysis of linguistic and social identity. The territory around Brussels is officially bilingual (French and Dutch). Also “[d]espite the presence of these three official languages, only a small area of the country around Brussels is officially‘bilingual’ (French/Dutch), since Belgium has opted for territorial unilingualism.” (Beheydt, 2004, para.1)

The Flemish Region is officially Dutch speaking, while Wallonia unites French-speaking territory and the German-speaking provinces. We see that “[l]inguistically Belgium is a complex country. Officially, it is a trilingual country, where three languages Dutch, French and German enjoy equality which is guaranteed by a series of language laws.” (Beheydt, 2004, para.1)

Applying the Social Identity Theory to the situation in Belgium, I was able to notice some specific peculiarities. In general, Social Identity Theory suggests that a person associating himself or herself with a certain group derives at least a part of his or her identity from this group at the expense of the out-group. However, in Belgium multilinguism is fostered governmentally. Still, each of the “Communities” preserves certain cultural features of its own.

The Communities are mainly based on language and common cultural heritage, but the freedom of choice is always left to the citizens (language is “dependent on the individual”). Communities enjoy significant autonomy: each of them has powers for culture (theatre, libraries, audiovisual media, etc.), education, the use of languages and matters relating to the individual which concern on the one hand health policy (curative and preventive medicine) and on the other hand assistance to individuals (protection of youth, social welfare, aid to families, immigrant assistance services, etc.). (Belgium Federal Portal, N/d, “The powers of the Communities”)

So we see that the Communities are granted exceptional powers to decide the issues related to culture, education, and social protection of the citizens:

“The Belgian example demonstrates that even where groups disagree on state structure, a mixture of various forms of group autonomy may facilitate stability and compromise within the state. Belgium addresses this dilemma in two ways: 1) non-territorial autonomous units in the form of the linguistic communities and 2) exclusive competencies for different units within the diverse Belgian state.” (Stroschein, 2003, p.1)

O’Neill (1998) points out that Belgium’s stability is grounded on the fact that Belgium as a nation-state has created sub-national units corresponding to pre-existing cultural and political entities.

Therefore, educational and cultural autonomy of the language communities is being preserved. Language teaching in schools and cultural development occur differently in different Communities, for instance, “the two communities, the French Community and the Flemish Community have developed different language education policies.” (Beheydt, 2004, para.2)

But not everything is so crystal-clear with the relations between social identity and territorial Community in Belgium. First of all, there are different views on self-identification within each linguistic community:

“It will be clear from the situation in Flanders that different language cultures with different ideas about language norms can co-exist within a single linguistic community.” (De Caluwe, 2003, “Abstract”)

Some members of the French-speaking community argue that they in fact have a language of their own – Walloon. It’s still a question whether Flanders speaks Flemish or simply a dialect of Dutch.

When the collective identity of each social group is analyzed in-depth, an interesting thing will appear, because “[d]ue to the linguistic situation, the Flemings felt ‘minoritized’ for years, and the collective memory of this marginalization conveys a feeling that they are ‘not quite at home’ in Belgium, in spite of their slight demographic majority. The historical dominance of French, the sizeable French majority in the capital of Brussels, and the relatively small demographic advantage of Flemings all contribute to an atmosphere in which the French and the Flemings do not behave according to a clear minority/majority relationship.” (Stroschein, 2003, p.4)

Indeed, in the history of Belgium “[t]he coexistence of the Dutch-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority has been a source of conflicts for a long time.” (Mercator, 2005, para.3)

Even nowadays political clashes and crises happen when one of the Communities receives larger representation in the highest executive or legislative bodies. All the communities see their primary mission in establishing and maintaining control over the capital region of Brussels.

But today discrimination is the thing of the past. The country develops in a sustainable way, but “[t]he only ‘danger’ for the foreseeable future is that the two language communities would grow further apart, becoming largely autonomous, so that the Belgian state would only remain as a minor administrative level between the regional level and the European Union level.” (Heylighen, 1998, “The Belgian identity,” para.4)

Indeed, the political arena of Belgium is nowadays dominated by the growing autonomy of its two communities, the Dutch- and the French-speakers. As a consequence, the political scene presents a typical dual political system, based on the two underlying dominant communities. All the efforts to reestablish national identity end with nothing, because national parties rarely win even 1% of the votes. Some skeptics believe that the country is on its way to disintegration, falling apart into two different geographic and political entities (Flanders and Wallonia), and they also speak about the example of Czechoslovakia. But many deem the only argument for the communities to stay together is the common administration of the city of Brussels.

Another major challenge is faced by Belgium with the process of European integration. Brussels is home to many European institutions, and multinational and multilingual staff works and lives there. As a result, it is becoming even more complicated for the citizens to balance between common European, Belgian national and linguistic regional identity.

Making an overall conclusion, Belgium presents a fairly successful model of asymmetric federalization. The peculiar feature is the autonomy of linguistic and culturally based communities, which are granted powers to decide on education, language, and social protection. The relations between communities have been rather complicated, but nowadays they have all the legal grounds to develop in a sustainable and relatively independent way, yet maintaining mutual cooperation.

1.                        Beheydt, Ludo. “Challenges of Early Bilingual Education In Belgium,” European Network for Content and Language Integrated Classrooms (2004). 25 April 2005.

2.                        Stroschein, Sherrill. “What Belgium Can Teach Bosnia: The Uses of Autonomy in ‘Divided House’ States,” Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe. Issue 3. (2003). 25 April 2005.

3.                        O’Neill, Michael. “Re-Imagining Belgium: New Federalism and the Political Management of Cultural Diversity,” 51 Parl. Affairs 241 (1998).

4.                        De Caluwe, Johan. “Conflicting language conceptions within the Dutch speaking part of Belgium.” TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift f?r Kulturwissenschaften (Internet journal for cultural sciences) 15 (2003). 25 April 2005.

5.                        Braun, Alain. “Belgium: Language Issues.” U.S. ENGLISH Foundation Official Language Research. N/d. 25 April 2005.

6.                        Belgium Federal Government. “The Communities.” Belgium Federal Portal. N/d. 25 April  2005.


7.                        Heylighen, F. “Belgium: society, character and culture,” Principia Cybernetica Web. (1998). 25 April 2005.

8.                        Mercator. “Crisis in Belgium between the Flemish and Walloon Communities.” (2005). 25 April 2005.