Not only is Belgium a fantastic vacation destination, but it’s also a great place to study and work. Many even consider Brussels to be the capital of Europe. If you’ve ever considered visiting the country, moving there, or studying abroad at one of its amazing universities, read on! Before your trip, you’ll probably want to learn some of the language. But… what language do they speak in Belgium? Your first response might be “French, of course!” But that’s not the whole answer. Learning French will be very useful if you decide to go to Brussels, but don’t be surprised if that’s not the only language you hear.
What Language Do They Speak in Belgium?
What language do they speak in Belgium, officially? Here’s the short answer:
(In case you’re wondering… is Belgian a language? No. It’s a way to describe people and things that come from Belgium.)
If you’re interested in learning about where they speak these three languages, why they speak three different languages, which language is most spoken, and what other languages you might hear around the country, keep reading!
First things first – it’s important to know a bit about Belgium’s makeup.
This country of 11 million inhabitants contains three geographical regions: the Flemish Region in the north, the Walloon Region in the south, and the Brussels-Capital Region in the center.
Interestingly, despite having three geographical regions, Belgium has four linguistic “regions.”
Did somebody make a mathematical error? Not really.
France, Germany, and the Netherlands all border Belgium, and you don’t have to look very hard to see a combination of influences from each of these countries. So it makes sense that the three largest linguistic regions would be:
- the Flemish zone,
- the French zone,
- the German zone,
- …and the Brussels-Capital Region is simply its own linguistic area.
So, it’s pretty straightforward. Each region or linguistic zone is typified by a language. Kind of…
What are the official languages of Belgium?
There are three official languages in Belgium: French, Dutch (Flemish), and German.
And then there’s the Brussels-Capital region. It’s tiny compared to the country’s other regions, and it’s considered bilingual. French and Dutch are both official languages there.
The Brussels-Capital region of Belgium is one of the most multicultural areas in the world. Inhabitants are from 180 different nationalities and speak more than 100 different languages! In 2020, the Brussels Council for Multilingualism was established in order to encourage and raise awareness of the use of different languages within the capital city.
The languages of Belgium map below can help you picture the lay of the land.
With all these official languages, which one should you speak? Well, Belgium has a general rule, established in the Belgian Constitution. And that is that you can speak whichever language you like! Anyone can speak whatever language they want to or are most comfortable with. But it is expected that each region’s official language will be used in schools, government, the legal system, etc.
A linguistic history of Belgium
Though there are 3 official languages in Belgium today, that hasn’t always been the case.
After Belgium gained independence in 1830, French was the official language throughout the country. Yet it was far from spoken by all Belgians, most of whom spoke a variety of different patois.
What’s more, a large Dutch population in the north of the country led the fight for recognition of their native language. So, in 1898, Flemish became the official language in the Flemish Region.
The German-speaking region, however, has always been pretty small in comparison to the others. Located on the German border, it only accounts for 1% of the national population. It wasn’t until 1963 that German became the official language in the eastern Cantons of Eupen-Malmedy and St. Vith. This area contains nine German-speaking communities.
Flemish is one of the country’s official languages and is spoken mainly in the northern region of Flanders, which comprises approximately 60% (6.5 million) of the population.
Although it is similar to Dutch in the Netherlands, it is called “Belgian Dutch” or “Flemish.” There are some differences between Flemish in Belgium and standard Dutch, especially in pronunciation, vocabulary, and idiomatic expressions, but someone who speaks Dutch will be able to communicate fairly easily in the Flanders region.
❓ Flemish vs. Dutch, two names for the same language?
What’s the difference between Flemish and Dutch, anyways? The jury is a little divided on the question of whether they are two separate languages or simply dialect variants. Either way, the two languages share many strong commonalities.
But there are also major differences that make it so a person speaking Flemish wouldn’t necessarily understand Dutch and vice versa. Dutch is a Germanic language spoken in the Netherlands, while Flemish is essentially the version of Dutch that is spoken in Belgium.
The main differences are pronunciation and vocabulary.
Dutch has a reputation for sounding harsher and more clipped, with clear enunciation and space between words. The farther south you travel, the softer the accent becomes. Letters and syllables are pronounced less individually, and sounds run together, more like French.
In terms of vocabulary, the differences can be pretty stark. In general, Flemish vocabulary tends to sound old-fashioned to a Dutch speaker from the Netherlands. Some words used in Flemish have been out of style in the Netherlands for centuries. Another factor here is that the Dutch spoken in Holland takes a lot more loan words from English than Flemish does, so new words are added into the language faster.
Grammar is generally the same between the languages, though using the formal “you” (U) has fallen out of style in the Netherlands.
French is another of Belgium’s official languages and the second most widely spoken in the country.
The French-speaking community is located in the southern region of Walloon and in the capital, Brussels. This community constitutes approximately 40% (4.5 million) of the Belgian population.
As with Flemish and Dutch, although there are differences in pronunciation and vocabulary between French in France and French in Belgium, if you speak any dialect of French, you’ll be able to understand French-speaking Belgians.
A small minority of the Belgian population, living in the province of Liège in the east of the country, speaks German. They account for about 1% (75,000 inhabitants) of the Belgian population.
Because these regions became part of Belgium very recently (after World War I), and because they are on the border with Germany, Belgian German is very similar to the German spoken in Germany.
Interestingly, in this part of the country, German is the only language used in public administration and the government, as well as in educational settings and in any type of official communication.
In addition to the official languages already mentioned, you might also hear a fourth language, Luxembourgish, in the Arelerland area (on the border with Luxembourg).
This language has not been recognized at the national level, so it is not one of the official languages, but it has been recognized as a minority language by the French community in Belgium.
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How many people speak each of the national languages of Belgium? I’m sure you’re expecting some figures, and that you can already picture a graphic showing who speaks what. Sorry to disappoint, but it just isn’t quite that easy to give precise numbers.
The reason for this is pretty simple: many French speakers live in the Flemish region, in the same way that there are lots of Flemish speakers living in Walloon. And I’m sure you can imagine how much linguistic variety there is in Brussels, where there are so many diverse people speaking so many languages…
But we can provide some loose figures to help you get a general idea of the situation.
Official language breakdown:
- 60% of the Belgian population speaks Flemish,
- about 40% speaks French,
- and about 1% speaks German.
As you can see, the main language in Belgium is Flemish. Those numbers might help you if you simply want to communicate with as many people as possible. But there are other reasons you may want to pick one language over another.
In the capital, Brussels, all traffic signs, transport information, and announcements are in both French and Flemish. German is also present, because it is after all the capital of the country and it has to accept all the official languages of the nation.
However, you will rarely hear Flemish or German on the streets of the capital, and trying to converse with waiters, vendors, or bus drivers in Flemish will not get you very far.
The most important thing, as we said before, is to be aware of what region you’re in or what part of Belgium you want to go to. Depending on the place, you will have to learn one language or another. Locals are likely to respond with an awkward silence or even be offended if you speak to them in the language of another region.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, in addition to the three official languages and Luxembourgish, Belgium has many dialects and dialect mixtures, of both Germanic and Romance roots.
There are the Flemish dialects of Limburg and Brabant and East and West Flemish. There is also Low Dietsch with German roots in the German-speaking region and, finally, there are the French dialects of Wallonia, Picardy, Champagne, and Lorraine.
But it doesn’t end there. Due to the large number of foreigners who have come to live in the country, you can also hear Italian (2.5% of the population), Turkish (0.91% of the population), and Spanish (0.5% of the population).
Can you live in Belgium speaking English?
First off, do they speak English in Belgium? It isn’t one of the languages we listed above because it isn’t an official language.
However, as of 2012, 52% of Belgians reported a conversation level of English1.
Attitudes toward English seem positive, and more and more Belgians are deciding to learn it. In 2022, more students in the French-speaking regions of the country chose to learn English than chose to learn Flemish for the first time. 88% of Belgians surveyed said that it was important for children to learn English. Compare that to 48% who said the same about French; just 4% said that learning German was important for kids’ futures, 8% agreed for Spanish and 9% for Chinese1.
As you can see, speaking English in Belgium is possible, but you’ll want to learn one of the other languages spoken in Belgium if you want to get around easily.
Though it is a European capital, Brussels is not your typical cosmopolitan city. In other words, speaking English in Brussels isn’t required, though 35% of people in Brussels speak English fluently.
Language is very important to Belgians, and they tend to be more reticent when it comes to speaking English compared to people in some other European countries. So, the best thing to do is to learn French or brush up a bit before you go to make a good impression on the locals and integrate more easily!
1 EB77.1 Europeans and their languages BE, European Commission.
When you’re talking about a country that has multiple official languages, it’s also important to know how to say the name of the country in each language! You can listen to the clips below to learn how to pronounce Belgium in English, French, Flemish, and German.
So now if someone asks you, “What language do they speak in Belgium?” when you mention your upcoming trip, you’ll have lots of fun facts to share! Do you like learning about the different, sometimes obscure languages, spoken in countries around the world? Check out the other articles in this series: