Everything you need to know about speaking French in Belgium

Everything you need to know about speaking French in Belgium

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated November 7, 2022

Even if Belgium isn’t exactly the biggest country in the world, it’s a diverse one with a rich heritage. From culinary delights such as chocolate and waffles, to the arts, with illustrious Flemish tapestries and painters, Belgium has much to offer. The country has also greatly contributed to the renown of the French language across the world, with its popular comic strips, such acclaimed authors as Amélie Nothomb and a plethora of famous singer-songwriters like Jacques Brel, Stromae and Angèle. So why is French spoken in Belgium? How many people speak French in Belgium? And how different is Belgian French from standard French? We’ll tell you everything you need to know.

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Why does Belgium speak French?

After all, most European countries have developed their own unique language, which is closely entwined with the building of their nations. So why does Belgium speak French? You may find a first element of answer by going all the way back to Roman times. Prefiguring the bilingual landscape, the Gauls were running what is now Wallonia, while Germanic tribes lived in Flanders.

However, you have to jump ahead to 1830, when Belgium finally gained independence from the Netherlands, to see things properly moving. French was then chosen as the official language of the new country. This was a clear rebuke of a previous attempt by the Dutch king William I to impose the Dutch language in the country. Unfortunately, this also had the side effect of increasing tensions between the aristocrats, who speak mainly French, and Flemish speakers, who represented the largest part of the population but were generally considered as lower-class. Anti-Dutch sentiment following Belgian independence only reinforced the antagonism. In effect, Flemish speakers were treated as second-class citizens, while French speakers had better access to higher education and better-well-paying jobs.

In the mid-19th century, the movement for Flemish equality gained momentum, until Belgian Dutch became the primary language in the schools and courts of Flanders. In 1898, the Equality Law finally made French and Dutch co-equal official languages and in 1967, a Dutch version of the constitution was made official. 

What are the differences between French and Belgian French?

Aside from France, French is spoken in many countries around the world. Similar to English, this means there are many different versions of the language, in faraway lands like Canada and in neighboring countries like Belgium and Switzerland. In spite of being so close to one another, the French variants in France, Belgium and Switzerland display many differences in vocabulary, most famously among words for specific numbers and meals in French. This extends to certain idioms and expressions, as well, such as une fois (“once”), which Belgian people commonly use as a filler to punctuate a sentence and soften its meaning.

Just like with Swiss French, another distinctive element of Belgian French is the accent. In reality, there are different accents in Belgium. But the one from Brussels is undoubtedly the most well-known. With its characteristic rolling of the letter r, it’s an easy target for caricature. 

In spite of those differences, French and Belgian French are close enough to be mutually intelligible. 

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What parts of Belgium speak French? 

As in Switzerland, Belgium doesn’t have one, but three official languages: French, Flemish (or Belgian Dutch) and German, though German isn’t commonly spoken. The choice of language follows geographical lines. 

The French-speaking parts of Belgium

By and large, French is spoken in Brussels and in the southern region of Wallonia. In total, this represents about 40% of the total population. But Brussels is actually a special case. The capital of Belgium has two official languages: Flemish and French. However, your knowledge of French will prove handy, as Flemish is hardly ever used in the city.

The Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium

Flemish is the language of choice in the northern region of Flanders. In total, About 60% of the population speak Flemish. Also known as Belgian Dutch, it’s fairly similar to the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands, which Flanders sits next to.

The German-speaking parts of Belgium

If you’ve done the math, you already know that only a tiny number of people speak German in Belgium. In effect, they only represent 1% of the population and they’re generally based in the east part of the country that borders Germany. The German spoken in the region is a very close variant of standard German.

Each region is attached to the language they speak, even if they can speak the other official languages. When visiting, it’s considered common courtesy to follow suit. This is because linguistic distribution is deeply rooted in the country’s history and people’s sense of identity.

French is like a box of Belgian chocolates…

As one of the three official languages spoken in Belgium, French is closely tied to the history of the country, as well as its social and geographical landscape. In spite of its accent and a few differences in vocabulary, it’s a close variant to standard French, with just a bit of extra flavor.

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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