The Flemish University of Brussels VUB has just published a study about the languages spoken in Brussels.
There are 104 different languages spoken in Brussels. I don't know if there were as many at the Tower of Babel?
Nr 1 is French 88%, Nr 2 English 30%, Nr 3 Dutch 23%, Nr 4 Arab 18%, and Nr 5 Spanish 9%.
(A large number of inhabitants speak several languages).
The position of Arab is not surprising as 25% of the Brussels' inhabitants are Muslims mostly immigrants from North-Africa; the increase is spectacular 7% in 2006 now 18%.
This has also an important impact on daily life in a number of districts.
As the Flemish speaking inhabitants started over the two last centuries to speak more and more French they often did it keeping the Flemish tonic accent at the begin of the word on the contrary of French. The result sounds typical and is easily noticed by the French. Even if I do my best, they will notice from my accent that I'm from Belgium in the same way as I will notice who is from the south of France.
Some light comedies have been written using that Brussels dialect like "Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans" by Frantz Fonson et Fernand Wicheler. Best actors were Christiane Lenain and Jacques Lippe.
This comedy met such a success in Belgium and France that Marcel Pagnol found here his inspiration for "Marius".
Another comedy was "Bossemans et Coppenolle" by Joris d'Hanswyck et Paul Van Stalle famous with these lines:
" Je ne m'appelle pas Madame Chapeau, ça est les crapuleux de ma strotje qui m’ont donné ce surnom parce que je suis trop distinguée pour sortir en cheveux"
Please note that in Brussels (the Brussels of the time of Jacques Brel) these lines were more famous than any lines of Racine or Shakespeare.
She was usually played by a male actor.
There is even a statue of "Madame Chapeau" at rue du Midi, 1000 Bruxelles.
Now this "Bruxellois or Brusseleer" dialect is quite different from Walloon which is close to the French-Picard language.
French actors, although they tried, are unable to imitate the Brussels dialect.
I tried to get rid of my Brussels's accent but with no success.
Brussels has like other cities her own dialect. The specificity of that dialect is the fact that it mixes two languages Flemish and French.
At the origin it is Flemish (a couple of centuries ago most people in Brussels were speaking Flemish) with a typical pronunciation as found in and around Brussels.
For example - my Flemish and Dutch VT friends will best understand - the sound 00 is sometimes pronounced UU ("schoon>schuun") and EE becomes sometimes IE ("geen>gien") other times EI ("peer>peir").
Furthermore the fun really starts when French words or expressions are used and mixed with the Flemish.
This was my first language, that of my grand-parents, which was later corrected by my parents and school to "normal" Flemish called "Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands". That means "General Civilized Netherlands". More recently some intellectuals found that "beschaafd = civilized" rather odd and reduced to Algemeen Nederlands or Standaard Nederlands".
The Brussels's dialect is dying because the genuine "Brusseleirs" have left the city to live outside in the country. They have been replaced by immigrants who speak their own languages. Brussels is now like the "Tower of Babel".
The City of Brussels is officially biligual with both Flemish and French spoken widely although the majority of its citizens speak French. Street signs are also dualled in the two languages as are major buildings. Strangely, for me any way, I notice that advertisment were quite often in English. Don't worry if your French is not up to scratch English is widely used here too.
Surprising the previous comment about people from Brussels ignoring other languages than French. It always seemed to me that Brussels was a multilingual city.
It's a fact that nearly 90% from the population of Brussels speaks French but often not as sole language.
The social composition of Brussels is a complex one.
Next to that large majority of "Bruxellois" having French has principal language, there is minority (less than 15%) having Flemish/Dutch has principal language (The difference between spoken Dutch and Flemish is striking; for me it's difficult to understand an Amsterdammer and he won't understand my Brussels dialect).
Furthermore you have also a large number of immigrants from European countries who are often bilingual combining their country of origin language with French. More and more important is that part of the population in Brussels coming from North-Africa and Turkey (22% of the population of Brussels are Muslims). They assemble in parts of Brussels and keep their languages and traditions. Their second language is also often French, what explains that globally this international language dominates in Brussels in the same way as English dominates in London.
As what concerns the pretended lack of knowledge of English this is not the opinion of the large or small companies, EU organizations, or Nato HQ established in Brussels.
Americans, British can live here for years only speaking English.
My Dutch friends know how different are the Dutch and Flemish languages.
Even if scholars and intellectuals use the term "Algemeen Nederlands" or "Standaard Nederlands" and try to impose this official language to the 16 Mio Netherlanders and the 6 Mio Flemish Belgians, the only place where you might hear Algemeen Nederlands is at the news bulletin by the speakers of the official televisions or radios.
In the street dialects are predominant. Furthermore the intonation between Dutch and Flemish is very different even when people speak a correct Algemeen Nederlands.
Best is to compare with English from the UK and English from the USA.
I went to Brussels for the first time in October 2005 and was totally shocked and annoyed to find out that local people hardly spoke English at all. It was almost impossible to get by, since I have never learned to speak French properly - despite of trying several times. And although I speak fluent Dutch (which is similar to Flemish) it wasn't much of a use there.
Although Brussels is officially bilingual (as the local inhabitants consist of French and Flemish speaking people), majority of locals of Brussels are French speaking. I was amazed how poor quality the services were in banks, certain bars, restaurants etc. if you were not able to speak French. The locals seemed extremely rude: pumping into you on the streets and not apologising, trying to get ahead of everyone in the queues and refusing to speak any other language than French.
It is not like there aren't any foreigners in Brussels, so there would be demand for language skills, but I suppose they do not see it necessary to provide services in English - unless it is tourist industry related. There are masses and masses of civil servants, trainees and lobbyists who are not native French speakers, but huge numbers actually do speak it, so it is very useful to know at least the basics.
Brussels hears more and more French, and even English for that matter, but there is one place where you can still experience the old Brussels peculiar dialect and that is at the famous Toone puppet theatre where the puppets are used in plays about Belgium's vivid history. You won't understand much but it is a fascinating experience. Head for Impasse Schuddeveld amongst all the tourist trap restaurants near Grand Place and look for the old inn where you can have a drink before the play. On the second site below, you can read the amazing story of this beloved Brussels institution.
Brussels is a bilingual city in theory, in practice it is French-speaking, so dust off your French, since actually very few people speak English, and if for whatever reason they have to do it they will be annoyed to do so. Most of the English-speaking Belgians are Flemish, from the north, and will be glad to help you out if your French is less than perfect. It´s really surprising and disappointing than in the so-called "capital of Europe", a hub of diplomatic activity, people don´t learn the international language (this means English) to communicate.
Just back from Brussels!!
I didn't know what to expect cause i had heard a lot of different stories about the French/Dutch bilinguism in Brussels. However, despite the fact that all street signs are in both languages, more than 80 per cent of the population in the region of Brussels is french-speaking. so, if you are planning to stay in Brussels for a while, I would recommend using French there. If you are going there as a tourist, English will be enough.
Language can be a sensitive issue in Brussels and in Belgium generally. The northern part of the country is Dutch speaking while the southern part is French speaking. Brussels is officially bilingual but my guess is that at least three quarters of the population there normally speaks French. Many Dutch speakers, especially in Brussels, know French, but few French speakers have much of a command of Dutch. If your French is serviceable but you do not know Dutch, it may pay you to listen to people talk before you address them. If you can understand some or all of what they are saying, they are probably French speakers and it is probably a good idea to use French with them. If you cannot understand a word they are saying, they are probably Dutch speakers and you will almost certainly be able to get away with addressing them in English. And they will frequently appreciate it when you do, as many Dutch speakers are more comfortable using English than French.
As I said, this is originally a Dutch-speaking city. A long period of severe discrimination of Dutch-speakers and favouritism of French- speakers made an end to that. When discrimination officially ended in the 1960's Brussel had become a mostly French-speaking enclave in Dutch-speaking land, with only about 10% of the population still speaking Dutch as their native language. In the decades after that the surrounding villages were Frenchified as well, due to an influx of French-speakers who refused to learn the local language and forced the authorities and the original inhabitants to adapt to them instead. Lately things are improving a little; many French-speaking parents send their children to Dutch-speaking schools for instance, because education there is generally far superior to education in many French-language schools. But Dutch-speakers still are being discriminated when it comes to getting jobs in higher positions, finding a house or getting treatment in hospital. Many French-speakers still consider Dutch "a language for peasants" or worse.
Today the city is officially bilingual. All signs are in two languages. The French names are at the top, which in the case of the sign in the picture is the most practical, but sometimes you can see a third name in local dialect on a seperate sign. It's still Dutch, but I have no idea what this one means. Something like Broken Courtyard? But what's a broken courtyard then?
It was not by accident that Brussels was chosen as Capital of European Union... As French speaking city with sizable Dutch speaking minority, the city has long traditions as making compromises, also in what language to use. You get by easily in English, but if you know French, more doors open for you. And if your counterpart is Dutch speaking Brusselaare, you will certainly make impression, if you know a few words of Dutch, let alone be fluent in it;)
Other languages besides Dutch, French and English can be also heard everywhere in Brussels, due to sizable communities: Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Greek, Hebrew, Jiddish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Thai, Swedish, Finnish...
Brussels is officially a bilingual city (French and Dutch) but...the city had its own dialect for a while. A mix of mainly Flemish, a bit of French and even a dash of Hebrew and Spanish, this dialect is now rarely spoken but a lot of words still have sprung in the French spoken in Brussels. So here is a little vocabulary.
First of all, Brussels is a city of Zinneke: a mutt, mixed-blood dog and by extension now, multi-cultural person. Brussels is so proud of being a Zinneke that it has the huge Zinneke Parade once every 2 years. Usually,4 different procession start at the different geographic corner and join in the center of Brussels, celebrating the wealth of the melting-pot Brussels is.
Brussels is a city that where the "Zwanze" is alive! Zwanze is a joke and by extension, describe a a predilection to play tricks and having a good time.
If you're that kind of person, then you are likely a "zwanzer".
If you are a young boy, don't be surprised if you're being called a "ketje" (or ket), that's an affectionate little word for a boy or a young man. Older men can be refered to as a "peï".
Also, if you end up at the "Amigo", it can be one of Brussels's most luxurious hotel... but it can also be... the city jail.
For French-speakers, see the link for an interesting site about "Brusseler":http://www.eurobru.com/visit16.htm and more in the link section.
We said it enough, Brussels is officially bilingual (Dutch+French). Yet, go to the Grand-Place or take the tub and you will hear myriads of languages, be they European, African, Asian, Arabic languages.
Something you would not hear is the Brussels dialect, initially spoken in the Marolles area. By clicking on the picture, you would notice on the black plaque both French and Dutch. Normally, walkers make do with that... seemingly not in the Marolles area where Dannie and I spotted this extra white plaque with the Brussels dialect on it.
GROESESTROET (in "Marollian") means Gratiesstraat (in Dutch), Rue de Grâces (in French). It refers to the same name, in fact. See the link between those languages ?