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 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?
I thought that French, being one of the official languages of Belgium, would be the best way to communicate here. Actually though, most of the shop keepers would prefer to speak english to you. In the west of Belgium, in fact, most of the locals do not even speak french, but speak Flemish and English.
Belgium has two languages. French and Flemish (which is the same as Dutch). However In Brussels you won’t experience any difficulties because of this. If you can speak either, most of the people in Brussels speak both. If you can’t speak either, you will find English widely spoken and understood.
I was under the impression before I arrived that people in Brussels spoke Dutch and French quite evenly. This is not the case. I stood at many cash registers dumb founded because I had only learned Dutch. If you go to Brussels, learn some French too!
In Brussels two languages are spoken, French and Flemish (similar to Dutch). But as tourist you could get by with English very well.