More than a Belgian “Röstigraben”

When it comes to language, Belgium is truly an exciting place to reside. There are three official languages: Dutch (about 59 percent of the Belgian people), French (~40%) and German (~1%). These linguistic communities represent political communities at the same time. However, they are not to be confused with Belgium’s three regions, namely Flanders (Dutch-speaking), Wallonia (French-speaking and German-speaking) and Brussels-Capital Region (French-speaking and Dutch-speaking), which respectively represent a political community on their own. Thus, Belgium altogether comprises six different political communities (i.e. governments). Needless to say, the intertwining of linguistic and regional diversity makes Belgium’s political and governing system a complex one. Its history has been accompanied by conflicts and tensions ever since Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830. Hence, I would like to reflect more on those antagonisms later, which constitute clearly more than just a linguistic conflict, but first start by describing my personal situation in the city of Leuven with regard to language.
Leuven is located about 25 kilometers east of Brussels, the capital city of Belgium. Although it lies close to the Brussels-Capital Region, Leuven is fully part of Flanders, which is why the city’s official language is Dutch. Before my arrival, I did not have any major reference to the Dutch language, let alone any experience with it. I had only been to Amsterdam once for a city trip, but other than that, the Netherlands and Belgium (where Dutch is most widely spoken) were a completely new territory for me. At least I knew a little about different Dutch dialects co-existing across the territory and that Flemish would be the one predominating in and around Leuven. However, neither was I able to comment on the actual discrepancy between written Dutch and what is spoken in Flanders (it is mostly about pronunciation and tone), nor did I attempt to learn Dutch intensively during my semester abroad in Leuven. The latter was mainly related to the Dutch language courses offered by the university taking up six hours a week, which would have been too time-consuming considering my other engagements during the semester.

Let us hop from my point of departure into the presence, which marks at about three months after my arrival in Leuven. I have acquired a few basic expressions in Dutch, which mostly support me during grocery shopping, restaurant or cafe visits and very brief small talk, for instance back at my student residence, where I am the only international in the hallway. In the case of longer or more complex conversations, however, switching to English is the thing to do to overcome communicative differences. And it is surprisingly easy – Flemish people typically have profound English skills and are not inhibited at all to prove them at any point in time. This does not only apply to Leuven, where you can find an internationalized environment anyway due to the large university campus, but also to the remaining Flemish cities (e.g., Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent) that I have visited. From what I heard from international peers who attended Dutch language courses, it may remain hard to enter proper conversations in Dutch even though one has acquired a sound basis of vocabulary. This is particularly interesting for (Swiss) German speakers because the Dutch language typically seems to be within close reach for us, as we often arrive to somehow make sense of Dutch words and phrases that we hear or read.

Another interesting thing is that switching to French instead of English is not really an option in conversations with Flemish people, although they learn it as their first foreign language at school. Overall, the Flemish relationship to French tends to have an uncaring or even negative connotation, which most probably has to do with their dislike for Walloons. For instance, my Flemish hallway mates did not hold back with generalizing and stereotypical statements (“They are lazy.”, “Their cities are filthy.”) when I asked them about Walloon people. Regarding the socio-economic development after the Second World War, Flanders indeed gained an unprecedented lead over Wallonia. Today, Flanders shows a about 20 percent higher productivity per inhabitant while the unemployment rate in Wallonia is more than twice as high. However, this has to do with industrial and market developments rather than with the temper and nature of people. As any stereotypes, they are not necessarily untrue but never complete. For instance, when I visited my first Walloon city, Liège, I immediately got a different vibe but I liked it a lot. It reminded me of the rough edges that I know and appreciate from cities in the Romandy back in Switzerland.

As I happened to grow up around Fribourg where the “Röstigraben” is located real-symbolically, making a comparison seemed appropriate. But soon I realized that while the “Röstigraben” mainly functions as a term to describe exemplary differences in the voting behavior between German-speaking and French-speaking people in Switzerland, the situation in Belgium is a way more severe and serious one. Besides the recent reinforcement of regionalism and separatist movements in Belgium, the lack of interest in the other community’s culture is what strikes me the most, as experienced during the conversation with my hallway mates. Relating to the latter, I plan to have this conversation a second time with a Walloon person and hope to gain further insights into this really important matter – important because it is transferable on a large scale to the current sociopolitical climate in Europe and is about the fundamentals of diverse cultures working and living together.

Stefan Müller

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