Belgium's language wrangle. Schools highlight dispute over bilingualism policy
CONFLICT between Belgium's two language groups - the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish - has long been central to this country's history. The new government formed in May, seven months after a language dispute felled the previous government, is expected to open discussions soon on a constitutional amendment to turn national education ministries over to regional authorities. In the shadow of this discussion, the difficulties that arise from Belgium's regionally inspired linguistic predicament are part of everyday life in elementary school classrooms as teachers, parents, and students lock horns over language instruction.Skip to next paragraph
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Belgium is divided into three largely autonomous regions - Dutch-speaking Flanders, Francophone Wallonia, and bilingual Brussels. Schoolchildren in Brussels are required to study a second language; that language must be Dutch for students in Francophone schools, which make up the majority of Brussels schools, and French for the Dutch-speaking.
Elsewhere, study of a second language is optional. But Flemish children who choose to take language courses must learn French before English. In Wallonia, students can choose between Dutch and English.
The choices - and reactions to linguistic regulations - of Belgium's approximately 2.14 million elementary and secondary school students and their parents provide insight into Belgium's linguistic heritage.
In Flanders, where language instruction begins in fifth grade, students overwhelmingly choose French. In Brussels, most Dutch-speaking children and parents accept the legal requirement to learn French. In both areas, children and parents understand the importance of learning an international language that allows communication with others and offers more and better job opportunities.
For Francophones in Wallonia and Brussels, the situation is different. Free from the requirement to learn Dutch, Wallonia children overwhelmingly choose to learn English. In Brussels, where instruction begins in the early elementary grades, many assail the requirement to take Dutch.
``For the Francophones, there has never been an urgent need to learn Flemish,'' says Ivan Couttiner, a Belgian political analyst. ``They are accommodated linguistically almost everywhere they go because French is an international language with considerable history and cultural heritage.''
Francophones also find the Dutch language confusing. Flemish, spoken by older Flemish people, is viewed as a provincial patois that bears scant resemblance to the Dutch taught in classrooms, which more closely resembles the language of the Netherlands.
In addition, Francophones who need to speak Dutch later in life are usually able to learn the required phrases and vocabulary without much difficulty, according to Dr. P.H. Nelde, director of the Research Center on Multilingualism at St. Aloysius University in Brussels.
Nonetheless, there is evidence of change. Young Francophones who have lost jobs to bilingual Flemish see the value of learning Dutch in primary school. More and more businessmen accept the benefits of speaking both the country's official languages. Even French-speaking politicians acknowledge the need to learn Dutch to assume positions of leadership. But change comes slowly to this country the size of Maryland. And in many parts of Francophone Belgium, large-scale acceptance of bilingualism has not occurred.