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.
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.
Caught in the middle are Brussels teachers who, by law, must teach Dutch to Francophone children. At the city's Ecole Communale de Stockel, teachers chronicle the difficulties they encounter.
Terroir Dinou, a sixth-grade teacher, points to lack of parental support. ``Parents expect us to do miracles,'' she says, ``but when their children leave the sixth grade, they don't know much more than they did when they started taking Dutch in the third grade.''
Francophone parents communicate to their children that learning Dutch is unimportant, says Rudy Minders, a second-grade teacher. Because these parents usually do not speak much Dutch themselves, the message to their children is clear. Consequently, students don't do their homework and frequently fail to reach even a minimum level of proficiency in Dutch.
Despite attempts over the last 15 years to make school-based Dutch instruction more practical, many Francophone parents and children say they would prefer classes in English, which they see as more practical than Dutch. ``The proof is that when [students outside Brussels] have the choice, they choose English,'' says Christiane Lega, a third-grade teacher.
There are also instruction problems. Many teachers who learn to teach Dutch in education school find there is little effort to help them retain the language. Furthermore, many teachers live in Francophone communities and don't use the Dutch language often outside of school.
``As teachers, we are not perfectly bilingual,'' says Ms. Dinou. Jacques Vanesche, a second-grade teacher, adds: ``It's a big joke, a very big joke.'' There is also institutional pressure. A teacher in a Francophone school in Brussels was told that if she did not pass a Dutch-language teaching test, she would be fired. ``There is political pressure on teachers,'' Mr. Minders says, ``political manipulation of teachers.''
Parliament is scheduled to consider a proposal to regionalize educational authority, transferring most administrative functions from the two national ministries (one for each language group) to the two regions. Action on the proposal, which requires revision of the Belgian Constitution in order to become law, was blocked last fall when the government fell following a language dispute. The new government's platform sets Jan. 1, 1989, as the deadline for the the transfer of powers.
``It's an immense transfer,'' says Mr. Couttiner. ``The educational budgets are among the highest in the country.'' In 1985, the educational budget totaled $8.2 billion; $4.3 billion for Flemish schools, $3.4 billion for Wallonia schools, and $506 million for schools in Brussels.
The proposed transfer of power could result in curricular and salary discrepancies between regions. Budget increases are also expected as the national contribution is phased out over a 10-year period and regional taxes are increased to make up the difference.