Notes on...

Woe betide you if you try to speak French in Flanders

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

Usually, one of the first indications that you’ve entered a bilingual country is that the road signs are in two languages. At least this is the case in Ireland or Wales — but not in Belgium. In Flanders, the signs are written in Dutch. In Wallonia, they are all in French.

French is spoken in Flanders, by the small local Francophone community, but more notably by the huge number of French people who descend on Brugge for the Christmas sales. The French registration plates and the gaggle of overly loud wanderers with cameras are giveaways, but don’t even think about trying French here yourself. It’s considered rude if it’s not your native language.


You could, however, always make a stab at Dutch. I have done so myself for a couple of years, in a bid to confound the stereotype of the lazy monoglot Brit. It’s had mixed results: dank u wel (thank you) and tot ziens (bye) usually get a reply either in English (they’re trying to be polite) or French (they found your pronunciation weird). But on Sunday I struck gold. I managed to get an alstublieft (‘you’re welcome’) from the man behind the counter at De Striep, Brugge’s leading comic shop.

Owing to their political-linguistic predicament, the Flemings seem to be even more enthusiastic Anglophones than their cousins in the Netherlands. Promotional details on the reverse side of packets of Lay’s crisps are in Dutch, French, German (all indigenous languages) — and English. The main Flemish newspapers, De Standaard and De Morgen, list BBC television channels in the same way the Irish Times and Irish Independent do: as honorary domestic stations. Native Francophone channels are only listed in small print alongside TF1 and France 2 from across the border.

In the shops you will find Le Monde or Le Figaro to cater for visitors, but no sign of Le Soir or any native Francophone newspaper. Even road signs for places outside the country are in Dutch: Lille is confusingly rendered Rijsel. There are some bilingual signs in Brussels, but even there they are prone to vandalism by Flemish nationalists.

The scarcity of bilingual road signs in a country that is nominally bilingual strikes me as being slightly ominous. The only time I saw ‘Bruges’ spelt out as such was when an ice fair advertisement sported an ‘English’ translation for a forthcoming attraction. Bruges is what we native Anglophones still call it. Like Iper — or Ypres to you and me — Flanders’s French legacy is now preserved mainly in the minds and on the tongues of Englishmen.

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  • mortsnerd

    Just like in the province of Quebec in Canada, where, in blatant violation of the Official Languages Act, the English language has been officially outlawed for the last 40 years. The remaining pussified masochistic anglophones, who pay most of the taxes in that economically dysfunctional proto-SNP paradise, mysteriously continue to take the punishment.

    • greggf

      Depends where you go. Montreal has plenty of English spoken, newspapers, business etc.. Out in the sticks French does dominate.

      • John P Hughes

        The Montreal Gazette is a very good newspaper and free to read anywhere on-line. http://www.montrealgazette.com
        It doesn’t seem to give the daily temperature in the city so prominently on the home page as it used to. That was always interesting to check, because of the great variations due to its geographical position.

        • greggf

          I met many Montrealers in my association with AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada) in 1980 and at the time almost none of them spoke French, claiming they didn’t need it!

  • The Bogle

    How many readers realised that there is also a small German-speaking enclave in Belgium? It is in the Eupen-Malmédy region and became part of Belgium as a consequence of the Versailles settlement in 1919.

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      A consolation prize so to speak.

  • John Lloyd

    They will also understand you if you speak Afrikaans

    • Ken Westmoreland

      In the same way that they will understand you in Dover if you speak Jamaican Patois.

  • oresme2

    There was a time when the Flemish could be condemned to deadh of get medic help only in French and not in their own language. The Flemish were treated like cattle in a language they did not understand. No wonder they have not forgotten it.

  • jim

    You hear much farsi there?

    • Ken Westmoreland

      You’re more likely to hear Arabic or Turkish than Persian – we don’t call Persian poetry, cats, rugs or the Gulf ‘Farsi’, so why the Persian language?

      • jim

        My understanding was that there was a significant Iranian population there but maybe I am misinformed.You seem more familiar with the place than I am.Obviously my point still stands.Objecting to a western european language being spoken in a western european country amid the din of arabicturkish babbling seems pretty foolish to me. ….Deckchairs…Titanic…Icebergs …and so on.

  • Last of the Brudenells

    Sorry, don’t understand. Vlaanderen is a different country to the French-speaking bit of Belgium, whatever that’s called. This Englishman obviously didn’t go to a school that lumped all Belgians into a monstrous Poirot caricature. I always think of Flanders as Dutch, just separated by the fact that they are on the Roman Catholic side of history, and not the Protestant. But I went to a Comprehensive school, so what do I know.

  • Perseus Slade

    National languages are all about nationalism.
    Before the First Wold War, French-speakers were a minority in France.
    In China, every effort is being made to make every child speak standard pinyin Mandarin in every kindergarten.
    Rwanda is where anglophonie and francophonie came to blows.

    The artless Brits really don’t understand this.

    • Neil Saunders

      Not while American English exists as the lingua franca of our globalist elites.

      By the way, I’m an Englishman; please don’t call me or my countrymen and -women “Brits”.

      • Mary Ann

        Well I am British and I call most Brits. Brits, sorry to annoy you, but I am not going to stop.

        • Neil Saunders

          That’s because you’ve been Americanised, Mary Ann.

          I’m not annoyed, but rather saddened by your defiant persistence in the use of this term.

          • greencoat

            Please – do remember that Mo Farah is a ‘Briton’ (ha-ha)!

  • hedgemagnet

    My brief experience in speaking with Flandrians who realise you’re not a native Vlaams/Dutch speaker, is that they’re very happy speaking to you in German or English – the show-offs! (Anything except French, basically). As an Englishman I find it amusing, although I’d certainly try to pick up Dutch reasonably quickly if I was over there long term.

  • Anton

    When I first came here a lot of the Flemish were very much against speaking French, and not least young people. But over the last 20 years or so the climate has improved with the Flemish, particularly the younger set, now being proud of being bilingual, trilingual,…unlike the French speakers.

  • MartinC

    Indeed! I was working in Mechelin circa 2007 to 2009 and the locals are very friendly to English speakers. they don’t expect you to know Dutch. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working over there,
    Although one evening me and a friend visiting from the UK went into a working man’s bar in the town and, showing off, I ordered “twee gröte bieren alstubleift”.
    The bar went quiet, and a couple of large men with tattoos turned away, and the atmosphere turned cold…
    The barmaid brought the beers over to our table, and whispered to me “ben je Duits?” I replied, in English, loudly enough so people could hear and with a smile, “Ah! Here are our beers! Thank you very much, that’s great”.
    Hubbub of conversation resumed, the place relaxed, everything back to normal.
    Old tensions are still there, to an extent.

    • hedgemagnet

      I’m not sure I get what you’re saying. Were you holed up in a viruently French speaking bar, or did you commit a grammatical faux pas in Dutch?

      • Coastliner

        ‘Duits’ means German in Dutch.

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      Long ago when I was an impecunious student working on vacation in Cologne the only evening meal I could afford was chips from a schnellimbiss which I ate every evening. One day the owner asked me not unkindly Sind Sie Belgier?
      I assumed that my native Scottish accent modulated through German must approximate to a Belgian accent in German and that was the reason for his asking. Not until many years later when I went to live in Belgium did I realise that it was my apparent devotion to frites that had prompted the question,

  • sfin

    I don’t think I’ve ever met an adult Dutch person who didn’t speak English, sometimes better than the English. Aside from some grotesque Americanisms, they are the finest (non native) speakers of English in Europe.

  • rob232

    Oh I’ve met lots. I’ve been told that outside of the cities it is quite common to meet Dutch people who don’t speak English or don’t speak much. I think the best speakers of English in Europe are the Scandinavians .

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      I wouldn’t care to comment on the comparative numbers of English speakers, but I think the Dutch still have the edge in mastering the sound of spoken English with the least residual clues as to their native tongue. Perhaps not surprising since an overheard and indistinct level of conversation in Dutch might be more readily mistaken for English than such a sound when Swedish is being spoken.

      • rob232

        You mean they speak without heavy accents? In my experience, unless you are dealing with very talented linguists, people who speak a foreign language with little trace of their native accent normally learned to speak as children. One method is someone who was brought up in the foreign country or had a foreign mother but otherwise it would be the system of education. For example I sent my own children to a bilingual school where they spoke English half the day. The result was that by the time they finished their education they and their classmates were bilingual and spoke English without a foreign accent. That’s how it works and I imagine that is what they do in Holland and Scandinavia.

        • BarbaryTourist

          The Dutch subtitle rather than dub English language TV programmes. That helps enormously.

          • rob232

            Yes, it does. The Dutch and many other countries have been doing that for years. However now that TV is digital I think television programmers can be seen in original version almost everywhere.

          • Ken Westmoreland

            Granted, but only as an additional soundtrack or optional extra, if at all. In Germany, France, Italy and Spain, dubbing is still the norm, while in Russia and Poland they have the lektor system involving voiceovers, which is the worst of both worlds. Salazar in Portugal banned dubbing as a means of protecting the local film industry and discouraging illiterate people from watching foreign films, unlike in Brazil, where it was made mandatory.

          • rob232

            People who have always watched dubbed movies tend to prefer them whereas those who have always watched movies in original version really dislike dubbing.. Here in Spain where I live everything is available in original version although relatively few people take advantage of this even when they are studying English. It seems they have to have it forced upon them as in Holland.

  • Control Freak

    This article opens with the ignorant premise that Belgium is a bilingual country in the sense that French and Flemish are official languages throughout. They are not. There are Flemish, French and German speaking areas, and one area which is bilingual Flemish and French – Brussels (although in practice it might be more accurate to say Brussels is trilingual, Flemish, French and English). Nul points.

    • Ken Westmoreland

      First of all, the Flemish call their language Dutch, not ‘Flemish’, or in the language itself, Nederlands, though the Dutch and Flemish do subtitle one another’s TV programmes. However, there is a Flemish Community as opposed to the confusingly named French Community and the less confusingly named German-speaking Community.

      Secondly, the main official languages at federal level are Dutch and French, and are used in the federal parliament with statutes in both languages side by side. German, being the language of less than one per cent of the population is as peripheral as Gaelic in Scotland, or Romansh in Switzerland – despite, or because of, it being spoken by more than 80 million people across the border. Nul punten.

      • Control Freak

        Belgians of my acquaintance are prone to call it Flemish; they seek to differentiate themselves from the Dutch.

        As to the fact that Federal statutes are adopted in both main languages, this is because they are to be applied in both Flanders and Wallonia, but they will be applied in the relevant language for the area. The bilingual approach to lawmaking at Federal level has nothing whatsoever to do with the article above, which is about the language spoken on the streets of Bruges. In that context, Belgium is not a bilingual country.

  • Neil Saunders

    I studied French at school and got an O Level in it. I’ve continued to study it, often listening to French chansonniers and watching French-language films, and using the language on fairly frequent visits to France itself. Nevertheless, I’ve never become really fluent in French, which is difficult for an English-speaker (the thousands of French-derived words in English are a small help, but cannot make up for the entirely different verb system, stress, intonation, vowel and consonant sounds, grammatical gender, etc.).

    I didn’t study German at school, but after about three months (as an adult already pushing 30) I was reading and speaking it fairly fluently, and I’m pretty sure I could do something similar with Dutch even now (at 55), if only the Dutch themselves wouldn’t insist on replying in English. This – rather than any inherent difficulty in a language closely related, unlike French, to our own – is the real difficulty of learning Dutch.

    • Ken Westmoreland

      The Dutch would rather speak to you in your language than waste time listening to you struggle with theirs, which is a bit hard-nosed although they’re also trying to be helpful. The Flemish are at least flattered that you try and speak their language, as at least it confirms that you don’t think they speak French.

      • Neil Saunders

        You’ll always struggle in a language that people refuse to allow you to learn properly, i.e. by denying you the opportunity of interaction with native speakers, so the attitude of the Dutch in this regard is neither helpful nor “hard-nosed” but just plain selfish.

        • Ken Westmoreland

          Well, I did meet a Dutch man who wasn’t like that, but he was quite elderly and barely spoke English, so my elementary Dutch was appreciated, especially by his son who would have otherwise had to keep him company that evening. On the other hand, I’ve met people who aren’t Dutch, who look at you with a blank stare if you say something in their language as if to say “don’t even try”. I agree with you though, native English speakers get stick for being arrogant or lazy, yet when we try and make the effort, speakers of other languages roll their eyes at us.

  • Kennie

    I always thought Belgium was just a roadstop to give the German army a break for a few weeks.

  • Belgium is a small country…flemisch part is 6 million …so less than New York or a medium city in China..so as many small countries they are resistant to financial crises and all speak english

  • John P Hughes

    Belgium’s top pop singer (who writes her own material), Selah Sue (Sanne Putseys from Leuven, or Louvain as anglophones will always call it) sings in English. She talks in Dutch (Flemish version) and English (peppered with English swearwords usually). If she goes to sing in France (where she is popular) she speaks a few words in French and then can’t be bothered and sticks to English. Watching Selah Sue in French (there are some Youtube clips) is funny because she conveys the nonchalant attitude that she can’t see why she has to speak it.

  • Augustus

    “Dutch is a challenge, too – but one I’m getting better at”

    The dialects of Flemish, as spoken in the various provinces of Flanders, is very different from Dutch as spoken in most of the Netherlands (although there are various dialects there too, as well as a separate language completely: Friesian). The differences between the various Dutch dialects spoken in Belgium and standard Dutch are significant enough for Flemish and Dutch television shows, just like with Afrikaans, to become subtitled for the other country in their own standard language.

  • sunnydayrider

    So, Irelands a bi-lingual country. Gaelic’s one lingo, what’s the other? What ever it is it beats me.

  • Belgium is a small country with a good college and high school system..so everybody speaks english..
    http://www.white-rooms.be

  • Ric Euteneuer

    This is a gross oversimplification of the situation and sadly, fairly typical for rightwingers in general and the Spectator in particular in terms of reportage.

    Even the title “Woe betide you if you try to speak French in Flanders” – I have done so many times – usually when the Flemish person I am speaking to does not speak English, which, despite the blandishments of the monolingual English speakers – exists, particularly amongst the older generation.
    Indeed the only people likely to give you a hard time for speaking French as a visitor are the handful of swivel-eyed Vlaams Belang ((VB) – the UKIP equivalent) members.

    “The gaggle of overly loud wanderers with cameras” are likely as not to be British or German, over the French. Dutch and Flemish anglophilia is matched by people who live on the same parallel – BBC1 and BBC2 form part of the cable package that are offered by Belgacom and other companies – which on top of the state-run French (RTBF) and Dutch channels (VRT) and the private French and Dutch local channels also includes the full line of the the 6 main French TV channels, all the Dutch state channels plus most of the private ones. The same group offers a very similar package in Brussels (94% French speaking) and the Francophone north around Mons and Tournai.

    I have (easily) bought “Le Soir” in Bruges and Ghent – I have bought the Flemish equivalents “De Standaard” and “Het Laatste Nieuws” in Dinant and Namur (and Lille…).

    The only bilingual signs that get vandalised are in the 6 small French speaking enclaves in Flanders where Vlaams Belang insist Dutch is the sole language.

    Indeed, the kind of person who does this is the equivalent of the UKIP supporter who whines on endlessly about their country being sold down the river…

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