What Languages are Spoken in Belgium?

January 29, 2024

Share to Social
Place du Luxembourg, Brussels

While only a small country, Belgium has certainly made a name for itself. As the administrative center of the European Union, Belgium has been at the heart of European politics for several decades. The country is also famous worldwide for its delicious chocolate, waffles, and beer!

Belgium is bordered by France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. These bordering countries have influenced Belgium’s cultural identity, particularly in terms of languages.

Since Roman times, Belgian has been a notoriously divided country. Cultural and political unrest have plagued the country for centuries, which has left Belgium divided into multiple regions. The country’s division reflects the main language in each region.

Continue reading to learn more about Belgium’s three official languages, as well as its minority languages. We’ll also take you through how look languages have influenced the divide in the country and shaped Belgium’s politics. Let’s jump straight into it!

Dutch (Flemish)

View of Brugge, the capital city of West Flanders
The majority of Flemish speaker live in the Flanders region, including the city of Brugge

Belgium’s most spoken language is Dutch, which is spoken by approximately 59% of the country (approximately 6.5 million people). However, the dialect spoken in Belgium differs slightly from the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands. Colloquially, the Dutch dialect in Belgium is called Flemish.

The majority of Flemish speakers live in the Flanders Region, which is in northern Belgium. While people from the Netherlands can understand Flemish speakers, there is a big difference between the accent, idioms, and vocabulary. The difference is greater than that between American English and British English.

Most inhabitants in Belgium speak Dutch (Flemish) because it used to be part of one country with the Netherlands. The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed after the Napoleonic Wars. Willem I, the king at the time, felt the nation should have one official language. Dutch was made the sole official language in East and West Flanders, the southern province of Antwerp, and Limburg.

There are virtually no differences between Flemish and Dutch grammar. However, the vocabulary and pronunciation do have some significant differences. Flemish speakers tend to speak a soft version of Dutch. The ‘G’ sound often sounds like the French pronunciation and can even sound like ‘H’ in some regions. Dutch speakers in the Netherlands tend to speak with a harsher and clipped accent.

French

Aerial view of Liege
French is the prominent language of Wallonia, which includes the city of Liège

The second-most spoken language in Belgium is French, which is spoken by around 40% of the population. It’s the most prominent language in Brussels (Belgium’s capital) and in Wallonia in southern Belgium.

When Dutch was made the official language of the Flemish region, French was maintained in the Walloon provinces of Hainaut, Liège, and Namur.

Although the pronunciation is often different, people from France can usually understand Belgium French. Many Flemish people can also speak French to some degree. Today, street signs are typically written in both Dutch and French.

There are some differences between the pronunciation, grammar, and accent in Belgian French and regular French. The ‘R’ sound is more pronounced in Belgian French, and nasal vowels might sound slightly different too.

Belgian French and regular French have some differences in their numbers too. For example, in regular French, the number 70 is called ‘soixante-dix’ (sixty-ten) but ‘septante’ in Belgian French. 90 is also called ‘quatre-vingt-dix’ (four-twenty-ten) in regular French and ‘nonante’ in Belgian French.

German

Aerial view of Eupen, Belgium
Eupen is the capital of the German-speaking Community of Belgium

Around 1% of Belgium’s total population speaks German as their primary language. The majority live in regions to the east of LiΓ¨ge, including the city of Eupen, which borders Germany. Only following the First World War did this region become part of Belgium rather than Germany.

The area was part of Germany until the early 20th century, so the language isn’t very different from standard German spoken in Germany. As such, Germans can easily understand people from LiΓ¨ge and vice versa.

Luxembourgish and other minority languages

Although they’re not official languages (rather, dialects), Luxembourgish and Limburgish are also spoken in certain areas of Belgian. Luxembourgish is mostly spoken in Arelerland, in the Walloon province called Luxembourg. Rather confusingly, this area is right next to the country of Luxembourg, but they’re not the same!

The Limburgish dialect is spoken in the Limburg province in northeast Belgium. The dialect is also spoken over the border in the southeast Netherlands. The language is closely related to Dutch, with some German influences.

Walloon was historically spoken in the French-speaking region of southern Belgium. However, it was only officially recognized in 1990. Nowadays, the Romance language is mainly spoken in rural areas by older people.

Picard is another Romance language that is closely related to French. It is mainly spoken in northern France, but there are fluent speakers in western Wallonia too.

Approximately 18,000 Jews (mostly in Antwerp) speak Yiddish, and around 10,000 Romani speak Sinte Romani in Belgium.

Belgium’s language divide

Belgium is a divided country. It’s split into three regions: the Flemish Region (north), the Walloon Region (south), and the Brussels Capital Region. The Flemish and Walloon regions are further split into five provinces. Each region has its own parliament and government.

Flemish is largely spoken in the Flemish Region, while French is largely spoken in Brussels and Wallonia.

Historically, those who spoke Flemish were considered commoners, while those who spoke French were stereotypically nobility. This is largely because most politicians and nobles in Brussels spoke (and still speak) French as their primary language. During the 19th century, it was necessary to speak French to belong to the governing upper class. Those who spoke Dutch were deemed second-class citizens. Flemish campaigning in the 20th century made Dutch an equal language in the education system.

The language gap between Belgium’s north and south regions can be traced back to Roman times. A Germanic group called the Franks fought with the Romans over Gaul (a region of Western Europe). Wallonia was largely under Roman control until it was eventually invaded by the Franks. This north-south boundary is still in place to this day.

Summary

Over half of Belgium’s population speaks the Flemish dialect of Dutch. The majority live in the Flanders Region in the north of the country. French is the second-most spoken language in Belgium and is spoken by around 40% of the population. Historically, French was used by the ruling class in Belgium, while the ‘commoners’ spoke Flemish.

Around 1% of the Belgian population speaks German as their primary language. Most German speakers live in the LiΓ¨ge in eastern Belgium, which was part of Germany until the end of the Second World War.

The regional division in Belgium is largely based on the language divide. Each region also has its own government and parliament. However, Brussels is a multi-lingual Region, and citizens frequently speak both Flemish and French.

Was this article or page, helpful?
YesNo