Language in Belgium

Usually when traveling, I make sure to know a few phrases in the local language and greet people in it, and ask "do you speak English" in the local language. However, I'm planning on Belgium (among other places) for my next trip and the language issue is confusing me. I know the basic French phrases plus a bit more, and I'm sure I could learn the bare minimum at least in Flemish. However, how do I know which one to use? In Brussels, is it always "bonjour madame", or will a Flemish speaker there get offended? I'm also planning on Bruges, and probably some other towns.

Posted by Ilja
Seattle
1466 posts

Flemish is actually Dutch language. Last year I was all around Belgium. Generally north Belgium speaks Flemish and south B. speaks French. Just look around at signs on stores, offices, etc. and you will know which language they speak there. In Flemish area (I stayed in Antwerp) everybody speaks English. You don't have to even bother with:"Do you speak English?" But in French part of Belgium it's completely different. It takes time to find English speaker.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17776 posts

Miranda, I had no problem just using English or the few words I know in French in the places I visited in Belgium. Most of the people there seem to be able to speak multiple languages, so I doubt you'll have any problems. Cheers!

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

In Brussels, you shouldn't have problems finding an English speaker. Your chances of running into a monolingual Dutch speaker in Brussels aren't very high, so if you want, you can use the default French. Most of the people you are likely to encounter as a tourist in the Flemish region probably speak English. If you want, you can throw out a little "Neemt me niet kwalijk, speekt u engels?", but they will almost always answer you in English. However, if you venture into Wallonia, English fluency is much lower there. The one thing not to do... don't try to speak French in a Dutch speaking environment. They won't be offended, but you'll look ridiculous. Example: I heard this from an American couple sitting near me in a restaurant in Brugge. "Je voudrais moules frites". I didn't catch exactly what the waiter said to another waiter on his way into the kitchen, but it was something like "Idiots at table 7".

Posted by Cyn
Wheat Ridge, CO, USA
110 posts

Miranda-The geographic language breakdown in Belgium is more like Flemish(Dutch) in the West, and French in the East. Since Brussels is right in the middle, officially it's bilingual. Still, people at our hotel spoke French and the guy at the train station baggage check spoke Dutch. The local should appreciate any attempt by visitors to greet them in (either of) the national language(s). As others have indicated, Brugge is full of English speakers. At our B&B in Brugge, we said "merci" to our hostess, who replied curtly in English, "You know, we are not French." As the Capitol of the EU, Brussels is a very international city, but most in the tourist industry will speak English there, too. So, your choice, English, French, Dutch -- you'll likely do fine with one or the other. Be prepared for fries with EVERY meal, even pasta, and Enjoy!

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

"Miranda-The geographic language breakdown in Belgium is more like Flemish(Dutch) in the West, and French in the East." You're holding the map wrong. It's a definite north-south division, not east-west. My wife was born and raised in Hasselt in the northeastern province of Limburg, and I can assure you, the local language is most definitively Dutch. Now that being said... the traditional "Flemish dialects" of Dutch are spoken in the northwestern provinces of East and West Flanders (as opposed to the Limburgish, Antwerpse, and Brabantse dialects). Some of the rawer accents are so difficult for other Dutch speakers to understand that West Flemish speakers on TV are usually subtitled, humorously addressed in this video where a proud West Vlaming becomes increasingly irritated at the use of subtitles when he speaks. Rough translation, he asks that rather than use subtitles, people should make a little more effort to understand West Flemish speakers. EDIT: OK the direct hyperlink to the video isn't working. Let's try this method: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE57zsos1AM

Posted by Philip
London, United Kingdom
1698 posts

It's best not to speak French to people in Flanders. Most people in Flanders will speak English. In Brussels it's much more accepted to say "Bonjour", but be careful if you're going out to Tervuren as for local political reasons the Flemish speakers in the area immediately around Brussels are some of the most militant. (However, the vast majority of Flemish speakers will not be particularly offended if an obviously American person speaks French to them, compared to someone who sounded like a native French speaker) In French-speaking Belgium it's less common for ordinary people to speak English, especially in more rural areas.

Posted by Tim
Wyckoff, NJ, USA
672 posts

Miranda, you are perfectly right that people in France and Spain, for instance, are pleased when tourists know a little of their language. But as a NY Times article this week noted about the Tour de France 2013, English has made a lot of inroads. Whether that's good or bad, you'll find that most people you meet in Belgium (or the Netherlands) will address you in English. You'll also find tourist families that you overhear speaking to each other in French or German or Norwegian will speak to merchants in English. And as noted in previous replies, there is a specific cultural problem in Belgium over the French/Dutch divide. (I've spent a lot of time in Belgium, and although words starting with Vlaamse... appear a lot in print, I've never heard a Dutch speaker say "Flemish" when speaking English.) Anyway, when you go into a very local bakery and meet that rare, older person who doesn't know a word of English, you're reduced to pointing at the food anyway. And you don't know if they speak Dutch or French!

Posted by Bill
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, USA
43 posts

Miranda, my wife and I both recently returned from Belgium(Brussels much of the time) and found it easy to get by with the most rudimentary of French and Flemish language. The Belgians speak English very well and are happy to speak it with you. Brussels seemed completely French dominated as far as language spoken so just the basic greetings should do fine. We found the Belgians to be very warm and welcoming to us, especially the younger crowd. You will truly enjoy the Belgians.

Posted by Peter
Bruges, Belgium
8 posts

Hi Miranda, I'm Brugian (Bruges), so from the north part of Belgium. EVERBODY speaks english in Belgium. The reason is - we have to. It's the common language to speak north to south!. Dutch speaking people speaks better English than French (south part) and French speaking people speak better English than Dutch. So if they want to speak to eachother they use English - simple, isn't it? About Bruges: "H-a-llo" (not "h-E-llo) is ok to say ... "hello" . Young people use it all the time, but again, English in a tourist area as Bruges is very common. The so called 'war' between Frenchspeaking and Dutchspeaking inhabitants in Belgian is only a political thing, not a problem in the streets. If you don't want to offend anybody, just use English. Hope to see you in Bruges :-)
Peter

Posted by Maureen
San Francisco
112 posts

I found in Brussels everyone spoke French - no problems. When we went to Bruges I started to speak French and our guide got very offended and said, "I am not French and I don't speak French. You can speak English to me". WHOA! Some real anger there about the Flemish losing their culture and language. I thought his reaction was over the top considering we were paying him.

Posted by Tom
Stafford, Virginia, USA
138 posts

I have a friend who lived in Brussels for awhile. She said she always spoke English (even though she knew French) so that she didn't inadvertently offend anyone.

Posted by JustTravel
San Francisco/Venezia
251 posts

It's been five years since my last visit in Brugge. We visited quite a bit before then. We never had any problems communicating in english. The only time I wished I knew some dutch was at the train station trying to decipher the schedule. I asked a Brugian friend why it was not in english since english is commonly spoken and her response was because Belgium does not have one official language. It would have to be in flemish/dutch first, then french or german next (not sure of the order here), then english. The schedules would be too long and cumbersome, so it was only in the local language. Has this change?

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8755 posts

Maureen, if you went up the west coast to Vancouver in bilingual Canada and spoke to a guide there (in English speaking Canada) in French and they said that they don't speak French and you should speak to them in English - would you get offended especially as you were paying them? Does paying them mean they should speak to you in a language that they don't speak?

Posted by Steven
Kingsburg, California, USA
68 posts

Miranda, Everyone speaks English. The Flemmish are not offended by English speakers.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

They're not "French" in Belgium, they're Walloons. Maureen, were you speaking French to the guide in a genuine attempt to make communication easier, or were you trying to distinguish yourself from the other tourists? If you don't understand why the guide was offended, you need to read up on the history of the Flemish community in Belgium from the country's independence from the Netherlands until around the 1970's. And look up the article on "Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde" on Wikipedia.

Posted by Will
Columbia, SC
315 posts

Considering the town is known by its French name "Bruges" in English, it's not terribly surprising that folks in the country for the first time would think French was the way to go. When I first arrived in Heidelberg with the Army, I would say "Bonjour" to the Belgian soldiers working there, before I realized that almost all of them were Flemish.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

"Considering the town is known by its French name "Bruges" in English, it's not terribly surprising that folks in the country for the first time would think French was the way to go." Fair enough, until they actually arrive in town and see that all the signs use distinctly non-French-sounding words... "Spoorweg", "De Lijn", "Grote Markt" "Begijnhof", "Jan van Eyck Plein", "Te Koop", "Onze-Lieve-Vrouwkerk", "Groeningemuseum", "Stadthuis" "Gentport", "Te Huur", "De Half Maan", "Bruges Zot", "Hauwerstraat", "Vismarkt", "Zeebrugge", "Boudwijnkanaal", "Oostende", etc. Even if a visitor didn't hear one word of the local language, I would think that anyone who understands French would have enough situational awareness to realize right away that Brugge is not a Francophone city.

Posted by Will
Columbia, SC
315 posts

Also, if you are aware of Belgium as "a country where both French and Dutch are official languages," it's an understandable assumption that it would be more "respectful" etc to speak French to any Belgian rather than English. But of course that is not actually the case.