Surprising Divisions in Belgium – A Schooling in the Meaning of Flanders

French Fry Museum Bruges
Even the French fries are multilingual

I would consider myself well educated in the ways of international relations and politics (wait, don’t fall asleep, yet). I have a couple degrees in the subject, back in the day I even specialized in Western Europe, spoke some languages – all in all I thought I had a good feel for what to expect on my first visit to Belgium. Then someone said something in Flemish and my world crumbled.

Turns out I didn’t spend enough time concentrating on Belgium in school, a fact that came back to haunt me. For such a tiny country, Belgium is somewhat divided, a fact which has always fascinated me, between Wallonia and Flanders, between French speakers and Flemish speakers. The division has waxed and waned in intensity over the decades, but up until a few months ago it was to blame for a full blown constitutional crisis in Belgium. Who knew, right?

Brussels, Belgium

The reasons for this four-year, highly charged political crisis are many and complex, but ultimately it all comes down to regional differences and therefore cultural and language differences. Even knowing this, I still didn’t have a real clue about what it all meant.

I thought I was prepared. I was pretty sure I would encounter French everywhere with some token nods to Flemish and that would be that. I was shocked though to discover a vibrant, if not unpronounceable, Flemish language and culture. I first realized this when I met up with a fellow travel blogger and native Belgian whose French I thought would be impeccable. I quickly realized, after ordering at a cafe, that she really didn’t speak French all that well, a fact that befuddled me since, you know, we were in Belgium. “No,” she said, “I’m Flemish, my French really isn’t that great.”

That’s the moment when my eyes opened and I really took a hard look at Belgium. Turns out a majority of Belgians actually speak Flemish, which is essentially Dutch, as their primary language. I had always thought French speakers dominated the country, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Language preference is divided geographically, not surprisingly, with Southern Belgium (next to France) speaking mostly French and Northern Belgium (next to the Netherlands) speaking Dutch.

Ghent, Belgium

How did this strange division happen? Well, that could be (and is) the subject of books and entire university courses, but in three sentences or less, here goes. Belgium used to be part of the Netherlands until the 1830s when, backed by the French, Belgium fought for and gained independence. There have always been divisions between French and Dutch speaking Belgians, and they resurface all the time. So today, you have Brussels which uses both languages, but with the various states and regions use whatever is native to them.

What does this all mean for the traveler? Well, probably not a whole lot to be honest, except be sure to be able to say a few phrases in Dutch as well as French. For me it meant my usual reliance on rudimentary French skills was lost as I navigated through Bruges and Ghent, or Brugge and Gent if you prefer. It’s just one of the many, interesting quirks that make travel a never-ending classroom.

What are some interesting quirks you’ve discovered on your travels?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

4 thoughts on “Surprising Divisions in Belgium – A Schooling in the Meaning of Flanders”

  1. Back in the day, it was the French that dominated Belgian culture. The flemish region was where the majority of industry was located – so its not surprising that it is now Flanders which is much more well off economically. You will really see a difference if you visit Antwerp for example, which has a vibrant fashion and arts scene, and then Namour for example. Brussels however is still an island of French in a sea of Flemish – which makes it unique.

    I lived in Flanders for almost a year and I just loved it! Dutch is pretty easy to pick up once you are around it for a while, and I found the people extremely warm hearted and friendly. And boy… the beer was fantastic!

  2. The situation in Belgium is very difficult to understand. Even for people who have lived there some time. This YouTube video is factual apart from the fact that when the narrator concludes with the names of French / Dutch politicians, she actually means French speaking and Dutch speaking.

    Jade is correct in saying that the industry was in Flanders, but prior to that the industry was mainly in Wallonia – mainly coal mining, iron and steel, engineering and woollen mills. These industries closed down and unemployment is high there. Some Flemish political parties don’t want their taxes to support the unemployed in Wallonia.

    The splitting off of Belgium from the Netherlands was mainly to do with Belgium being mainly Roman Catholic, while the Netherlands was Protestant. France was sympathetic, but the United Kingdom was a key supporter of Belgium gaining its independence. In fact Britain entered the First World War because Belgium was an ally and Germany attacked it after the king at the time refused Germany free access for their troops to cross to France. King Albert 1’s response was “Belgium is a nation not a road!”

  3. The division is quite pronounced (literally) on the trains. Leaving Brussels the announcements are in both French and Flemish. As you get further from the capital, however, only the language of that region is used.

    If you’re traveling TO Brussels, you know you’re getting close when both languages start being used!

  4. If you’re touring the country by car then you need to be clear on the place names, otherwise you may be looking for an autoroute exit long since passed. Some are easy: Brussels=Brussel=Bruxelles, but if you’re heading out, Namen=Namur and worse, Luik=Liège and Elsene=Ixelles. The road signs don’t show both variants – only the one relevant to the language-half of the country you’re in at the time, so you need to know where you are and where you’re going!

    Dave mentions the trains – absolutely! It’s good to know your destination-name in both languages too; not least of them this important one!: Brussels South Station=Zuidstation=Gare du Midi. (The fun of travel, keeps you on your toes!)

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