Multilingualism: Brussels shifts gear up

be Yalky, Be BrusselsBrussels, the capital of Belgium and of Europe, is the most cosmopolitan city in the world after Dubai. 62% of its inhabitants were born in another country or have a migration background, according to the International Organization for Migration.

More than 100 languages are spoken in Brussels. 8% of people in Brussels speak neither French, English nor Dutch. Nevertheless, 90% of brussels residents say they per cent view the city's multilingualism as positive. This is shown by the latest language barometer from language sociologist Rudi Janssens (Free University of Brussels), who has been analysing the language situation in Brussels for over 20 years. Language diversity and multilingualism are in the DNA of the city.

Since last year, Brussels has had a minister for the Promotion of Multilingualism with Sven Gatz. The coalition agreement (2019-2024) and the minister's policy plan set out clear ambitions: Brussels wants to revolutionise language teaching in order for brussels people to better master their languages, Brussels wants to put itself on the international map as a multilingual region, Brussels wants to set up an international centre of expertise on multilingualism.

Last Saturday, Brussels celebrated its own Day of Multilingualism for the first time. Sven Gatz presented the Council for Multilingualism to the public in the Brussels Parliament. 

Be Talky, Be Brussels. What's stirring in Brussels?


Multilingualism is a policy priority

The Brussels-Capital Region - for readability we simply write Brussels here - has 1.2 million inhabitants, who together speak more than 100 different languages. How do you deal with such linguistic diversity? If the goal is an inclusive urban society with a high level of mutual understanding, social cohesion and citizenship, then as a cement for that society you need language skills and multilingualism.

Sven Gatz: "In order for the cosmopolitan metropolis that is Brussels to function better, it would be useful if the inhabitants could understand each other, for example through the knowledge of the three most widely spoken languages in Brussels: French, English or Dutch. That is why the promotion of multilingualism among the inhabitants has become a policy priority."

Boosting multilingualism

After the regional elections in May last year, the rapidly formed new regional government wrote in its coalition agreement that it wants to revolutionize language teaching: "Brussels is a bilingual region with an international vocation. Almost 80% of vacancies require knowledge from both national languages and more than half require knowledge of English. In 20 years, however, the knowledge of Dutch has declined considerably: in 2001, 33% of brussels residents spoke the language well or very well, now it is only 16.3%. The organisation of multilingual public education is therefore central to the reflection in order to better understand the languages in Brussels."

And beyond: "The exchange and cooperation between Dutch,French-speaking and English-speaking schools and courses offers many possibilities. The Government will simplify and facilitate cooperation to promote mutual enrichment and better language learning. The possibilities for promoting teacher mobility will be explored. The Government will develop a global policy that promotes multilingualism among the people of Brussels, thereby strengthening Brussels identity and Brussels citizenship, social promotion and social cohesion within the Region. This approach will not be limited to education, but will extend to different sectors, such as vocational training, employment and culture."

"In order to improve bilingualism and multilingualism in Brussels, the government will Flemish Community and Federation Wallonia-Brussels) and the federal government invite the conclusion of a cooperation agreement to strengthen education in French and/or Dutch and other languages within the framework of the current powers. It also wants to continue the training of bilingual teachers by promoting cooperation between Dutch-speaking and French-speaking colleges within the framework of a common curriculum and bidiplomering. Finally, following the successful experience in adult vocational training, the Government will help develop modules that, based on the 'use of language at work', will help to develop functional languages in technical and professional fields. It will also support schools wishing to participate in the European programmes eTwinning and Erasmus+, which will not only provide the opportunity to learn new languages, but also to open up the school to Europe, giving young people in education and vocational training the opportunity to learn new techniques abroad and giving teachers the opportunity to learn new teaching methods."

International centre of expertise on multilingualism

In his policy plan of late last year, Minister Sven Gatz stated: "We have the ambition to put the Brussels Capital Region on the international map as a multilingual region. With our multitude of specialists on multilingualism in many different disciplines, Brussels has all the necessary knowledge and brains to establish an international centre of expertise on multilingualism. We are working with the actors in the field to explore how we can shape this initiative."

Council for Multilingualism

On Saturday, during the first Day of Multilingualism in Brussels, Sven Gatz announced the composition of the Council for Multilingualism, a new body that will advise him on the drafting of his policy. The new advisory board will be chaired by Philippe Van Paris (UCLouvain). A few years ago, Brussels-based Philippe Van Paris was at the heart of the Marnix plan for a multilingual Brussels, a plan that has been very inspiring to Sven Gatz's policy plan. Vice-president becomes Professor of Anthropology Nadia Fadil (KU Leuven). 

The Multilingualism Council should, among other things, identify existing initiatives and collaborations on multilingualism. "By clearly mapping out who is doing what and what needs of the field can't yet be answered, it is possible to better align the existing initiatives. Our goal is that all Children in Brussels at the age of 18 will have at least Dutch, French and English. In order to develop this multilingualism, it is important that all partners who play a role in the education and development of a child know how best to stimulate this multilingual development." Minister Sven Gatz sees the Multilingualism Council as an ally for the objectification and sustainability of his own multilingualism policy, but also expects the council to challenge him, the government and parliament with new ideas and proposals.

The council, which consists of about twenty experts in multilingualism, is not composed purely academically. In addition to President Philippe Van Paris and Vice-President Nadia Fadil, the councillors Laurence Mettewie, Piet Vervaeke, Hilde De Smedt, Olivier Willocx, Helena Van Driessche, Rudi Janssens, Laurence de Ruette, Wim Vandenbussche, Nicole Wauters, Anne Posma, Grégor Chapelle, Fatima Zohra Ait El Maâti, Yvon Englert, Aimée-Fidèle Mukunde, Olivia P'tito, Dirk Jacobs.

Bilingual or multilingual city?

Critics criticise Sven Gatz for forgetting that Brussels is institutionally a bilingual city, that as regional minister he has no educational competence, because that is community matter in Belgium, and that he therefore has no levers to fulfil his ambitions in terms of multilingualism. The Minister himself will be aware that he does not have institutional leverage, but with a well-aimed promotion for multilingualism, a concept that already has a positive feeling for 90% of Brussels residents, it is nevertheless expected that he can bring about something without being institutionally pinched. We know from rudi Janssens' linguistic sociological research that a large majority of Brussels residents support multilingual education, considers language skills essential to finding a job and language skills are an essential part of Brussels' identity. Sven Gatz reminded parliament on Saturday that the Brussels government also attaches great importance to the proper knowledge and transfer of the mother tongue, the key to learning other languages faster and easier. "Broad multilingualism is good for social cohesion and citizenship at the level of the street, the district, the municipality and the region."

Language diversity without multilingualism is a disaster

As enthusiastic as the Brussels native may be about the multilingual city, in fact, 8% of Brussels residents speak neither Dutch, French nor English (compared to 3% in 2000). Only 8% of young People in Brussels who come out of French-speaking education say they speak Dutch well (compared to 20% in 2000). It is clear that the Brussels Region, which has no educational competence, will not be able to reverse these trends. According to Philippe Van Paris, in these corona times we also learn fewer languages informally, because we have to keep our contact bubble(s) small and most bubbles seem to be more monolingual. 

"But the greatest challenge," Philippe Van Paris said in his acceptance speech, "lies in the extraordinary fluidity of the People of Brussels. Since 2000, 1.2 million people have settled in Brussels, most of them from abroad. And since the year 2000, 1.1 million people have left Brussels, most of them to the rest of Belgium. Those who leave Brussels know French and Dutch much better on average than those who arrive. It is therefore that the knowledge of French and Dutch decreases, despite the fact that these two languages are widely taught in our crèches, schools, companies and districts. Consequently, the promotion of multilingualism by the Brussels Region is also a good thing for the other two regions, which will benefit from it. But for the same reason, the promotion of multilingualism will be a sisyfus work that will have to be restarted over and over again."

"Everyone agrees that it is absolutely necessary to encourage multilingualism more. Language diversity without multilingualism is a disaster for a city like Brussels," says Philippe Van Paris.


BeTalky is the name of the new platform for the promotion of multilingualism, a website on which all existing and new multilingualism initiatives will be bundled and given visibility.

BeTalky? BeTalky's core message is: dare to talk in more languages. Philippe Van Paris quotes a teacher: "Il n'y a rien de pire pour l'apprentissage des langues que le silence grammaticalement correct." (Nothing is worse for language learning than a grammatically correct silence.)


The language sector, the sector of language professionals and language entrepreneurs who realize multilingualism in all its forms day in and day out, naturally follow developments in Brussels with great interest and can only be pleased with the ambition to put Brussels on the international map as a multilingual region. Nowhere in such a small territory are so many languages spoken. On the streets, Brussels is today the de facto capital of linguistic diversity. If the ambition can be to make Brussels the world capital of multilingualism, the language sector will be an enthusiastic ally.

The policy plan (Orientation Note 2019-2024: Promotion of Multilingualism) can be downloaded in pdf on the website of Brussels Minister for the Promotion of Multilingualism Sven Gatz in Dutch and In French.

Check out the BeTalkyplatform.


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Author: Dries Debackere

Machine translation: SDL Machine Translation (previously SDL BeGlobal)

Post-editing: No post-editing

Source language: Nederlands (nl)

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