Summit looks at use of Dutch in Brussels


The Model NL Summit brought together teachers, policymakers, politicians and others who have an interest in how Dutch is perceived and taught in the country’s capital

Diversification of a city

It’s a complaint often heard in Flanders: No one in Brussels speaks Dutch. It’s not only seen by the Flemish as disrespectful, it can be a factor in deciding whether they want to live in their own capital city.

But things in Brussels are changing, according to the Brussels chapter of Huis van het Nederlands, which assists people in learning the language. Last week it hosted the Model NL Summit, the final event in three months of discussions and debates on the state of Dutch in the capital.

Model NL took in the opinions of language teachers, politicians, companies, organisations that use or otherwise promote Dutch and Brussels residents to gauge their attitudes towards and use of the language. One of the interesting facts that emerged is that, while fewer people speak Dutch fluently, more people are speaking it at all.

Melting pot effect

This is because of the vibrantly multi-lingual city that Brussels has become since Huis van het Nederlands was founded 15 years ago. “What we discovered is that, whereas you hear so much about the Dutch and French communities, in Brussels that is much less crucial,” says Gunther Van Neste, the director of Huis van het Nederlands Brussels. “That’s specifically because of the diversification of the city, the arrival of people from all over the world. So the big division between French and Dutch in Brussels is just non-existent.”

But, some would argue, so is Dutch. Not true, says Van Neste. “Brussels has always been considered a mainly French-speaking city, but now dozens of languages are spoken here – English, Arabic, Spanish and also Dutch.”

And, being one of the country’s official languages, signage in the capital is routinely in Dutch as well as French. This makes it easier – unavoidable really – to recognise the language and see it as an integral part of Brussels. That wasn’t always the case, Van Neste points out.

But he admits that, as a national language, its role in the capital is unclear. That’s what Model NL has set out to address. “What is the position of Dutch within all these language in Brussels? That’s something we’re going to assess following today’s discussions among Brussels residents of diverse origins.”

Several speakers at the Summit discussed how they tackled the Dutch issue within their own organisations. Some of them are specifically about promoting or teaching Dutch, while others used the language as a matter of course – but ran into issues.

That was the case for Becode, a free coding course launched in Brussels in 2017. While the incredibly successful programme was offered in both French and Dutch, no one wanted to sign up for the Dutch-language course. It also had trouble finding someone to do the marketing and communications who was fluent in both languages.

Gentle, but persistent

But the organisation was persistent, said speaker Ayoub Mohyi, and is now finding more students who are keen to enrol in the Dutch-language section, whether they speak Dutch as a first language or not. The message was clear: Becode didn’t give up when Dutch as first did not succeed.

Mohyi also gave a personal example to illustrate the evolution of Dutch in Brussels. He grew up in a home where no Dutch was spoken, he said. But he learned it in school, and now his own child, 10 months old, has a vocabulary of four words: the Dutch and French words for mum and dad. His message was clear: While newcomers might not speak Dutch, the same will not be true of their children and grandchildren.

Silke Quateau, meanwhile, described a typical class in Taalkot, a Huis van het Nederlands programme that turns Dutch learning into an interactive experience more than a lesson. The programme is open to 15- to 25-year-olds who speak little or no Dutch.

I think that everybody in Belgium has to learn Dutch. It’s so important in maintaining a connection between the two communities

- Khadija Chentouf

Taalkot is offered to these young people only if they are enrolled in part-time education, in co-operation with their schools. It mostly attracts people with foreign origins, who need to improve their chances on the job market.

“The idea is to create a safe and welcoming environment,” Quateau explained, “to make sure that everyone feels at home. Some of these people have been thoroughly damaged by their pasts, and it is extremely important that they feel that they feel safe and sound here. If they walk in with a coffee or come two hours late, they need to know they won’t be hassled. They need to know that we care about them. It’s in this kind of environment that we can introduce Dutch.”

But the biggest applause of the Summit’s seminar went to Khadija Chentouf, who moved from Morocco to Brussels 27 years ago. A federal parliament worker, she speaks French, English and Arabic. She started a Dutch class last month, much to the amazement of her friends and family.

She stood before the crowd to explain, in her best Dutch, why. “I wanted to give a boost to my career and improve my opportunities for the future,” she said. “I also have Dutch-speaking colleagues, and I want to get to know them better. I also want to understand Flemish culture.”

Multi-lingual society

All of the examples point to efforts to de-polarise and de-politicise the language in the capital. This is crucial for the language’s image, according to many of the speakers.

Evidence of that can be seen in the testimony of many pupils in the Dutch-language school system. “I’m not allowed to speak French at school,” one pupil told Huis van het Nederlands, “but at home, I’m not allowed to speak Dutch because then I’m a Flamand.”

All of the information gathered over the last few months as well as concluded at the Summit will be used in ongoing conversations and to advise policymakers. “The idea is that these conclusions will be considered in the next governmental policy accord – in Brussels, Flanders and on the federal level,” says Van Neste. “How can we work with this multi-lingual society in this city?”

Chentouf, who is introducing Dutch into her vocabulary after more than a quarter-century in the capital, later told Flanders Today: “I think that everybody here in Belgium has to learn Dutch. It’s so important in maintaining a connection between the two communities and with all the other communities; it’s so important to know both French and Dutch.”