I always thought hell would freeze over before a continental European city would consider making English an official language. It seems I was wrong. Last month, Belgian politician Pascal Smet suggested that it was time Brussels formally accepted English as a language of government, education, and everyday life.
Smet, who serves as Minister for Education in Flanders, a region that 60 percent of Belgium's population calls home, insists that adopting English as the metropolitan region's third official language (after French and Dutch) is a vital step if Brussels is to become a truly international city. While the plan is as yet more of an aspiration than proposed legislation, even suggesting it is a huge step. And with this step follows an even thornier question: Is Brussels acting as an early warning system for an upcoming trans-European shift toward English?
Not necessarily. Brussels is a special case, a city where language is probably more politicized than anywhere else in Europe. It lies, after all, at the heart of a country divided sharply along linguistic lines. Belgium's majority Northern Flanders region speaks Dutch, while Southern Wallonia, where people speak French (with some small German-speaking pockets), houses the rest. Until the 1960s, French speakers dominated Belgium culturally and politically, fueling resentment in the once poorer North. In the last 50 years, however, Flanders has boomed while Wallonia's industries have declined, and wealth, influence, and national dominance have since realigned. To equalize the country's balance of power along more representative lines, a linguistic border formalized in 1963 separated Belgium officially into two different language areas. Now Belgium is an internally divided country with separate French and Dutch versions of almost every institution. Belgium's two parts could thus easily separate, something that some nationalists on both sides would love to see happen.
The sticking point is Brussels. An acknowledged "third community," the city belongs neither to Flanders or Wallonia. Its linguistic politics are complex, even Byzantine. While 63 percent of Brussels's population speaks French as a first language (compared to 20 percent native Dutch speakers), it is surrounded by Dutch speaking countryside, and despite French linguistic dominance, Brussels's Francophones do not usually consider themselves part of the French-speaking South. They're right not to – in the mid 19th century Brussels was a mainly Dutch-speaking city. There's been a major swing towards French since, fueled not just by migration, but also by families switching language. Even so, it was only really by the 1950s that Dutch had definitively lost its role as the city's vernacular.
Since then, Brussels has become even more Frenchified. New immigrants, many of whom spoke French in their countries of birth, are not learning Dutch, and neither is the elite international class connected to the city’s European Union institutions. Meanwhile, suburbanization has seen a wave of French speakers ripple out into the city's Dutch-speaking hinterland. If there was ever a time for Brussels to swing back to Dutch, it has long gone.
Mind you, that’s how most people want it. Francophone Bruxellois might have had Dutch-speaking great grandparents, but now the French language is a central part of their metropolitan identity. As such, any attempts to moderate the use of the French language tend to seen as assaults, lending the city something of a siege mentality and helping to develop a city culture that, partly as a form of defiance, is self-consciously Latin.
It's in this context that adopting English as an official language suddenly seems attractive. The language is neutral ground. If Brussels Dutch speakers can’t always function in their own language, at least speaking English means they haven’t been co-opted into speaking French. The number of native English speakers in Brussels is a tiny 3 percent, but hearing it is common on Brussels' streets and almost 30 percent of citizens speak it well as a second language. Thus Smet’s suggestion is not just about making Brussels more internationally competitive, but about giving Dutch-speaking residents a compromise language that spares them capitulation to Francophone dominance.
So Brussels' peculiar linguistic issues have put English as an official language on the agenda. But the idea still points to a radical shift in Europe as a whole. The role of English as the continent's lingua franca is now unassailable, with 94 percent of EU pupils learning it at school. It would be a mistake, however, to view this as an expression of American or British influence. English is now what Swedes speak to Italians and Serbs speak to the Dutch, people who often understand each other's clearly enunciated versions of the language far more easily than they do idiomatic British or American, which no longer necessarily stand as models to emulate.
This last point is really the key. As the use of English spreads, it is increasingly seen less as a nefarious tentacle of Anglo-Saxon influence. A trans-European perception of it as a neutral pidgin, independent of international borders, hasn’t arrived yet, but it may be on the way.