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Although the Belgian Constitution of 1830 was drawn up entirely in French, the Flemish Movement demanded the recognition of Dutch1 as an official language with the same status as French towards the end of the 19th century. In 1898, a Law of Linguistic Equality placed Dutch on equal footing with French. It was not until after the Treaty of Versailles that German was considered to be an issue.

Following the failure of the law of 31 July 1921, which favoured bilingualism throughout the kingdom, the law of 28 June 1932 determined four linguistic regions: the French language region, the Dutch language region, the bilingual region of Brussels-Capital, and the German language region. The law provided for the redefining of the borders of these regions every 10 years on the basis of a linguistic census. It also provided for linguistic rights to be accorded anywhere where more than 30% of the population belonged to a ‘linguistic minority’. These rights included facilities when contacting local authorities and lessons being available in the language.

A referendum was organised in 1947; however, it took a long time for the results to be published. It was in 1955 that the fruit of the referendum saw the extension of the bilingual region of Brussels-Capital, which increased from 16 to 19 districts. The Flemish movement, fearing an ‘oil spot’ policy (‘loss’ of regions in the Flemish territory to the bilingual region), opposed further territorial redefinitions as a result of censuses.

The law of 24 July 1961 sanctioned the suppression of questions relating to language use in general census operations and forms within the population.


Legal framework

The law of 8 November 1962 set the boundaries of linguistic frontiers and effected “the linguistic homogenisation” of the provinces. Some districts were transferred from one province to another, e.g. Comines-Mouscron (Komen-Moeskroen) from the Dutch-speaking province of West-Flanders to the French-speaking province of Hainaut and Voeren (Les Fourons) from the French-speaking province of Liège to the Dutch-speaking province of Limburg. The latter transfer, in particular, has since that time been at the heart of a major debate and has regularly been the cause of friction between the two major language communities in Belgium, both on the local and on the national level.

The use of languages in teaching
The law of 30 July 1963 on the linguistic regime in teaching, states, in article 4, that “the language of teaching is Dutch in the Dutch language region, French in the French language region and German in the German language region”. In the case of the latter, and certain regions with bilingual facilities, in some situations, the rule could be broken. Pre-school and primary education could be given in another national language, under certain conditions (if the language was the native or usual language of the child, if the head of the family lived in one of the districts concerned and if a sufficient number of heads of families asked for it). In the district of Brussels-Capital, the head of the family can choose whether the child is taught in French or Dutch.

The use of languages in social relations between employees and staff and in business proceedings and documents
The coordinated law of 18 July 1955 on the use of languages in administrative affairs contains certain provisions which relate to industrial, commercial and financial companies. This law is applicable to the Brussels-Capital region, districts with bilingual facilities and the German language region. It means that, in the Brussels-Capital region, proceedings and documents must be written in French for French-speaking staff and Dutch for Dutch-speaking staff. In districts with bilingual facilities which are part of the Flemish region, it is compulsory to use Dutch. In those which belong to the Wallonian region, it is compulsory to use French. As for those around the edge of Brussels, there it is compulsory to use Dutch.

As far as the French-speaking Community is concerned, the ‘Lagasse’ decree of 30 June 1982 imposes the use of French on all employers who have offices in the Wallonian region in which they interact with employees. If a document is not written in French, it is not valid. Nonetheless, there is no administrative charge or penal sanction. Finally, the use of one or more additional language is permitted without the need to seek administrative authorisation in advance.

The ‘September’ decree of 19 July 1973 imposes the use of Dutch on all employers who have offices in the Flemish region in which they interact with employees. If a document is not written in Dutch, it is not valid. In addition, the employer may face penal sanctions and administrative fees if they do not respect the decree. Finally, the use of another language instead of Dutch is forbidden. A translation into one or more other languages may be used if it is unanimously requested by staff representatives.

There is no legislation on the use of languages in the domains of consumption, advertising or science.


Institutional body with the responsibility for developing, implementing and controlling linguistic legislation


The federal law-making body and the Councils of the French and Flemish communities share competencies when it comes to linguistic legislation. In essence, the constitutional revision of 1970 embedded the existence of four linguistic regions, Dutch, French, German and the bilingual Brussels-Capital region. The revision gave legislative competence to the French and Flemish communities in the matter of language planning and language use. Article 129 of the Constitution states that “the Councils of the French and Flemish communities […] rule by decree, without reference to the federal law-making body, the use of languages in administrative affairs, teaching in establishments that it creates, subcontracted to or recognised by public authorities, social relations between employers and their staff and business documents […]”. The communities have not legislated on the use of languages in administrative affairs. The coordinated law of 18 July 1966 therefore remains the point of reference in this area. The German Community only has competencies in the use of languages in teaching. Other areas are regulated by the federal law-making body.

The permanent Commission for Linguistic Control, instituted by the law of 2 August 1963, has responsibility for overseeing the application of the coordinated law of 1966. It also exercises control over the linguistic exam which candidates for certain positions may be required to take.

The Governor Adjoint of the Flemish province of Brabant has responsibility for overseeing the application of linguistic legislation in the districts surrounding Brussels.

On 9 September 1980 the Kingdom of Belgium and the Kingdom of the Netherlands signed a Treaty on the Nederlandse Taalunie (Union for the Dutch Language), which created the common, intergovernmental institution of this name. The treaty stipulates that most aspects relating to Dutch language and literature will be subject of a common policy of both countries, with the Nederlandse Taalunie as their common language-policy institution. Since the state reform of 1990 the institutions of the Flemish Community have been responsible for the execution of this Treaty. Legislation regarding the linguistic rights of citizens, however, remains the exclusive domain of the separate countries.

The French Community of Belgium is one of the partners in the collaboration initiative for the French mother-tongue countries, along with France, Switzerland and Québec. Each year, the official language institutions of these countries organise a common colloquium and often adopt resolutions and make recommendations to their governments.


Legal provisions concerning the linguistic integration of migrants and public facilities for linguistic training available to them

In a decree of 14 June 2001, the French Community implemented a provision known as ‘bridging classes’ designed to teach and facilitate the integration of children newly arrived to the country. Bridging classes aimed to implement intensive language teaching in French (reduced numbers of students, supplementary lessons) for children aged between two and a half and 18 years, who had moved to Belgium within the last year and not yet mastered the French language. The number of bridging classes authorised in Brussels has been increased, while the minimum number of newly arrived children required for a class to be started in Wallonia was reduced by the decree of 21 April 2006.

As for the Flemish Community, the decree of 28 February 2003 created a citizenship competition (Inburgering). This welcome policy for newly arrived residents includes a training programme where one of the purposes is to learn Dutch. With the  support of the Flemish Community, immigrants are offered language assistance by the commune. In addition, the decree relating to equal opportunities in education of 28 June 2002, modified by the decree of 15 July 2005, implemented a priority teaching regime similar to that of bridging classes.

Main legal provisions in force concerning the use of regional and minority languages

In a decree of 24 December 1990, the French Community recognised the indigenous regional languages (Champenois, Lorrain, Picard, Walloon, Moselle Franconian, Limburgish, Luxembourgish, Brabantian, and the dialect of Brussels). The Council for Indigenous Regional Languages (created in 1991) had responsibility for advising the responsible minister on what measures to take to protect and promote these languages

The Flemish Community does not recognise indigenous regional languages. Moreover, Belgium did not sign or ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, adopted in 1992 by the Council of Europe.

Belgium is unusual in that it consists of four linguistic regions. There are therefore three national languages. In order to protect those populations whose language is a minority within a given area (regions with bilingual facilities), specific protective provisions have been made in federal laws relating to the use of languages (in administrative and legal affairs and teaching).



Existence of financial support mechanisms designed to encourage the use of national and regional or minority languages


Among the ‘Priority Actions of Wallonia’ was the implementation of a language plan designed to optimise abilities required in the workplace. This plan implemented language training through immersion. The training was available to jobseekers, company employees, teachers and young people. 8,000 immersion grants are due to be assigned between now and the end of 2009. The grants are primarily awarded for Dutch. Wallonians do not in general have a good understanding of Dutch, which is necessary to the world of work. A study in 2006 showed that only 19% of Wallonians spoke Dutch.


Teaching foreign languages within the education system


The law of July 1963 set certain rules on the teaching of foreign languages by making a distinction between the regions. In the area of Brussels-Capital, the teaching of a foreign language (French or Dutch depending on the establishment) in primary schools is compulsory from the second year. For the three other regions, foreign language teaching starts in the fifth year of primary school and may occupy a maximum of three hours per week. The first foreign language in the Dutch region is French: this is obligatory from the fifth year (CM1). In the French region, the first foreign language is Dutch, German or English. In the German region, French is the first foreign language and is taught from the third year of primary school.




1Dutch in Belgium is sometimes called Flemish, especially in the past. Dutch is by far the more common term for the language, internationally and amongst the Dutch-speaking Community in Belgium itself. As a language name, 'Flemish' is nowadays almost exclusively used to refer to the Dutch dialects spoken in the Flemish region. On the other hand the region and language community in the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium is refered to as the Flemish Community.





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