Language laws: necessary or ridiculous?

Jul 19, 2010 by

Belgium is without a government — again. Not that the international community is bound to notice as Belgium plays a modest role in international affairs, beyond being the seat of European government. But still. And what brought down the last government is — among other things — issues in language policy.

Belgium is a federation made up of three parts: Flanders in the north (where Flemish, a variety of Dutch, is spoken), Wallonia in the south (where Walloon, a variety of French, is spoken) and Brussels, officially bilingual. The Walloon and the Flemish have their own political parties, their own newspapers and their own television channels, which many experts blame for the current state of affairs.

But the actual linguistic situation on the ground is much more complex than a simple line on the map would indicate. And language laws do not always match this de facto situation.

In a recent New York Times article Suzanne Daley describes the plight of a small Belgian town Wemmel, a town that is technically on the Flemish-speaking side of Belgium, but that has become home to many Walloon speakers looking for trees and backyards not far from Brussels.

Although most of its residents are Walloon speakers, language laws of this region prescribe that “all official town business must be conducted in Flemish”. That means that voting materials must be issued in Flemish. Police reports must be written in Flemish. There are even restrictions on how many books and DVDs for the local library must be purchased in what language: 75% of the library’s new acquisitions must be in Flemish. According to Suzanne Daley,

“When the mayor of Wemmel, Christian Andries, presides over a town council meeting he is not allowed to utter a single French word, even to translate, or the business at hand may be annulled.”

And when Mr. Andries wanted to write letters in French to French theaters inquiring about materials that might be available for the town library, it wasn’t allowed either.

A nuisance? Maybe even worse. Since Walloon has a fairly strong status elsewhere in Belgium, there is no expectation that Walloon speakers would switch to Flemish any time soon. So in effect, language laws such as those governing the language use in Wemmel do nothing but stifle the official business in the town.

I’ve encountered similar language laws — and similar ways in which they backfire — during the time I spent in Montreal. Language laws there regulate the use of (Quebecois) French vis-a-vis English. Businesses must advertise in French (in addition to whatever other languages they might want to advertise in) — regardless of whether their business is geared towards French-speaking clientele or not. Jewish funeral businesses must advertise their services in French, even though most of Montreal’s Jewish community are traditionally English-speaking (any many moved to Toronto and elsewhere because of Quebec’s language policies). A Chinese hospital, catering for one of the largest Chinese communities in North America, was prevented from posting a classified advert for a Chinese-speaking nurse because the advert did not indicate that the candidates should also speak French. A pediatric specialist was fired from his hospital job for failing a French language test. His speciality? Anesthesiology. Would it really matter if he spoke broken French or even English to his unconscious patients? Did the hospital really need to lose a world-class specialist over this?

As is the case the world over, language in Quebec and in Belgium constitutes an important part of people’s ethnic identity. But other factors play a role as well, so that language policy and language issues are often just a smoke-screen for bigger issues.

In Belgium, for example, language troubles of Wemmel are masking larger economic tensions and long-term grudges between the Flemish and the French. In its early history, Belgium — which became independent only recently, in 1830 — was oriented towards the French. Belgian aristocracy spoke French (former Belgian colonies in Africa still use French as their official language). The French-speaking regions of Belgium -— rich from iron and coal manufacturing -— were often contemptuous of the largely agricultural north. But later the situation has changed. Today, the Walloon-speaking part of Belgium (with population of about 4 million) is poorer, while Flanders (with population of about 6 million) has grown wealthy with a diverse economy. So now Flemish speakers resent their taxes flowing south, especially because they go to Walloon speakers who used to snub their noses at them.

And in the meantime, it remains to be seen whether Belgium manages to resolve some of its internal issues and form a government faster than it took after the 2007 election — 9 months. Long enough to have a baby, but is it long enough to settle the langauge issues that have been simmering for nearly two centuries?

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