That is quite a difficult (and often politically charged) question, but let us try to keep it short and simple.
Belgium has three communities, based on the language their inhabitants speak:
- The Flemish Community in the north: consists of Flanders and Brussels (yellow on the map)
- The French Community in the south: consists of Brussels and all the Walloon provinces (red on the map), except for the towns that fall under number 3
- The German-speaking Community in the east: consists of nine districts in the Walloon province of Liège (black on the map)
The inhabitants of Flanders, or what we call ‘Vlaanderen’, speak Dutch. Belgium used to form one country with the Netherlands, and were under Spanish and Austrian control before – for 15 short years – we formed a nation on our own: the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1830, the Belgians had enough of the Dutch king Willem I and his malarky, and declared themselves independent.
The inhabitants of Wallonia, the region that is called ‘Wallonie’, speak French. Brussels, the capital, is officially bilingual: all signs are in both Dutch and French.
But we’re not there yet. Belgium is not a bilingual, but a trilingual country. Our third national language is German. In the east of Wallonia, next to the German border, are nine communities that used to belong to Germany. Belgium was given them in 1919, as a compensation for the damages suffered during the First World War. The inhabitants here speak German.
Do you have to panic now and buy three language guides? Of course not. Most Belgians have a pretty good knowledge of the English language. And if you learn to say ‘goedendag’ / ‘bonjour’ / ‘guten Tag’ and ‘dank u’ / ‘merci’ / ‘danke’, we’ll be more than happy to help you out!
Oh by the way, did you know that most cities in Belgium have two or more names? Find out all about it here.