The Belgium Constitution guarantees, since the country's independence, freedom of language in the private sphere. Article 30 specifies that "the use of languages spoken in Belgium is optional; only the law can rule on this matter, and only for acts of the public authorities and for legal matters." For those public authorities, there is extensive language legislation concerning Dutch, French and German, even though the Belgian Constitution does not explicitly mention which languages enjoy official status. Article 4 does however divide the country into linguistic areas, which form the basis of the federal structure: "Belgium has four linguistic areas: The French-speaking area, the Dutch-speaking area, the bilingual area of Brussels Capital and the German-speaking area."
Before the federal structure and the language legislation gradually introduced in the 20th century, French was generally the only language used by public authorities. For example, the Dutch version of the Constitution has enjoyed equal status to the original French one only since 1967, and the German version only since 1991.
Of the inhabitants of Belgium, roughly 59% belong to the Flemish Community, 40% to the French Community and 1% to the German-speaking Community, though these figures relating to official Belgian languages include unknown numbers of immigrants and their children speaking a foreign language as primary language, and of Belgian regional migrants which may be assumed to largely balance one another for natively French and Dutch speakers. Though the standard form of Dutch used in Belgium is almost identical to that spoken in the Netherlands and the different dialects spread across the border, it is often colloquially called "Flemish".
Dutch is the official language of the Flemish Community and the Flemish Region (merged to Flanders) and, along with French, an official language of the Brussels-Capital Region. The main Dutch dialects spoken in Belgium are Brabantian, West Flemish, East Flemish and Limburgish. All these are spoken across the border in the Netherlands as well, and West Flemish is also spoken in French Flanders. Some sub-dialects may be quite distant from standard Dutch and not be readily intelligible for other Dutch-speakers. Words which are unique to Belgian Dutch are called belgicisms (as are words used primarily in Belgian French). The original Brabantian dialect of Brussels has been very much influenced by French. It is now spoken by a minority in the Capital region since the language of most inhabitants shifted during the Frenchification of Brussels.
The second-most spoken primary (Belgian) language, used natively by almost 40% of the population, is French. It is the official language of the French Community (which, like the Flemish Community, is a political entity), the dominant language in Wallonia (having also a small German-speaking Community) as well as the Brussels-Capital Region. Almost all of the inhabitants of the Capital region speak French as either their primary language (50%) or as a lingua franca (45%). There are also many Flemish people who speak French as a second language. Belgian French is in most respects identical to standard, Parisian French, but differs in some points of vocabulary, pronunciation, and semantics.
German is the least prevalent official language in Belgium, spoken natively by less than 1% of the population. The German-speaking Community of Belgium numbers 77,000, residing in an area of Belgium that was ceded by the former German Empire as part of the Treaty of Versailles, which concluded World War I. In 1940, Nazi Germany re-annexed the region following its invasion of Belgium during World War II; after the war it was returned to Belgium.
In national politics, politicians can freely choose to speak in any of the three official languages. In turn, the Belgian parliament provides simultaneous interpretation for those who require it to assist in communication.
Education is provided by the Communities, Dutch in the Flemish Community (Flanders and Brussels), French in the French Community (Wallonia and Brussels), German in the German-speaking community. Instruction in other languages is prohibited in government-funded schools except for foreign language subjects. However, the English language has become increasingly used in higher education.
Also all official correspondence and communication with the government (e.g. tax papers, local politics, ID/passport requests, building permits etc.) must be in the official language of the region or community. Inhabitants of a few municipalities are granted an exception to these rules.
In 2006, the Université Catholique de Louvain, the country's largest French-speaking university, published a report with the introduction (translated):
This issue regarding economies is devoted to the demand for knowledge of languages in Belgium and in its three regions (Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia). The surveys show that Flanders is clearly more multilingual, which is without doubt a well-known fact, but the difference is considerable: whereas 59% and 53% of the Flemings know French or English respectively, only 19% and 17% of the Walloons know Dutch or English. The measures advocated by the Marshall Plan are heading towards the proper direction, but are doubtlessly quite insufficient to fully overcome the lag. [This particular 2006–2009 'Marshall Plan' was devised in 2004 and published in 2005 to uplift the Walloon economy.]
Within the report, professors in economics Ginsburgh and Weber further show that of the Brussels' residents, 95% declared they can speak French, 59% Dutch, and 41% know the non-local English. Of those under the age of forty, 59% in Flanders declared that they could speak all three, along with 10% in Wallonia and 28% in Brussels. In each region, Belgium's third official language, German, is notably less known than those.
In addition to the three official languages, others are spoken in Belgium, like in Wallonia, where French became dominant only relatively recently. Sometimes seen as dialects, the varieties related to French have been recognized by the French Community as separate languages (langues régionales endogènes, lit. ‘regional native languages’) since 1990, without, however, taking any further significant measures to support those varieties.
Walloon is the historical language of southern Belgium, and most of the areas where French is now spoken were Walloon-speaking. It is also the traditional national language of the Walloons. Though it has been recognized, like other vernaculars in Belgium, since 1990, it is mainly spoken by older people, though younger Walloons may claim some knowledge. It is mainly used in rural regions, and is used in theaters and literature, though not in schools.
Another language related to French, and a historic language of the region, Picard, was recognized by the government of the French Community in 1990. Western Belgium has its core area in France, stretching into the western part of Wallonia.
Flanders too has a number of dialects, but linguists regard these as varieties of Dutch rather than a separate Flemish language with the exception of Limburgish and West Flemish. The main Dutch dialects in Belgium are Brabantian and East Flemish. Standard Dutch, as spoken in Belgium, is mostly influenced by Brabantian. There are literary traditions in both the East Flemish and West Flemish dialects.
Limburgish is a language spoken mainly in north-eastern Belgium and the South-Easter Netherlands. In the Belgian and Dutch provinces of Limburg(be) / Limburg(nl). It is closely related to Dutch but has more German influences.
Low Dietsch is a Germanic language or dialect in the north-east of the Belgian province of Liege, in the kernel area of the historical (and linguistically mixed) Duchy of Limburg. It is spoken in towns and villages such as Plombières (Bleiberg), Gemmenich, Hombourg, Montzen and Welkenraedt. By linguists, the variety is classified as a transition between Limburgish and Ripuarian. It has been defined as either varieties of Dutch or of German. Low Dietsch is acknowledged as an internal regional language by the Walloon authority since 1992. The Low Dietsch was the favorite foreign language of Andrew Jackson for its sound and eloquency. Low Dietsch is practically identical to the German dialect in the northern part of the neighbouring official German-speaking region of Belgium. The different definition is due to the fact that the German-speaking region was annexed by Belgium in 1919, whereas the "Low Dietsch" area has been part of Belgium since 1830.
Luxembourgish, a Moselle Franconian language formerly regarded as a variety of German, is native to Arelerland, the eastern part of the Belgian province of Luxembourg, including the city of Arlon (Arel). Here it has largely been replaced by Belgian French in recent decades, contrarily to its flourishing on the other side of the border, in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Yiddish is spoken by many among the 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews living in Antwerp. The Yiddish community there is among the strongest in Europe, and one of the few Jewish communities worldwide in which Yiddish remains the dominant language (others include Kiryas Joel, New York, and similar Ashkenazi neighborhoods in the United States, London, Paris, Montreal and Israel).
LSFB, or French Belgian Sign Language, is used primarily in Wallonia and Brussels and is related to LSF and other Francosign languages. It developed from Old Belgian Sign Language which came about as a result of contact between Lyons Sign Language and LSF.
Like LSFB, Flemish Sign Language, or VGT, is a Francosign language descended from Old Belgian Sign Language which is used primarily in Flanders with five major regional dialects: West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, and Limburg. Moreover, there is dialectal variation between men and women speakers due to historical developments of the language.
Unlike VGT and LSFB, DGS, or German Sign Language, is unrelated to LSF and comprises its own language family. DGS is related to PJM and Shassi. It is primarily used around the German-speaking communities of Belgium, although German and DGS are unrelated.
Meer dan de helft van de Brusselse bevolking is van vreemde afkomst. In 1961 was dat slechts 7 procent. (More than half of the Brussels' population is of foreign origin. In 1961 this was only 7 percent.)
Ce numéro de Regards économiques est consacré à la question des connaissances linguistiques en Belgique et dans ses trois régions (Bruxelles, Flandre, Wallonie). Les enquêtes montrent que la Flandre est bien plus multilingue, ce qui est sans doute un fait bien connu, mais la différence est considérable : alors que 60 % et 53 % des Flamands connaissent le français ou l'anglais respectivement, seulement 20 % et 17 % des Wallons connaissent le néerlandais ou l'anglais. Les mesures préconisées par le Plan Marshall vont dans la bonne direction, mais sont sans doute très insuffisantes pour combler le retard. ... 95 pour cent des Bruxellois déclarent parler le français, alors que ce pourcentage tombe à 59 pour cent pour le néerlandais. Quant à l’anglais, il est connu par une proportion importante de la population à Bruxelles (41 pour cent). ... Le syndrome d’H (...) frappe la Wallonie, où à peine 19 et 17 pour cent de la population parlent respectivement le néerlandais et l’anglais.(Summary: "Slechts 19 procent van de Walen spreekt Nederlands" (in Dutch). Nederlandse Taalunie. 2006-06-12. Retrieved 2007-05-26. – The article shows the interest in the Ginsburg-Weber report, by the French-language Belgian newspaper Le Soir and the Algemeen Dagblad in the Netherlands)
Hoewel in beide landsdelen de jongeren inderdaad meer talen kennen dan de ouderen, is de talenkloof tussen Vlaanderen en Wallonië toch gegroeid. Dit komt omdat de talenkennis in Vlaanderen sneller is toegenomen dan die in Wallonië. ... Het probleem aan Franstalige kant is dus groot en er is, verassend genoeg, niet echt een verbetering of oplossing in zicht. ... het is met de kennis van het Engels ongeveer even pover gesteld als met de kennis van het Nederlands. Tot daar dus de verschoning van de povere talenkennis aan Waalse zijde als een rationele individuele keuze in een markt met externe effecten. Het is merkwaardig dat de auteurs dit huizenhoge probleem met hun verklaring expliciet toegeven, maar er bij het formuleren van beleidsadviezen dan toch maar van uit gaan dat hun model juist is. (Although in both parts of the country the young indeed know more languages than the elder, the languages chasm between Flanders and Wallonia has nevertheless grown. This is because the knowledge of languages in Flanders has increased faster than that in Wallonia. ... Thus the problem at the French-speaking side is large and there is, quite surprisingly, not really an improvement or solution in sight. ... the knowledge of English is in about as poor a state as the knowledge of Dutch. So far, about the excuse for the poor knowledge of languages on the Walloon side as a rational individual choice in a market with external effects. It is remarkable that the authors by their statement explicitly acknowledge this towering problem, but in formulating governance advices still assume their model to be correct.)– Reaction on the Ginsburgh-Weber report;