Language in Belgium: How to Avoid Confusion

Belgium has three official languages, each spoken in different parts of the country. Don't get tongue-tied – find out where to speak Dutch, French and German before you go.

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Walking the streets of Bruges in Belgium at sunset Photo © Getty Images/Dhwee

Belgium's linguistic diversity stems from a series of political and cultural conflicts that started many hundreds of years ago, and continues to this day. It's important travelers are aware of the sensitivities that surround language, and how it changes depending on where you're traveling in the country.

Language Regions in Belgium

Belgium is divided into three regions: Flanders in the north, the Brussels-Capital Region in the middle, and Wallonia in the south.

To make matters a little more confusing, the Flemish speak Dutch but do not consider themselves Dutch, and the Walloons speak French but do not consider themselves French. There is also a small region of German-speaking Belgians on the German border.

Antwerp at night
Antwerp at night. Photo credit: iStock

Double Dutch

The primary language in Belgium is Dutch, spoken by approximately 60% of the population. The Flemish dialect is almost identical to the Dutch spoken across the border in the Netherlands, but some differences in vocabulary have led some to refer to the language colloquially as "Flemish".

French is the second-most common language in Belgium, spoken by almost 40% of the population. Many Flemish people can also speak French as a second language. Like the Dutch spoken in Flanders, Belgian French is mostly similar to the dialect spoken in France, but there are small differences in vocabulary and pronunciation.

Bi-lingual Signs Around Belgium

As a result of the language split across the country, many road signs and other notices around Belgium are written in both French and Dutch. German, while one of the three official languages, is much less prevalent and spoken by less than 1% of the population.

In Brussels, the main language spoken is French. Like many capital cities, the city is multilingual, perhaps because it is the de facto capital of the European Union, and the high number of foreign officials and diplomats who live there. All public services and signs are in both French and Dutch.

Spa, Belgium
Spa, Belgium. Photo credit: iStock

Belgian Dialects

To really test your language skills, in some parts of the country languages are broken down even further into regional dialects. As you travel around Belgium, you may hear variations such as East Flemish, West Flemish, Walloon (mostly spoken by older people in rural areas), Picard, Low Dietsch and Luxembourgish. Antwerp also has one of the few Jewish communities worldwide that still speak Yiddish as its dominant language.

Political Divide in Belgium

The language divide is just one part of much greater segregation between the Flanders and Wallonia regions. When you're talking to locals in the north, it is common for them to describe themselves as being "from Flanders" rather than "from Belgium". Indeed, Flanders has its own parliament and government, and several political parties continue to campaign for Flemish independence.

As a result, it's wise to be sensitive to these cultural and linguistic differences when talking to locals in Belgium. To be on the safe side, start every conversation in English. Most Belgians are bi-lingual (many are even tri-lingual) and speak fluent English.

Language Guides

Download one of our 24 travel phrasebook apps for your iPhone. From Arabic to Korean, these apps are packed with essential phrases to know before you go.

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7 Comments

  • Caroline said

    . , . not sure if this helped, i just hit the space bar until i saw you can comment

  • Jasmine said

    Just a comment; The way it is written here it looks like only Flanders has its own parliament, which is not the case. There are - depending on who you talk to- nine parliaments in Belgium, with two of them being in Wallonia. To top up this beautiful hierarchical mess we have eight governments; with two again for Wallonia.

    But this again, proves your point that we are sensitive to everything that relates to the differences between Wallonia and Flanders

  • Heather said

    I am super confused now, I will be visiting Belgium this summer. English is my first language & I can speak French (not 100% fluent but I can get by in France), I was going to learn Dutch but now I am worried the Dutch Inwas going to learn will not be correct.

  • Jan said

    If you want to learn Dutch, please do so ;-)
    You will be able to use it both in Flanders and in the Netherlands. It's a bit like British and American English - mainly different accents because spelling is identical.

  • Ashley said

    I might be going to Belgium because I am in french immersion in school and my parents want to make that useful. Would Belgium be a good place to go where theres not much english? if so; what cities? If not; any other country suggestions?

  • Devlin said

    Friend and I had an overnight stay in Diegem and decided to walk around the town. It was early evening, and there was festival going on. We went to a pub, and I tried conversing in German - no one would speak. They looked through us like we weren't there. Very strange place.

  • MyNameIs said

    You should go to liège that's the most partying city.

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