Belgium 1 and 2

According to a news report from Brussels, Belgium’s new Foreign Minister, Karel de Gucht, suggested on Monday this week that Flanders (Flemish speakers) and Wallonia (French speakers) could function separately inside the European Union. This is not of course the first time that a Flemish speaker has suggested such a divorce for this endlessly bickering couple of communities. But now that there are more small-population countries in the EU, the arguments might appear more compelling.

It would certainly have the effect of radically reducing demand for Flemish-French translation, as well as normalizing the two ‘countries’ along the quasi one country/one language EU format. All countries are multilingual to some extent, of course, since they harbor minorities of all kinds, some more vocal than others. But explicitly multilingual countries would include Spain, Malta, Finland (Finnish and Swedish) and, plausibly, Ireland, which is trying more than ever to have Irish adopted as an official language alongside English. Minority language militants would obviously not agree with this interpretation of the linguistic space in Europe. To complicate the Belgium situation, for example, there is also a minority German-speaking community.

Yet if nothing else, an official split would at least rid each language group in Belgium of the publicly sustained illusion that they are expected to learn each others’ languages, and endorse out loud what each side thinks about the other sotto voce. The same is true for that other European multilingual country Switzerland, whose French speakers in Suisse Romande rarely learn Swiss German properly from their cousins in Zurich – and vice versa.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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