Brussels’ other (un)official language: English

I started this blog post sitting in a café in Brussels (as all good bloggers do). I sat, sipping my cappuccino and listening to a song by the X-X as I tried to read an article for one of my classes. While I was in Brussels, I could have been in any big city; nothing about this place was particularly Belgian, not the food, the coffee, the music or the people and I was reading an article written in English.

Around me people were speaking a mixture of French and English. English-speakers were mostly not native speakers, from England or the United States or any number of other English-speaking countries. Rather, and like most of the English spoken in Brussels, they were ex-pats from all over who share one common language: English. It may be their second, or third or fourth… language, or, in the case of Belgians, English is sometimes the neutral middle ground between Flemish Dutch-speakers and Walloon French-speakers. This recent post in the Atlantic Cities discusses this reality: “It would be a mistake, however, to view this as an expression of American or British influence. English is now what Swedes speak to Italians and Serbs speak to the Dutch, people who often understand each other’s clearly enunciated versions of the language far more easily than they do idiomatic British or American, which no longer necessarily stand as models to emulate.” And according to this post, just 3% of the Brussels population speaks English as a native language. While the lingua franca remains French, you can hear English all over the city. In this sense, English is a tool. It is the de facto common language and the language often used between people who speak different languages.

It makes sense that there would be a language that is used so that research can be shared and people from all over the world can communicate – but why English? I realize this is not surprising, considering British imperialism and American hegemony today. Most of the movies we see and books we read come from this American, or at least Western, perspective.  However, I still struggle with the idea that my native language is the one that other people have to use to communicate with people from other places – and that this makes communicating so “easy” for me.

This is the experience I am also having in my Masters program: my colleagues are from 22 different countries and we speak over 20 different languages. The only language we share is English, which is no surprise as our courses are taught in English. Not only do we all speak the same language, but we have many of the same cultural references: music, TV shows, movies, international politics. All of these references are western and often American; none of us share knowledge of Romanian politics, Serbian movies, or any number of other cultural references. 

I am not the first person to think that the position of English as global lingua franca is problematic. Philippe van Parjis, a Belgian philosopher, writes about “linguistic justice”, suggesting that is not fair that English is the global lingua franca and proposing ways of remedying this injustice.

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