The Politics of Linguistic Nationalism in Belgium

As part of its conference for Community College Faculty funded through the Getting to Know Europe and Title VI Programs, IES welcomed Christopher Jackson, an instructor at De Anza College, for a lecture on linguistic nationalism in Belgium. Jackson was the recipient of an IES Title VI grant enabling him to participate in a study tour in Brussels last summer, which offered a close-up look at institutions of the EU as well as workshops in how to better integrate the study of Europe into community college pedagogy. After offering some insight into the ways in which the study tour provided lessons for understanding the historical importance of how national governments are structured in both American as well as European contexts, Jackson introduced his lecture’s central topic of Belgian nationalism and identity. Referencing a moment in 2007 when the Belgian Prime Minister failed to sing the French version of the Belgian national anthem on cue, he suggested that such demonstrated lack of knowledge of national symbols on the part of one of the nation’s top political leaders shows how, in Belgium, there does not seem to be a unified sense of nationalism. From here, he transitioned into an overview of Belgian history. Belgium, he explained, has three official languages – Dutch, French, and German – yet is only officially bilingual in Brussels. With Wallonia housing the French-speaking population and Flanders the Dutch-speaking population, the two regions have, throughout history, made attempts to establish their own separate “national” identities (i.e. through the development of regional holidays), resulting in a fracturing of Belgian identity along linguistic lines. Jackson emphasized, however, that such linguistic disputes serve as proxies for the underlying wounds and problems of the nation’s history. Additionally, Jackson highlighted the ways in which Belgium seeks to overcome such divides, characterizing it as a nation well-versed in the art of compromise. In particular, English, with its status as the unofficial language of the EU, has begun to take precedence over French and Dutch in Brussels. Jackson also observed, though, that many natives from smaller towns in Belgium resultantly fear Brussels, for they do not want to participate in the “global English”; this, he suggested, reflects feelings of resentment and nostalgia for the pre-globalized nation, which is common to many other countries as well. Jackson ultimately expressed hope for the future of the country’s existence because of its excellent sense of humor and the lack of grounding Flemish and Wallonian senses of nationalism have outside of the linguistic realm.