French, Dutch, or English? What Language is Spoken in Belgium? This guide will teach you the do’s and don’ts so you won’t get caught out.
Belgium has three official languages. Dutch is spoken by 59% of the population, French 40%, and German 1%. Even though English isn’t an official language of Belgium, it is still spoken by 55% of its people.
When visiting Brussels, you can see by their bilingual street signs that both Dutch and French are widely used, therefore there is no risk offending someone when opening a conversation in either language. In Bruges, however this is not the case. While researching for my trip to Bruges, I frequently read that it is more polite to address someone in English than French; obviously that’s if you can’t speak Dutch! However, my ears were still abuzz with French spoken by shop assistants, helmsmen on the canal tours, and even by the guides in the museums. While I can speak French, I didn’t dare test out this theory.
Flemish or Dutch?
A common misconception is that Flemish is a language. The term does not refer to a language nor a dialect but to the region, culture and people of (West) Belgium or Flanders. Flemish people speak Belgian Dutch in Flanders, which is the Flemish part of Belgium.
Just as the English language spoken in Australia, Canada, UK, USA, South-Africa; and French spoken in Belgium, Canada, France, and Switzerland, Belgian differ, so to does Dutch spoken in The Netherlands differ from that in Belgium. These differences are not significant enough to constitute an individual language, they are simply variations of pronunciation, lexicon, and expressions.
Just to make things more confusing, the locals often colloquially refer to their language as Flemish. But just remember that the official language in Flanders is standard Dutch.
Now, let’s have a look at some choice words and phrases that will make the locals smile or better yet have them mistake you for one of their own as I was. My pronunciation of “Dank U, tot ziens” (Thank you. Goodbye) must have been so good that from what I could tell, the shop assistant started to apologise to me in Dutch for serving me in English and not Dutch.
a like ‘a’ in “calm”, (but shorter)
e like ‘e’ in “pen” or ‘e’ in “the” (at word endings)
i like ‘i’ in “pin”
o like ‘o’ in “fork”
oe like ‘oo’ in “too” (but shorter)
u like ‘u’ in “upset”
y like ‘i’ in “pin” or ‘ee’ in “deep”
a, aa like ‘aa’ in “Afrikaans”
e, ee like ‘a’ in “day”
eu similar to ‘e’ in “mercy”
ie like ‘ea’ in “sea”
o, oo like ‘o’ in “ago”
oe like ‘oo’ in “too”
u, uu like ‘ü’ in German “München”
A diphthong is also known as a gliding vowel. It refers to two adjacent vowel sounds occurring within the same syllable.
au, ou like ‘ow’ in “how”
eeuw like ‘a’ in “day” and substituting the ‘y’-sound at the end with a ‘w’-sound
ei, ij like ‘ay’ in “say”
ieuw like ‘ea’ in “sea” followed by a ‘w’-sound
ui like ‘i’ in “sir” followed by a ‘w’-sound.
Most consonants in Dutch sound the same in English, but the following letters may trip you up.
c like ‘c’ in “can” (k) or the ‘c’ in “certain” (s)
ch like ‘ch’ in Scottish “loch”
g voiced ‘ch’-sound
j like ‘y’ in “you”
n like ‘n’ in “no”; often dropped at the end of words
r either like the Scottish ‘r’/ Spanish ‘rr’ or like the French ‘r’ but from the back of the throat
sj like ‘sh’ in “she”
x like ‘x’ in “axe”
y like ‘y’ in “yes”
Yes/ No Ja / nee
Good morning! Goeiemorgen
Good evening! Goeie avond
Welcome! (greeting someone) Welgekomen
How are you? Hoe gaat het met jou?
I’m fine, thanks! Met mij is alles goed.Dank u.
And you? En jij?
Good / Bad / So-So. Goed / slecht / zo en zo
Thank you (very much)! Dank uwel!
You’re welcome! (after “thank you”) Het is niks, graag gedaan
Good night! Goeie nacht!
See you later! Ik zie je later!
Good bye! Vaarwel! / Tot ziens
Here you go! (when giving something) Alsjeblieft
How much is this? Hoeveel kost dit?
Excuse me …! (to ask for something) Excuseer mij…!
Excuse me! ( to pass by) Excuseer mij!
What’s your name? Wat is je naam?
My name is … Mijn naam is …
Nice to meet you! Blij je te ontmoeten
I Don’t Understand! Ik versta het niet
Do you speak (English/ Flemish)? Spreek jij engels / nederlands?
Just a little. Een beetje.
Happy new year! Gelukkig nieuwjaar
Merry Christmas! Zalig kerstmis
Bless you (when sneezing) Gezondheid
Want to learn Flemish or Dutch? Visit my handy language resource guide.
Plus, if you want to know how the experts learn languages, I asked 11 top polyglots to share their language learning secrets. Find out how they start learning a new language, overcome plateaus, and maintain multiple languages.
Over to you!
Have you been to Belgium? Which language did you converse in?
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Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.
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