Multilingual countries

Posted by Christopher Wink on Nov 18, 2008 in Education |

I was very caught up in the idea of a single language for a single nation, at least in the developed world.

English. Spanish. German. French. Japanese. Chinese.

A monolithic people speaking a single language in a single place. Of course it gets more complicated, but I didn’t think I would come across those complexities in Western Europe - the mother of much of mainstream American culture.

These damn multilanguage countries confused me.

I thought I would only get a passing reintroduction into my high school French in Brussels, being the capital of Belgium - which has three national languages - and home to much of the European Union governmental infrastructure.

But I was surprised to find very nearly the entire city running on French. This turned out great for me, with my little French language ability, but it was also my first real lesson in language politics and how inaccurately one city can portray an entire country.

Almost two-thirds of Belgian people speak Dutch - many of them clustered in the Flemish-dominated northern half of the Maryland-sized country.

Brussels is a major northern-half exception, so if you didn’t know better I doubt you could believe that the 40 percent of the country’s population who speak French (largely in the southern half of the nation) are in the minority.

In the country’s southwest region there is a German-speaking population, but that makes up just one percent of Belgian people, so legally, the country uses Dutch and French, according to the CIA World Fact book. I am stunned how different that is than my experience in French-heavy Brussels.

Very nearly the opposite happened to me in Zurich, Switzerland.

I thought I could coast on my French in Zurich, but I didn’t find a lick of it.

Switzerland has four official languages - German, French, Italian, and Romansch - but Zurich is German through and through, though one in five Swiss folks speak French. Just six and a half percent of Swiss people speak Italian now, and Romansh-speakers represent just half a percent of the Swiss population, but they got official status, too.

Never would thought it from the brief stays in those country’s largest cities. Remember, remember, remember that if you’re taking short stays - which is fine - you will not have real cultural or national understanding. You just saw some stuff. …Freakin’ tourist.

Image from Mulvio.

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