BruxBlog #3: Langue Fraternelle

You want to find a currency in Brussels stronger than the Euro (even right now)?  Try language.

I came to Belgium under the impression that language wouldn’t be as big of a deal.  It might be a good place to try a few French phrases, but that all of the linguistic diversity around us wouldn’t affect our group.  I wasn’t under the impression we would be unaffected, but I was under the impression that I would hear English more often, and my French wouldn’t be as useful as it has been in this first week.

Brussels and the country of Belgium itself is a tangle of linguistic fault lines — French and Flemish, of course, but also Turkish, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, English — and the ability to cross those fault lines is a skill one can monetize.

For example, when we went to order waffles in a touristy area, one of us approached the vendor and asked “Je voudrais un gaufre au chocolat…” and the vendor immediately switched to English, “Okay, one waffle with chocolate.”

You can take this flip-flopping of languages — what the linguists call code-switching — to the bank here.  I did it as I mangled together English and French to get my mobile phone guarantee, and strung together a conversation with my French-speaking cabbie.  The locals learn to help foreigners when it’s clear they’re struggling, and in a city where so many languages are spoken, you can’t always default to English!

But the inability to code-switch can also be detrimental for Europeans.  I was talking to the teacher who’s giving our group four French lessons.  She says she teaches many people who are on government unemployment benefits because they don’t have the language skills necessary to get a job.  The same skills that can earn people a lot of money also are a major stumbling block for others who lack those skills.

No huge surprise, but in a city where the currency of language is central to how the town works — after all it is the EU capital, with all 23 official languages of its member states — it’s interesting to hear how language skills are central to the ability to be successful, even if you’re working somewhere else.

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