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Last Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Belgian town bans school French
A school in Belgium. File photo
Belgium's regions enjoy a wide degree of educational autonomy
The mayor of Merchtem in Belgium has defended a ban on speaking French in the town's schools.

Eddie de Block said the ban, introduced on Monday, would help all non-Dutch speakers integrate in the Flemish town near Brussels.

Mr de Block insisted that the new measure did not violate human rights.

Belgium has witnessed a number of language rows between the Dutch-speaking Flemish population and the French-speaking Walloons.

'No problem'

"What we want is to teach children to speak Dutch," Mr de Block told the BBC News website.

"It's not a great problem," he said, adding that only about 8% of some 1,400 pupils in the town's four schools spoke languages other than Dutch.

Defaced sign in Belgium. File photo
Street signs are sometimes defaced in the language dispute

The ban means parents and children will only be allowed to speak Dutch on the school premises.

Anyone caught speaking anything other than Dutch will be reprimanded by teachers.

Mr de Block said two experts with degrees in teaching Dutch as a foreign language had been employed to help non-Dutch speaking pupils.

However, parents will be allowed to use interpreters if they have communication problems during parents' meetings.

The mayor dismissed suggestions that the ban violated human rights, saying the schools were being funded by Flemish communities who were responsible for safeguarding the Dutch language.

However, he did not rule out that opponents could lodge an appeal with the regional authorities in the region of Flanders.

Flemish Interior Minister Marino Keulen recently overturned a ban on signs in languages other than Dutch in Merchtem's markets.

Merchtem lies about 15km (nine miles) north-west of mostly French-speaking Brussels.

An increasing number of non-Dutch speaking families have been settling in the town because of its proximity to the capital.

Belgium is a federal state consisting of three regions: Flanders in the north, where the official language is Dutch; Wallonia in the south, where French is the official language; and Brussels, where French and Dutch share official language status.

There is also a small German-speaking minority of some 70,000 in Wallonia.

The regions enjoy a wide degree of autonomy, particularly in the educational and cultural spheres.

See below for a selection of your comments:

I don't live in Brussels, but live just outside of Montreal, QC. The province of Quebec has had an officially sanctioned law which since 1976 has banned English in all of Quebec. While I am personally in favour of official bilingualism, bill 101 has had the support of all politicians across Canada. If it works here-why not in Belgium-even though it is racist and undemocratic?
Robert Postuma, Montreal-Canada

I was born and raised speaking French at home, while I received my education in Dutch. My parents believed we would have more opportunities being bilingual in Belgium. I spent seven years in a boarding school outside of Bruges and if we were caught speaking French by a teacher, punishment was often handed out. It is logical to speak Dutch in a Flemish school. Making this school policy firm, can only encourage children to learn to speak a second language better.
Bernard Derroitte, Chicago

As a Brit living in Flanders (but working in Brussels) I can agree with the stance taken. Dutch is the language of Flanders and whilst the Flemish are very welcoming and accommodating of new foreign residents, it's being a bit cheeky to ask them to teach our children in any other language than Dutch. I put my daughter in the local school when she was 2 and a half. She's now six and a fluent Dutch speaker. It's their country, it's their culture, it's we the foreigner who should adapt
Adrian, Overijse Belgium

I was born in Brussels and am French-speaking. Most times, if I need to communicate with Flemish correspondents, I use English to which they do not object as they think I'm an Expat.
Chris de Villers, Marbais, Belgium

I feel the mayor is being very narrow minded. Just visit Geneva on any day and listen to the number of languages spoken by the inhabitants - not only the official languages of Switzerland but many, many more. Language diversity is a treasure to be nourished and promoted not stifled. In Geneva my kids go to a French speaking school, but I have always spoken English to them and my wife Spanish and at 5 and 7 they are fluent in all 3 languages.
Jonathan Kilbey, Geneva, Switzerland

Brussels in the past was a city were a large majority spoke Dutch. More recently the towns and villages surrounding the capital were also Dutch speaking. Now the majority of the people in Brussels speak French and the same is happening in the surrounding (Flemish) area. It is understandable that some people take a defensive stand. However in this case this thing looks unconstitutional. Come October we will have communal elections in Belgium. The mayor might have done this to show his strength in the hope that it will bring him some extra votes.
Filip Michielsen, Antwerp, Belgium

This is a ridiculous ban. My children's mother tongue is English; they attend a French language school just outside Brussels. They speak French during all the lessons, but the thought of them being banned from speaking English or of me being banned from speaking to them in English in the school premises is foolish. My children learn Dutch in school and I assume children at the school mentioned in this article need to learn French (it's a legal requirement in Belgium). How can they carry out these lessons if they are forbidden from speaking anything other than Dutch?
John Brown, Lasne, Belgium

This ridiculous decision comes in the wake of the Flemish Premier saying in the French daily Libération that the French-speakers did not have the intellectual capacity to learn Dutch, sparking a huge row. The few Flemish-speaking inhabitants of Brussels enjoy an officially bilingual region, whereas the French-speaking inhabitants of some Flemish towns have few rights.
SG, Bruxelles, Belgium

If you want an example of weirdness, try that of Biel/Bienne in Switzerland, which is half German/half francophone. As for Switzerland in general, even though there are four official languages - German, French, Italian and Romansch - English is very widely used, to the extent that Francophone Swiss recently had to prevent Germanophones from using English in Federal legislation.
Mat, Mulhouse, France

I live in Veldegem, the Flemish part of Belgium. In my opinion, this mayor is completely right. The last few years, French speaking people have been moving into the Flemish part of Belgium, unwilling to learn or speak Dutch. They expect the Flemish to adapt themselves; for the Flemish government to provide a French education for their children.
Koen Vermeulen, Veldegem, Belgium

I lived in Brussels for over a year and whenever I attempted to speak Flemish (not Dutch), I was spoken to in English. I was even told by some friends that in some parts it is considered an insult to speak Flemish as an outsider as they assume it means you don't think their English is good enough!
Adrian Gardiner, Kettering, UK

Many Flemish schools in Brussels and Flanders receive pupils from families where parents do not speak Dutch and where, therefore, no Dutch is spoken at home. These kids arrive with a linguistic handicap that risks jeopardizing their whole school and professional career. In order to make sure the integration of non-Flemish pupils is assured, the measure is surely defendable.
Geert Roosens, Wezembeek-Oppem, Vlaams-Brabant, Belgium

In Luxembourg we have such a diverse ex-pat and immigrant community that it is normal to hear and speak French, German, Italian, Portuguese, English and of course Luxembourgish, the national language. French and German co-exist with Luxembourgish as official languages, as Flemish, French and German do in Belgium. It seems to me highly excessive to prohibit children speaking any other language but Flemish outside of classroom time. I don't believe the French-speaking schools in Belgium would impose similar restrictions on Flemish kids who go to school there. Mr de Block doesn't seem to acknowledge the multi-lingual nature of his country. Perhaps he should move over the border to Holland.
Glenn, Luxembourg

Country profile: Belgium
30 Jul 06 |  Country profiles

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