[lg policy] Language laws: necessary or ridiculous?
hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 20 15:19:24 UTC 2010
Language laws: necessary or ridiculous?
Belgium is without a government -- again. Not that the international
community is bound to notice as Belgium plays a modest role in
international affairs, beyond being the seat of European government.
But still. And what brought down the last government is -- among other
things -- issues in language policy. Belgium is a federation made up
of three parts: Flanders in the north (where Flemish, a variety of
Dutch, is spoken), Wallonia in the south (where Walloon, a variety of
French, is spoken) and Brussels, officially bilingual. The Walloon and
the Flemish have their own political parties, their own newspapers and
their own television channels, which many experts blame for the
current state of affairs.
But the actual linguistic situation on the ground is much more complex
than a simple line on the map would indicate. And language laws do not
always match this de facto situation. In a recent New York Times
article Suzanne Daley describes the plight of a small Belgian town
Wemmel, a town that is technically on the Flemish-speaking side of
Belgium, but that has become home to many Walloon speakers looking for
trees and backyards not far from Brussels.
Although most of its residents are Walloon speakers, language laws of
this region prescribe that "all official town business must be
conducted in Flemish". That means that voting materials must be issued
in Flemish. Police reports must be written in Flemish. There are even
restrictions on how many books and DVDs for the local library must be
purchased in what language: 75% of the library's new acquisitions must
be in Flemish. According to Suzanne Daley,
"When the mayor of Wemmel, Christian Andries, presides over a town
council meeting he is not allowed to utter a single French word, even
to translate, or the business at hand may be annulled." And when Mr.
Andries wanted to write letters in French to French theaters inquiring
about materials that might be available for the town library, it
wasn't allowed either. A nuisance? Maybe even worse. Since Walloon has
a fairly strong status elsewhere in Belgium, there is no expectation
that Walloon speakers would switch to Flemish any time soon. So in
effect, language laws such as those governing the language use in
Wemmel do nothing but stifle the official business in the town.
I've encountered similar language laws -- and similar ways in which
they backfire -- during the time I spent in Montreal. Language laws
there regulate the use of (Quebecois) French vis-a-vis English.
Businesses must advertise in French (in addition to whatever other
languages they might want to advertise in) -- regardless of whether
their business is geared towards French-speaking clientele or not.
Jewish funeral businesses must advertise their services in French,
even though most of Montreal's Jewish community are traditionally
English-speaking (any many moved to Toronto and elsewhere because of
Quebec's language policies). A Chinese hospital, catering for one of
the largest Chinese communities in North America, was prevented from
posting a classified advert for a Chinese-speaking nurse because the
advert did not indicate that the candidates should also speak French.
A pediatric specialist was fired from his hospital job for failing a
French language test. His speciality? Anesthesiology. Would it really
matter if he spoke broken French or even English to his unconscious
patients? Did the hospital really need to lose a world-class
specialist over this?
As is the case the world over, language in Quebec and in Belgium
constitutes an important part of people's ethnic identity. But other
factors play a role as well, so that language policy and language
issues are often just a smoke-screen for bigger issues. In Belgium,
for example, language troubles of Wemmel are masking larger economic
tensions and long-term grudges between the Flemish and the French. In
its early history, Belgium -- which became independent only recently,
in 1830 -- was oriented towards the French. Belgian aristocracy spoke
French (former Belgian colonies in Africa still use French as their
official language). The French-speaking regions of Belgium -— rich
from iron and coal manufacturing -— were often contemptuous of the
largely agricultural north. But later the situation has changed.
Today, the Walloon-speaking part of Belgium (with population of about
4 million) is poorer, while Flanders (with population of about 6
million) has grown wealthy with a diverse economy. So now Flemish
speakers resent their taxes flowing south, especially because they go
to Walloon speakers who used to snub their noses at them.
And in the meantime, it remains to be seen whether Belgium manages to
resolve some of its internal issues and form a government faster than
it took after the 2007 election -- 9 months. Long enough to have a
baby, but is it long enough to settle the langauge issues that have
been simmering for nearly two centuries?
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