Brussels language pâté
I have just returned from Brussels, where I have not been since I visited my uncle there as a teenager. I knew Belgium was a bi-lingual country of course, but I have just witnessed the real impact of this on the professionals who work there.
I was delivering a series of short workshops on professional writing at the Brussels office of a UK law firm. As soon as the delegates started arriving, I heard three languages effortlessly mingled. Everyone seemed to me to be able to speak perfect French and Flemish and used them alternately depending on who they were talking to. When they addressed me they slipped into English which was in most cases almost as perfect.
Now think about their working lives. Lawyers here in the UK have a lot to deal with – but they only have to do it in one language! A first language Flemish lawyer in Brussels has to talk and write about legal issues in both French and English. They have to remember which is which of the ‘false friends’ such as eventual and eventuel; actuel and actual; and sensible and sensitive. That’s hard enough when you are just dealing with your first and second language let alone your second and third. Oh and by the way I discovered a new ‘false friend’. The word ‘acteur’ is used in business French to mean ‘representative’ or ‘stakeholder’. I guess we would sometimes use ‘player’ which would be a close equivalent but the direct translation to ‘actor’ simply does not work.
In the Brussels law firm, multiple languages are not worthy of comment, they are just part of life. Before you can start work, you have to speak three languages more fluently than most first language English people can speak two. And just think for a moment about the problems of having to translate practically every document before it can become legally binding.
I was lost in admiration. But as a linguist, I was also envious. In my daily life, I almost never have the opportunity to read or hear French or Spanish. Television here is all English, in Brussels there are French, Flemish and English channels at the touch of a remote button. I happily watched a stupid game show just to listen to the fast colloquial French. Where in England can I do that?
This is not an entirely rhetorical question. Do you happen to know of an internet radio station that you would recommend for learning South American Spanish? If so, please let me know.
PS As you see in the picture praline makers, like grocers, get confused by apostrophes. What language is this sign in as a matter of interest?