German in Belgium
Research Centre of Multilingualism
Version française
German in Belgium
  1. Introduction
  2. The language in the country
    1. General information on the language community
    2. Geographical and language background
    3. General history and history of the language
    4. Legal status and official policies
  3. The use of the language in various fields
    1. Education
    2. Judicial Authorities
    3. Public Authorities and services
    4. Mass media and Information technology
    5. The Arts
    6. The business world
    7. Family and social use of the language
    8. Transnational exchanges
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

There is no dat for this topic.

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2. The language in the country

2.1. General information on the language community

There is no dat for this topic.

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2.2. Geographical and language background

The German-speaking area of Belgium covers New Belgium (NB) and Old Belgium (OB). The German-speaking community in NB covers an area of 854 km2 of Belgian national territory comprising the two districts of Eupen (the municipalities of Kelmis, Lontzen, Raeren and Eupen - New Belgium North) and the more southerly St Vith (the municipalities of Bütgenbach, Bullingen, Amel, St Vith and Burg Reuland - New Belgium South). There are three districts in OB: the area around Montzen, also known as the Welkenraedt Region (Old Belgium North), Bocholz with the villages of Deifeld, Urt and Watermal (Old Belgium Central) and the Arelerland on the Luxembourg border (Old Belgium South). In purely quantitative terms, therefore, German is spoken in nine out of Belgium's 589 municipalities. These nine municipalities are part of the Walloon Region, which means that the German-speaking community has no autonomy in regional matters.

Belgium is basically divided into language areas, communities and regions, although these divisions are not identical, as the following summary shows:

Language areas:


The communities all have more or less the same powers in terms of cultural matters, education and national and international cooperation.


The powers of the regions cover town and country planning, environment policy, housing, employment policy, subordinate authorities and some areas of economic and energy policy. Following the federalisation of Belgium in the 1970s, many major central government powers have been transferred to the communities and regions.

The German spoken in the German-speaking area, which is part of the Germanic subgroup within the Indo-European family of languages, has two main dialects. Lower-Frankish Limbourgian is spoken in Northern Belgium and Moselle Frankish in Southern Belgium.

The total German-speaking community in Belgium numbers some 100 000, i.e. some 1% of the Belgian population. If we look at the two districts separately, the following picture emerges:


Reliable migration figures are available only for the Old Belgium area: 1830 - some 250,000 people, 1838 - some 50,000, 1846 - 34,060, 1906 - 36,344, 1910 - 77,394, 1920 - 42,060 and 1979 - 42,000. The considerable differences between 1830 and 1839 are due to the 1839 boundary changes when a large proportion of the territory was separated from the Kingdom of Belgium.

In NB, 63,678 of the 68,471 inhabitants learnt German as their first language (some 93%), while 65,732 can speak German (some 96%). In the canton of Malmedy, 3 294 of the 16,470 inhabitants speak German as their first language (some 20%), while 8,235 can speak German (some 50%). The extent to which German is actually used can be summarised as follows:

Location Official Language Use of Language in Practice
Old Belgium North French French and Lower Frankish/Limbourgian dialects
Old Belgium Central French French and Moselle Frankish dialects
Old Belgium South French French and Moselle Frankish dialects
New Belgium North High German Lower Frankish/Limbourgian/ Ripuarian dialects, French and German
New Belgium South High German Moselle Frankish dialects, French and German

This breakdown of the actual use of languages indicates that, while officially there is only one language, in practice two or three are used.

The German-speaking area is generally less industrialised than the rest of Belgium and therefore has more of a semi-urban structure. In NB, the area around Eupen in the north is still more heavily industrialised than the area around St Vith in the south, which is more agricultural. While the textile industry and limestone production used to be the main sources of income in the north, nowadays it is metalworking and there is one cable factory. Agriculture has declined by 30% over the past eight years, while the restaurant trade and tourism have become major factors in the economy. The unemployment rate is well below that for Belgium as a whole (1990: 7.5%). Agriculture has declined considerably in OB as well.

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2.3. General history and history of the language

Old Belgium

Immediately following Belgium's independence in 1830, freedom of language was announced, assuring nationals that they were free to use Dutch, French or German in dealings with the authorities (Article 5 of the Decree of 16 November 1830).

This Law ceased to apply after 1839, however; the language of administration and the courts was almost exclusively French. In 1842 it was stipulated that primary education had to cover the basics in all three languages as the need arose. In 1914, it was stipulated that teaching at all levels had to be given in the child's mother tongue, although the reality often differed from the legal position. Secondary teaching continued to be in French.

Improvements in the status of German came about as a result of the positive language policy of the German occupying forces in the First World War but disappeared again immediately after the end of the War. In May 1940, Eupen-Malmedy, the nine Old Belgium municipalities and Bocholz (Old Belgium Central) were annexed to Germany following Hitler's invasion. This resulted in the sole use of German in education, administration and the law until 1945. Following the restoration of the territories, not only was this action reversed but people often also refrained from speaking German for personal reasons. German disappeared from administration, education, the law and the church and has not existed as a language of the arts or as a written language since that time. Nowadays, it is merely spoken in the homes and villages of OB.

The current situation regarding the activities of organisations devoted to the preservation of German can be summarised as follows. The behaviour of political representatives does not suggest a desire to defend the language. Only in the Arelerland is ALAS (Arelerland a Sprooch) actively involved in preserving the language, while there are no organisations of this kind around Montzen. The language is not very "successful" in society, although successes can be recorded in isolated instances in the South, for instance bilingual placename signs and the opening of a bilingual nursery school in Metzig (pilot project). Counter-currents indicate a general dislike of speaking in dialect, and there are attempts to replace German with English in the multilingual education of the Arelerland. Attempts are occasionally made to make the popular dialects independent and separate them from the context of standard German.

New Belgium

In 1920, the Treaty of Versailles gave the territories of Eupen-Malmedy and Neutral-Moresnet to Belgium. As in a few smaller territories which were added later, French and German were introduced as official languages with equal status. Primary education was mainly in the mother tongue, and French was taught from the first year, as in Old Belgium. At secondary level, only French was taught. After the Second World War, the Minister for Internal Affairs ordered a "reassimilation in the shortest possible time" in the regained territories, as a result of which teaching in the secondary modern and grammar schools was exclusively in French.

It was not until the 1960s that there was a major change of policy when the Flemings in particular attacked the French-dominated central government. The newly created cultural federalisation also benefitted the German-speaking community, since it was given a specific geographical "German- speaking area" in which German was used as the official language. Government reorganisation meant that central government power was replaced by federal structures, and since 1980 the Council of the German-speaking Community has had legislative powers over all language, cultural and educational matters. Today New Belgium is therefore one of the three Belgian communities making up the Federal State of Belgium.

The main event in the promotion of the language over the past few years has undoubtedly been the transfer of education into the hands of the "German-speaking Community" under the government reform which temporarily came to an end in 1993. In March 1987, a European symposium on the subject of German as an informal language and mother tongue in the EC was also held in Eupen in NB.

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2.4. Legal status and official policies

In NB, German is the official language and language of the territory whereas, in OB, the only official language of the territory is French. One exception in OB is the area around Montzen where there is some "relief" for German speakers. Each individual municipality may apply for this "relief", but so far not a single one has done so.

In the first major government reform between 1968 and 1971, Belgium was divided into four language areas and three cultural communities (Article 3 bis of the Constitution). In the second major government reform between 1980 and 1983, Article 3 was amended and the cultural communities were replaced by the language communities. Since that time, the German-speaking Community has had direct powers over cultural matters and matters relating to individuals, as well as executive powers. In 1991, the text of the Constitution in German acquired the same official status as the French and Dutch texts.

As far as Belgium's official language policy goes, our sources gave us the following information. In the official German-speaking area (NB), the population considers that it receives a good deal of government support and recognition as a language community. Funds for teaching in the language are appropriate and adequate, but interest in linguistic research and exchange programmes is felt to be virtually non-existent (as confirmation of the positive language policy, one of our sources attached an 11-page annex on the subject of German culture and policy). The government's failure to encourage mutual understanding between the language groups is the subject of complaints, but this is a pan-Belgian problem involving all three national languages.

The official policy of the regional governments takes the form of an occasional mention of Moselle Frankish in the Arelerland, Letzeburgesh having been the national language of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg since 1984. The only official action taken locally is to install a few bilingual road signs. In NB, local government is trying to establish bilingualism in German and French. According to our sources, problems arise when dealing with the local authorities because the regional authorities are agencies of both the German community and the Walloon government. The ministries of the Walloon Region take little account of the need to prepare applications and forms in German for the German municipalities. Despite major shortcomings in this respect it appears, however, that the policy of the Walloon government has clearly altered in favour of the recognition of German in its Region over the past few years.

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3. The use of the language in various fields

3.1. Education

The legal basis for the present education system was created by the 1963 language laws mentioned above. They stipulate the language to be taught in a particular part of the country, including the conditions, the year, the number of hours a week and the number of school years. Education in Belgium is financed by the State either directly or in the form of subsidies that do not depend on the number of pupils.

In OB and the Malmedy areas, French is the medium of instruction. Under certain circumstances, the child's mother tongue or language of habitual use may also be the medium of instruction in nursery or primary schools in the Montzen municipality (Articles 3 and 4 of the Education Act of 30 July 1963). In the Arelerland, German may be the second language in primary education (Article 10 of the Education Act of 30 July 1963).

In NB, German is the (compulsory) official medium of instruction on the basis of the 1963 language laws. The five French-speaking schools or departments in this area are exceptions to this. Teaching in the first foreign language is also in French. High German is preferably used in class, despite the various dialects. The 1963 language laws also contain very precise exemption clauses permitting derogations from the principle of strict territoriality. As a result, in certain municipalities teaching is permitted in one of the other national languages at the request of 16 parents (8 sets of parents).

In 1987, 4,077 of the total of 4,629 pupils received their primary school education in German. 552 German-speaking pupils, i.e. 11.92%, attended French schools.

The following table gives an overview of how German was taught in primary schools in German- speaking Belgium in the 1986/87 academic year:

Area Number of Schools Number of pupils (approx) German as optional/ compulsory subject German as mother tongue or foreign language Year commenced
Eupen/St Vith 75 (officially German- speaking) - 5,000 Compulsory Mother tongue Pre-school
Malmedy (officially French-speaking) - - Compulsory Foreign language 2nd year
OB South (officially French-speaking) 44 1,180 Optional Foreign language 5th year
OB North (officially French-speaking) 12 500 Compulsory or optional Foreign language 1st, 3rd or 4th year

The majority of teaching materials come from the Federal Republic of Germany, with the exception of materials for foreign-language teaching and for topics specifically relating to Belgium.

In OB, German is a foreign language alongside other languages but is not the medium of instruction in any institution. In NB, on the other hand, German is the main language of instruction in most secondary schools. In 1987, 3,864 out of 4,402 pupils in 14 secondary schools were taught in German. 538 pupils, equivalent to 12.2% of the total school population, were in French-speaking departments.

In OB, German and Letzeburgesh can be learnt alongside other foreign languages at a private institute called Pro Linguis; this has been increasingly popular in recent times owing to the increasing number of job opportunities in Luxembourg. In NB, various organisations for adult and further education offer courses held in German.

Chapter IV, Articles 13-16, of the Act of 30 July 1963 sets out statutory provisions for the language qualifications of teaching staff. Teachers in Belgium basically have to demonstrate that they have a command of the language of instruction of the school in which they teach or of the language of the department in which they are working. In practice this means that teachers generally prefer to teach in their home region. In the past, this posed problems since there were no teacher training institutions in either OB or NB. Since 1987 there have been two training colleges in NB, with 63 students registered for training as primary or nursery school teachers in 1987. Secondary school teachers are mainly trained outside the area in Liège, Louvain-la-Neuve or Aachen.

Outside organisations basically have little influence on German teaching. They seem to be more concerned with support for the language community as a whole rather than wishing to concentrate on education. In OB, the Areler Land a Sprooch movement is endeavouring to establish trilingualism in German, French and Letzeburgesh, lending more support to Letzeburgesh than to standard German. The political Fondation J.B. Nothomb used to pursue similar objectives but now supports the use of English rather than German in class. Since 1990, the Conseil des langues régionales has existed as a consultative body of the French Community, and the languages of the area are also represented there as varieties of dialect. In NB, there is support for the movement to support French as a second language. The magazine Der Wegweiser in Eupen supported the interests of German culture in Belgium but did not concern itself with problems of mother-tongue tuition in the 1980s.

The low level of support for German by parents is due to the inadequate use of the special rule for parents mentioned above; in turn, this is closely connected with the relatively large number of West German nationals living in this area who prefer to send their children to French-speaking schools.

An educational working party for teaching in schools was set up in 1976 to promote learning. This working party is divided into primary and secondary education. In primary education, the group is responsible for State, provincial and private schools. The working party also generally supports German as a foreign language, working closely with the Goethe Institute.

The language of administration in State and independent schools is German and French, while only German is used in local schools. The language of communication chosen by teachers (German or French) varies according to the context.

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3.2. Judicial authorities

Since German is not an official language in OB, it is hardly ever used before the judicial authorities. In Malmedy, the use of German may be requested, whereupon an interpreter is made available. In NB, German is spoken in the courts. If individuals living outside the German- speaking area request proceedings in German, they are also referred to the Eupen circuit. German/French interpreters are not usually required there, even if available, since the hearing takes place in the language of choice of the parties concerned. In September 1988, a law also came into effect creating a separate Eupen circuit for the German-speaking territory, which is tantamount to giving German the same practical status as French and Dutch in that area. Only in the Court of Appeal is German prohibited as the language of proceedings. Appeals to the Court of Cassation may, however, be drafted in all three languages.

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3.3. Public authorities and services

In OB, French is used at all levels of administration as a result of the legislation mentioned above.

In NB, French is generally used in central government, and German is hardly ever used. The same applies to regional government, which is subject to the Walloon authorities. This is the case even though all inhabitants have the legal right to use their language in dealings with the authorities.

In local government, however, German is the normal language of communication, although the authorities also try to provide information in French. Local agencies covering only one municipality therefore use only German in their internal services, in dealings with higher authorities and in dealings with other agencies in the same language area and with Brussels but, if necessary, may attach a translation. Public announcements, communications and forms issued by these authorities are written in German and French in NB. Only German may be used in correspondence with individuals. The same applies to documents relating to individuals. Certificates, declarations and licences issued to individuals are drafted in German or French, according to the wishes of the party concerned.

For individual services such as telephone and electricity bills, German and French are used according to choice. In NB, German generally predominates in all service centres, while it is spoken only occasionally in service centres in OB.

Road signs in NB are bilingual in the north of the area, French being used voluntarily as the second language. Official signs are only in French, while road signs in the area around Eupen are bilingual. In OB, official signs are only in French.

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3.4. Mass media and information technology

In NB, German is allowed by law in the mass media. It is officially supported by financial aid.

Daily newspapers
In NB, the newspaper Grenzecho (GE) is published entirely in German and has a circulation of 13 500. Until a few years ago, the Aachener Volkszeitung had a special page entitled Eastern Belgium.

In OB, there are a few subscribers to the Grenzecho, but there have not been any local German papers since 1953.

German periodicals from Germany are available everywhere.

In NB, there are the following local German papers:

In OB, the BRF (Belgisches Runkfunk- und Fernsehzentrum) can be received, and West German stations can be received in the area around Montzen. Programmes in dialects are broadcast by the independent stations Radio Beho and Radio Arlon.

NB has its own BRF radio station with a range as far as the German Rhineland. The radio station is entirely German-speaking and has around half a million listeners.

There are also a few private radio stations with a range of between 10 and 15 kilometres: Radio Herrmann, Radio Aktivität, Radio Rewi, Radio International, Radio Metropole, Studio Kelmis, Radio Fantasy. The majority of the private stations have sprung up in the last few years. Transmission capacity is still very limited, and listener numbers are on the low side in the agricultural areas. There have been commercials in German on the public broadcasting station BRF for a year now.

In NB the BRF, in cooperation with the Media Centre of the German-speaking Community, has had a German channel at the testing stage for a few months. The programme broadcast is called Maskerade. German stations can mostly be received in the area. The German-speaking population therefore follows the public broadcasting corporation stations usually watched in Germany, for instance ARD, ZDF, SWF and WDR, and private channels such as RTL Plus, SAT 1 and PRO7.

The German-speaking community has access to the German computer market close to the border.

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3.5. The Arts

Some two to three new books are published in German in German-speaking Belgium each year. Publications to date are as follows:

Type / Print run:

There is a good deal of traditional folk and choral music but less pop and rock.

Theatre groups performing in German are mostly semi-professional. AGORA, the theatre of the Belgian German-speaking Community, stages one to two productions a year in German and organises a biennial international drama festival with the aid of the St Vith adult education institute. There are also some ten village drama groups. The first Eastern Belgium arts festival was organised in 1993.

As far as official policy is concerned, in OB local government does not promote the arts in German. In NB, on the other hand, local government provides considerable assistance for the arts in German (for instance a media centre and the creation of a branch of the government archives in Eupen with a German-speaking Director). In Malmedy, there is an official central translation office for decrees by the Council of the German-speaking Community.

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3.6. The business world

In NB, knowledge of the German language is an implicit requirement when applying for most jobs. In local offices in the German-speaking community, no one can be appointed or promoted to an office or post without a knowledge of German. The entrance and promotion tests are held in German.

In NB, there is little visual advertising. Radio commercials are always in German. Local companies advertise in German, while major international firms such as Marlboro and Coca Cola often advertise only in French. In OB there is no advertising in German.

In NB, consumer information is almost always in German, while in OB consumer information in German is the exception rather than the rule

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3.7. Family and social use of the language

Most parents speak German to their children, although a few also use French. Since 1945 the percentage of bilinguals has increased considerably.

Around 1950, the trend towards French was even greater, with the result that many parents considered that speaking French to their children was a better preparation for later life. In the 1970s, there was a "healthier bilingualism" more often than there is now, since German is largely predodinant nowadays. Many parents regret the resulting decline in French.

The German-speaking community tends to enter endogamous marriages. Marriage to a French speaker usually means that the common language of the family becomes French. There are no fundamental gender-based differences in the use of the language.

In NB, all the church ministers speak German, and almost all services are held in German. In OB there are few services in German but they are held on a regular basis.

According to our information, the language of those beginning a study of German language and literature often contains flaws of which they themselves are unaware. As the use of German has been taken for granted since the 1970s there are, however, also many young people with a better command of the language than their parents (although this is disputed by educated parents).

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3.8. Transnational exchanges

There are a large number of both official and unofficial transnational exchanges between the German-speaking area of Belgium and areas of Germany nearby, if only as a result of the absence of formalities at borders between countries of the European Union. It would be impossible to list all these contacts here. It should merely be noted at this point that these exchanges involve all the areas discussed above.

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4. Conclusion

As a result of the official status of German in NB and the fact that it is widely spoken, the existence of German in this area is not endangered.

The position of German in OB is much more serious. The following obstacles to the preservation of German should be noted:

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