When English Rules | Flashback

By - August 4, 2010 (Updated: December 1, 2014)

Confused about language?

Confused about language?

This second post in my Flashback series looks at the pitfalls of being an English speaker in Belgium. When I first wrote it, we were living in Flanders and struggling to learn Flemish. Five years later, I still don’t speak Flemish. In fact, since we moved to Brussels, the little bit of Dutch I had picked up has totally lapsed.

It is very easy to be lazy about language in Brussels, as so many people speak English these days; And it’s not just because of all of the expats in the city. Often, the common language among French and Flemish Belgians in English. There is more and more English popping up on signs and used in slogans. More websites are defaulting to English and English menus are more commonly available. Despite this, I still think it’s important to try and speak the local language. My French, although far from perfect is much better now that I use it frequently in Brussels. There’s still part of me that feels I should learn Dutch, even though I don’t have occasion to use it.

As I suggested when I wrote this post, I still can’t imagine how much more difficult it is to travel as a non-English speaker.

I just got back from a photography exhibit where one of the images was titled Language is a Foreign Country. It was the title, rather than the image however that struck a chord with me and filled me with questions.

Language has been on my mind quite a bit lately: my struggle with learning Dutch is ongoing; my lapsed French is improving while spending time in Brussels; and I have been traveling a fair bit recently. All of this has caused me to think about the implications of being a native English speaker. I can’t help wondering what it would be like to be an expat who doesn’t speak English.

The first time I visited Europe, I was almost paralyzed with the fear that I would not be able to communicate effectively.  During my first trip to the Netherlands, I quickly learned that just about everyone I came in contact with could speak English. I found it easy to order food, use the public transportation and shop. All but the smallest of museums had descriptions in English and I could even buy books and newspapers in my native tongue.

When Andrew and I first arrived in Europe as expats, we were living temporarily in Amsterdam. By that time, we had made several trips to Europe and picked up a few Dutch words and phrases. Even when I used these phrases, I would be responded to in English.

Speak English?

Speak English?

Recently I have made trips to France and Finland where, in both cases, I was greeted warmly and enthusiastically in English. But I ask myself how I would cope if my native language was something more obscure.

When we made our permanent move to Everberg, it was the first time that I really started to notice a language barrier. People were still communicating with us in English, usually even when we were speaking French. (I hope this isn’t an indication of how bad my French has become). However, all of our correspondence: bills, rental contracts, and insurance papers were in Dutch. Looking at the unfamiliar combinations of vowels and consonants made my head spin. Suddenly it really began to sink in that we were in a foreign country.

It is easy enough for us to find a co-worker or neighbour to help us translate things into English. But what if we were Russian or Malaysian?

Whether it’s because it is the language of business and technology or, as some say, because it is the international language of air travel, English is the most common second language. Chances are, if you are visiting a place that relies in any way on tourism, English will be spoken.

As an English speaker this can be a blessing and a curse. While I am much less afraid now that I won’t be able to communicate when I travel, I have to wonder how authentic my travel experience is. If language really is a ‘foreign country’, am I missing some crucial aspect of the culture if I don’t have to try to communicate in the native language?

While it seems essential to the success of tourism for there to be a universally recognized language, is English changing the native culture of those who learn it?

Whatever the case, I have suddenly gained a great deal of respect and appreciation for the courage it must take for a non-English speaker to be in my shoes and I will attempt to pick up at least a little bit of the languages of the foreign countries to which I travel.

What are your thoughts on the English language? Should it be universal or should we make an effort to learn the languages of the places we visit?

Looking for more resources for living in Belgium? Check out our Expat Resources page.

If you like this, you might like:

Alison Cornford-Matheson
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison Cornford-Matheson
- 9 hours ago


  1. Comment by Lilacspecs

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Lilacspecs August 4, 2010 at 13:26

    This is a tough one. Do I think a universal language would be useful? Yes, definitely. Do I think English should be the universal language? Nope. Not at all. Who’s to say in 150 years the default “power” language won’t be something else? After all, before English was considered the universal language, it was French. I don’t feel any one language group should have the luxury of being the universal language. Ideally I think there should be a created universal language (yes I know esperanto bombed, but still) that everyone speaks alongside their native tongue. Or, if you want a pre-existing language to become universal, so be it, but the people who speak the standard language should also learn a language from a neighboring country.

    Also, and this is totally not meant to be offensive but I guess it may come off that way, but it surprises me you lived in Flanders for 5 years and didn’t learn Dutch. I mean, I guess if you have a job that you can speak english in you may not necessarily need to learn it, but like you said, there are all those written communications in Dutch. Likewise, now that you live in Brussels, is there a reason you were able to learn French when you couldn’t learn Dutch? Is one more difficult than the other in your opinion?

    I only ask because I’ve been in Flanders less than 3 years and I’m close to fluent in Dutch. I’m considering starting some basic French courses in the fall, but for me learning Dutch was essential. It was difficult, but I felt it was important, especially to find work here.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison August 4, 2010 at 14:12

      I completely agree there’s no reason why English should be universal. Many people argue Mandarin will over-shadow English in the coming years, if it hasn’t already. However I don’t think it’s something we have a choice about. You can see the desire to learn English as a second (third, forth) language around the world. Ideally, I’d love to see a new language like Esperanto take off, but do I think it will happen? No.

      As for my lack of Dutch, no offense taken and it’s a valid question. I only lived in Flanders for 3 years (not that that should matter) and in all honesty I didn’t use it. Because I work for myself and for international agencies, my work is done in English. Aside from buying groceries, visiting the commune and ordering food, I never used Dutch. I did try to do lessons but my lack of transportation and unpredictable schedule made it difficult. At the end of the day though, as I said in the post, I was lazy. Also, because both of us are English speakers, there wasn’t a relationship incentive to learn either. It wasn’t like I wanted to speak my husband’s language or vice versa, as is the case for many expats here.

      As for French, I learned it in Canada. When I was in school, I did French immersion so all of my classes for 3 years and then half for another 3 were in French. If I didn’t have French from before, I probably would have the same issue with it that I did with Dutch. Although I could use some refresher classes, I haven’t taken any since I moved here.

      I don’t think either language is harder to learn than the other, in theory. They do say you have a better capacity to learn language in general when you are younger and I agree. I think now, because I have already learned French, it would be easier for me to learn a language with similar roots like Spanish or Italian than Dutch, but I don’t know that for sure. I do think immersing yourself in a language is the easiest way to learn and honestly I’m just not immersed in anything but English here.

  2. Comment by Clive

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Clive August 7, 2010 at 23:23

    Enjoying reading your thoughts having recently discovered them! I always like to be able to say the basic words of ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ when visiting a foreign country, I think its important to try and shows a level of politeness.
    I lived in France (Colmar) for 5 years which meant my French became fairly fluent and I insisted to speak it as often as possible with French friends in order to improve. I think that can be a key, really ask that some patience is shown by those who could easily speak English in order for you to learn.
    When moving to Brussels a year ago, after 10 years living in UK, it was frustrating that my French level was nowhere near as good. Hardly surprising I guess. In our office hear English is the general language, but fortunately the team I work with, apart from me, are mostly French and all speak French. Now I’m getting back to where I was.
    I have to say I think I would find Flemish much harder to learn from what I hear, but I can guess a bit when reading it from some fast fading school German!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison August 9, 2010 at 18:16

      Very true Clive. I do always try to learn things like please and thank you and anything else I can remember. It is polite and at least shows you are making an effort.

  3. Comment by Laura

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Laura August 13, 2010 at 13:55

    I work in an international office, where the common language is English. It’s embarrassing for me that these people all speak perfect English (and usually some other languages, too) while I struggle along in French.

    I tend to think that being a native English speaker is a bit of a curse – we don’t need to learn another language and so not enough emphasis is put on it in schools. I’m very impressed by your French immersion – that’s a great way to learn.

    Fortunately, my work will pay for language lessons for me. Once my French is up to standard, I want to make the effort to learn Dutch – it would be such a shame to waste the opportunity.

    I’ve often considered putting on an accent when I speak English, just to make myself feel better about resorting to it when I run out of French.

    • Comment by Clive

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Clive August 13, 2010 at 22:54

      “I’ve often considered putting on an accent when I speak English, just to make myself feel better about resorting to it when I run out of French”

      Excellant! Made me really chuckle!

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