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Wait. What?! 17.5 miles makes a difference.

March 26, 2008

For my first 5 weeks I lived and worked in Brussels.  There, the primary language at grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters and gas stations was French. Although everything from street signs to food labels included both French and Dutch translations, French took priority.  In an effort to adapt to the local culture (and be able to make it through the grocery store without incident) I threw myself into the study of French. I signed up for LiveMocha (a fantastic FREE language learning site that my dad told me about when I first moved here. you can see reviews of it in the wsj here and the nytimes here.) and did lessons on the site daily.

Then I moved to Leuven. A whopping 17.5 miles away. As far as language is concerned, it’s a different country.

[sidenote: I’ve talked about the language division in Belgium in other posts, (I could link to those posts here but I’m too lazy) but for those who are unaware, the quick explanation is that there are three official languages in Belgium – French, Dutch (or perhaps Flemish) and German (but that’s only spoken by a small part of the population that lives in the East). In the southern half of the country, known as ‘Wallonia,’ everyone speaks French. In the northern half, aka ‘Flanders,’ everyone speaks Dutch. Brussels unites the two halves and, while French is the primary language, caters to both French and Dutch. ]

Last night at my local grocery store I made the mistake of speaking to the checkout clerk in French.

Me: “Peux j’avoir un sac, s’il vous plait?” (Can I have a bag, please?)

Lady: (with a look of pure disgust and in English) You’re American, yes? Well. You are in Flanders now. We speak Flemish. Or Dutch.

Me: (English) I’m so sorry. I forgot where I was. So, can I have that bag? please? 

For the record, ‘Dutch’ is not an option on LiveMocha. And ‘Flemish’ is not an option on the BabelFish translator. And sometimes the grocery stores in Leuven look EXACTLY like the grocery stores in Brussels. And I get confused. Easily.

My only saving grace is that with the exception of the grumpy grocery store lady, everyone in Leuven is extremely kind and patient. And excellent at English. They seem to humour mine and boyfriend’s attempts at Dutch and then quickly switch to English when they realize our Dutch is limited to “Please,” “Thank you,” and “I’d like to order ___.”

I had read about the language divide before moving here but was convinced the situation was exaggerated. I thought the majority of people would be trilingual and accepting of the use of any of these languages – regardless of their location. Nope.

If I can just get people to stop switching to English when they speak with me, hopefully I will have some knowledge of French AND Dutch after 3 years of living in this wonderful little world that is Belgium.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 26, 2008 4:30 pm

    If you don’t want them to switch languages.. then you’ll need to ask them explicitly not to switch languages 🙂 Most English speaking people in Leuven are tourists and most of the time they don’t know a single word of dutch besides ‘bier’.

    About babelfish: it’s not the same but google language tools supports English->Nederlands and Nederlands->English, see

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