Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Media's Anti-Multilingualism Bias

Paul Ames and Robert Wielaard recently did an article for AP on the political/ethnic problems in Belgium called Belgium faces a crisis, in any language. From the headline, and the body of the article, you might think that the issue is all about language. For example,

French- and Dutch-speakers have long been at odds. A vote on power-sharing could spell trouble.

Belgium's perennial language time bomb is again approaching critical mass. It has plunged the country into a constitutional crisis that makes some wonder if Belgium can - or should - survive in its present rancorous jigsaw-puzzle shape

In the 1960s, when Belgium was cut up into separate language regions - leaving only Brussels officially bilingual - French-speakers in Linkebeek and five other Flemish towns outside the capital received special rights to use French in dealing with their local councils.

Throughout the piece the two sides are consistently referred to by their language, that is there is the French-speaking side and the Dutch-speaking side. However, the real issue is not language, but ethnicity and nationalism. And toward the end of the article we get a glimpse of that.
At its heart, the quarrel is economic. Flanders is richer than French-speaking Wallonia, and resents its taxes going toward subsidizing a territory that is Belgium's rust belt with 15 percent unemployment, triple the rate in Flanders.

At the same time, they believe the influx of French-speaking commuters from Brussels is eroding their cultural heritage. French-speakers say enough powers have been devolved, and accuse the Flemish of trying to cut Wallonia loose.

But since the article is framed in terms of a language issue, the situation comes across as another example of the failure of a 'bilingual state' and more fodder for the idiots that want to make America a monolingual state with English as the chosen language. Because, you know, the ONLY reason the Flemish and the Walloons can't get along is because they speak different languages.

Bruce Tesar recently suggested to me that this is like proposing that the way to stop the Bloods and Crips from killing each other in gang wars is to propose a constitutional ammendment to make the color of the handkerchief that I happen to have in my drawer the official handkerchief color of the US and ban all other colors.

1 comment:

boredoom said...

The real issues may be ethnic and economic, but they've coalesced around language, and it's apparently become a point of self-identification in Belgium, so it's clear that language is a factor. When Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims laid into each other to destroy Yugoslavia, the conflict wasn't really about the liturgical differences between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, but religion still became the dividing line in the war.

But I agree that the situation in Belgium doesn't seem like it carries lessons for other multilingual countries, just like the Yugoslav civil wars don't mean that we should put barbed-wire fences between Catholics and Methodists. It looks like the Belgian policies of separating the languages by region are exacerbating their differences - it's monolingualism by region, rather than bilingualism by country. Maybe the Quebecois should take note...

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