Monday, October 13, 2008


Only in Brussels II

It's official:
93.1% of residents of Belgium speak English at home
OK, that refers to Belgium, Wisconsin, although an innocent from abroad might think it true of Belgium, Europe, after a stroll through the streets of Brussels, so pervasive is the presence of English on the exteriors of shops and cafés there.

Shop-front signage in foreign languages is by no means peculiar to Brussels, of course, but it does seem particularly prevalent there, with whole rows of shops touting their wares to passers-by in English only.

Yet unlike the population of Belgium, Wisconsin, many if not most Brusselers don't actually know enough English to understand what's written on or over these shop-windows.

Presumably they at least can tell that it is English and are suitably impressed by the global aspirations of these mainly local businesses: the content is secondary, the English itself is the message, part of the window-dressing. Where practical information has to be conveyed the languages used are those actually likely to be understood by prospective customers - French and Dutch - and English doesn't get a look in, as this shop-front illustrates:

That's the private sector. These are businesses at the mercy of market forces and driven by the herd instinct that that instills. But surely a prestigious public institution such as the Palais des Beaux Arts would be able to dispense with the tawdry cachet of English signage? Quite the contrary: here even the most practical of information is provided in English only:

The Palais des Beaux Arts is of course closely associated with the surrealist movement, and with René Magritte in particular. So maybe it's something to do with that tradition. If French were still lingua grata the unopenable door could have read "Ceci n'est pas une porte".

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Only in Brussels

A mix-up at my Brussels hotel resulted in me getting a touch of the VIP treatment: a little tray of complimentary refreshments and delicacies awaited me in my room, accompanied by this note:

Given that the hotel is a stone's throw from the European Parliament, which was in session at the time, the Madame Le Pen in question may safely be assumed to be French Front National MEP Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie.

Leaving aside the fact that an elected official travelling on public business at the taxpayer's expense is unlikely to be best pleased at suggestions of relaxing and chilling out, how bizarre for a leading member of the devotedly francophone Front National to be met with an English-only greeting in what is after all (to a first approximation) a French-speaking city - and within spitting distance of the bastion of linguistic diversity that is the European Parliament (the hotel's raison d'être no doubt).

Yet it is not unusual in Brussels to find hotels, like this one, in utter denial of their French-speaking environment: reception staff who speak no French, in-room guest information in English only, TV menus without one regular French-language channel (out of maybe 50).

Perhaps it's just a consequence of the tensions between Belgium's linguistic communities, though why international chains should let themselves get involved in that is beyond me.

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