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Multilingualism in Brussels and at VUB: fostering language diversity

21 February is International Mother Language Day. It hails back to events that took place on 21 February 1952 in the then East Pakistan region, when a large number of Bengali students protested against plans to make Urdu the only state language; several were killed when police opened fire. Eventually, in 1954 official status was granted to the Bengali language. 21 February subsequently became a public holiday in Bangladesh, and UNESCO in 1999 decided to observe the day as International Mother Language Day.

To mark Martyrs’ Day and International Mother Language Day, the Embassy of Bangladesh in Belgium organised an online debate on the dominant role of language in people’s identity. One of the panellists was VUB’s professor of Dutch linguistics Wim Vandenbussche, who outlined the linguistic situation of Brussels, which has a unique blend of nationalities and languages, and is often seen as the most diverse city in the world after Dubai.

Brussels, a microcosmos of the world

Officially Brussels is a bilingual city (Dutch & French), with English spoken widely in formal and informal settings. But the number of languages spoken in Brussels exceeds 100, and this diversity is something that many in Europe’s capital have come to appreciate more over the years, and now consider as something to be embraced, protected and fostered. Globally, linguistic diversity is under threat, with many languages and local dialects on the brink of extinction. Brussels has been taking measures to embrace its multilingualism.

In 2019, the Brussels Government’s finance minister, Sven Gatz, became Brussels’ (and probably the world’s) first minister for the promotion of multilingualism. He set up a Brussels council on multilingualism with some twenty members from across all walks of life with a connection to language and identity and the city. Professor Vandenbussche is one of them, along with VUB professor Rudi Janssens, and adds, “all political parties agreed that setting up this council was an opportunity to make multilingualism a core value for a Brussels identity. Historically, language has been a bone of contention in Belgium’s capital, but this is no longer the case. Younger generations have moved on from the past and are seeing multilingualism as something to be promoted and embraced. It really contributes to making Brussels a ‘warmer’ place, more connected city.” 

The cooperation between the university and the city doesn’t stop there. The Marnix Plan is a bottom-up initiative set up in 2013 to promote multilingualism in Brussels. It focusses on French, Dutch and English, but encourages all native languages used in Brussels. It’s coordinated by the VUB’s Dean of the Faculty of Languages & Humanities, Professor Alex Housen who is professor of English linguistics, along with Professor Philippe Van Parijs (UCL/Harvard), and Nell Foster, a pedagogical advisor at the ULB and PhD candidate at Ghent University. The initiative has organised numerous events to raise awareness among the citizens of Brussels that multilingualism is a normal daily part of life and has economic value, while adding to the vibrancy of the city. [continue reading below image]

VUB, a microcosmos of Brussels

Diversity and Brussels’ multilingual nature is reflected 100% on the campuses of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). The university’s student body has 146 different nationalities, and an incredibly wide array of languages spoken among them. 9% of programmes taught are in English, but to say it is the only language is wrong. The Multilingual Master in Linguistics and Literary Studies (MUMA) is taught in 6 different languages, and is a highly successful programme attracting students from across the world. There is often a debate within Flanders on how to prevent the anglicisation of education; Professor Vandenbussche isn’t too worried: “Grids and locks have been set in place in higher education to prevent an outright take-over of the English language over Dutch, contrary to what’s been happening in the Netherlands. But also, within the VUB we’ve set out a language policy. Level one of that policy has been implemented and was about supporting the Dutch language by offering intake tests in Dutch, providing dedicated courses to improve Dutch, all in partnership with ACTO, the university’s language learning centre.” The next step is to provide this support for other languages, mainly French and English, but other languages as well. This will mean intake tests for Belgian and international students in these languages, provide support for English, etc. The set-up is very much a bottom-up approach and is proving to be successful. E.g. a project was set up with the university’s Medicine & Pharmacology Faculty on medical French, in partnership with the Brussels University Alliance (BUA).

Other projects promote multilingualism as well: a long-standing tandem project with sister university Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), where some students who participated in it received medals from the King during the 185-50 celebrations (in 2019), but also the language test centre at VUB is highly regarded. E.g. the VUB’s TOEFL centre is recognised to be the best in Belgium. VUB is also active within the EUTOPIA network from a multilingual perspective in the Learning Unit ‘Multilingualism and Diversity’ – it presents a unique opportunity for VUB to present itself as the reference on multilingualism, given its long history in research in linguistics in these areas. A unique selling point of VUB has always been how its pioneering work in research gets to be translated into its educational programmes, and this is no different with all the work done around multilingualism. 

Bringing the world to the campus

Excitement ahead for October 2021, when multilingualism will be the focal point of a VUB Chair. Professor Miriam Meyerhoff, renowned linguist and specialist on multilingualism, and currently a fellow at Oxford University, will lecture on multilingualism, language and gender during the next academic year. On top of that, LIST will have the first edition of the Lonnoy Chair in Multilingualism Studies which is set to focus on historical aspects of multilingualism, and on others in the years to come. Wim adds, “And then we are working towards international partnerships in Cuba and South Africa that allow those in the department to share and exchange knowledge and expertise within a university development cooperation framework.”

Multilingualism is and has been for a long time a red thread across the VUB’s research and education programmes. From the teacher training programme (MILO), to a wide array of research centres including BRIO, BIAL, BCUS and the AI Research Group, it is clear that given all the above, VUB has all it takes to become the centre of expertise on multilingualism, especially given its home in one of the most diverse and multilingual cities in the world.