Belglish: Guide to Speaking Better English for Belgians

If such a study was ever conducted, I am certain it would conclude that Belgian people are probably the speakers of the highest language count per capita in the whole world. The average Belgian speaks at least three languages, often four or five. It is intimidating to arrive in Belgium and not speak at least one of the three official languages (French, Flemish and German), because they most likely speak yours!

There are historical reasons for this tendency towards being polyglots. Throughout the past century, parts of Belgium have been claimed by the Roman and Spanish Empires, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. Belgium is also rather small in territory, compared to its heftier neighbours and people need languages to communicate for survival, trade and travel. Roughly half of Belgium speaks Flemish (Flanders), while the other half is French-speaking (Wallonia). In order to hold federal positions in administration, one is expected to be perfectly bilingual, no matter the position level. Reflecting the Belgian cultural reality, the school system is also built to accommodate multiple language learning from an early age.

English is one of the languages most commonly spoken in Belgium, not only by locals but also by the numerous expats migrating to Belgium for work in one of the European Union institutions or corporations’ headquarters. Flemish people often tell me they learned English on TV, as most foreign series and programmes are subtitled vs. dubbed. The Walloons generally have a harder time with languages, be it Flemish or English but the younger generations are becoming more adept at language learning as we further globalise.

For many expats living in Belgium, moving to the country can be a real treat. In big cities like Brussels, Antwerp and Gent, for example, they find that you can get by speaking English in most situations. People will, of course, speak to you in their mother tongue at first but are very comfortable switching to English without you even asking, once they realise you are less-than-fluent in their language. This is often cited by expatriates as a detriment, as it clearly undermines some folks’ honest attempts to linguistically integrate.

Because the country is so small and people are so interconnected, common linguistic errors become almost ingrained in the way of speaking and are, over time, adopted as a way of speaking. They are legitimised by their mere utility and ubiquity. However, it is time to put an end to these Belgianisms and to dispel the errors which have now long become business as usual. As a language purist, it is my duty to inform my fellow Belgians on the common pronunciation, grammatical and vocabulary pitfalls they often fall into when they speak Belglish.

  1. Idea vs. ID

Out of all linguistic errors encountered when speaking English in Belgium, this is perhaps the most common one and the biggest pet peeve of many non-Belgians. Because the word idea in French and in Flemish is idee (pronounced eedeh), Belgians are known to frequently skip pronouncing the ea sound at the end of the word, thus ending up with ID (aidee), as in the abbreviation of identity card. This mistake is often made by highly skilled speakers of English, whether inside or outside of Belgium.

  1. Grapefruit vs. grape

Belgians often confuse grapefruit with the fruit grape. I see why this could be treacherous for non-native speakers but, for the record, these are two different fruits. Grapefruit is a coral or yellow-coloured citrus fruit, slightly bigger than an orange and bitterish in taste. Grape, on the other hand, is a fruit that grows on vines, tastes sweet when ripe, and is used for making wine, among other things.

  1. Pamplemousse vs. grapefruit

While we’re on the topic of grapefruit, pamplemousse means grapefruit in English and isn’t an English word, though it is often used by Belgians when speaking English. For the actual definition of the fruit, refer to #2 above.

  1. Ananas vs. pineapple

A Flemish colleague of mine once asked me how you say ananas in Flemish. That’s a running joke in Belgium because ananas is actually pineapple in English. Again, my guess is that the reason why this is confusing is because it contains the word ‘’apple’’ when a pineapple is anything but.

  1. Sinaasppel vs. orange

I am including this one not because Belgians are confused about it, but because I often am, for the reasons outlined in #4 above. Sinasappel means orange in Flemish, not apple.

  1. No vs. now

This one has to do with pronunciation for French speakers, specifically. In French the letter o is never pronounced as au and in fact there is no such sound at all. Thus, it is completely natural for a French speaker to pronounce now as no, making it somewhat confusing in conversations.

  1. Height vs. eight (as in the number 8)

Again, this pronunciation pitfall is more commonly encountered with French speakers and has to do with their own language rules. Because the h at the beginning of a word isn’t pronounced in French and because the ei sound isn’t pronounced as ay, the word height often sounds like eight or hate, which can be difficult to grasp in conversation, thus the need to heed the context.

  1. Thanks to vs. thanks for

I often encounter expressions such as “thanks to not smoke” when it would be more grammatically correct and more fluid to say “thanks for not smoking.”

  1. Think to vs. think about

Verb – preposition pairs are hard, even for native English speakers so it’s common to form unlikely pairs such as ‘’thinking to you’’ when it should be ‘’thinking about you.’’

Now that you’re been made aware of these potential lapsus lingua, I hope you’ll be better equipped to avoid them in actual speech, my dear polyglot Belgians. Don’t leave your fellow Belgians in the dark, share the article and watch their eyes widen as they find out, for the first time in their lives, that ananas is a word that doesn’t exist in English.

Have you encountered such linguistic faux pas in your native language or a language you speak? Would love to hear about your experiences.

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