From An Claidheamh Soluis, October 21, 1905.

It goes without saying that at an early stage the Flamingands – for so the Walloons nickname the Flemings, who retort by calling them Fransquillons – raised the war-cry “In Flanders Flemish” outside the school doors. A long struggle, of which the end is not yet, ensued. For years the whole tone of education in Flanders had been militantly French. Flemish was a proscribed idiom. Not, indeed, that pains and penalties were incurred by its use; not that little children were flogged in school if they let fall a word of Flemish; not that the tally, the ferule, and the cane were requisitioned for the purpose of establishing the supremacy of French. These enlightened methods were reserved for the use of the Russian in Poland, of the German in Alsace-Lorraine, and of the Anglo-Saxon in Ireland.

In Belgium the schools never passed under the power of a virulent enemy of Flemish nationality. They never lent themselves to a conspiracy for the crushing of the native speech. They simply did not recognise it. It was not taught as a school subject. It was not officially sanctioned (though of necessity frequently used) as a medium of instruction. In other words, the Flemish-speaking child was treated by the school authorities as if he were a French speaker. A hardship; – but only part of the hardship under which, up to quite recently, the Irish-speaking child has suffered uncomplainingly.

However, the battle-cry of the Flamingand – “In Flanders Flemish” resounded through the land. First, the primary schools gave way; next, the state secondary schools; finally, the private secondary schools – those, that is, which are controlled by the religious orders. These latter, indeed, are not yet quite conquered. Some of them, the convents especially, still cherish the delusion that Flemish is not so respectable a language as French.

Accordingly, Flemish is not yet compulsory even in those of the higher private schools which are situated in purely Flemish territory. When I was in Belgium public opinion was in a ferment on this very question. M. Cooremans, deputy for Antwerp, had introduced in the Chamber of Representatives a Bill to make the teaching of Flemish compulsory in all denominations or private secondary schools in Flanders. He was being bitterly opposed by the Walloons on the grounds that many Walloon children attend these schools and that it is not fair to compel these to learn Flemish whether they like or no.

He was also opposed by the school authorities themselves, who represented that if the Bill were passed the Walloon children, and also the children of foreigners who were sent to Belgium to learn French, would be withdrawn and that the schools would suffer financially. The issue of the struggle is still doubtful. Those with whom I conversed on the matter – and they included leading thinkers on both sides – inclined to the opinion that a compromise of some sort will eventually be accepted.

Apart, however, from the denominational or private schools, which are not under direct State or municipal control – thought they are subject to government inspection – Flemish has now, throughout the entire primary and secondary school system of Belgium, attained substantiative equality with French. One may sum up the attitude of the State, of the municipal bodies (which, under government supervision, control elementary education), and of educated Belgian opinion somewhat as follows: –

(1). Every Belgian has the right to be taught first to speak, read, and write his own mother-tongue, be that mother-tongue French or Flemish

(2). Every Belgian ought to be taught to speak, read, and write a second language.

(3). Belgium having, as the outcome of its remarkable history, two national languages – French and Flemish – every Belgian ought to be taught, as a second language, that one of these which he is not taught as his mother-tongue.

(4). All language-teaching ought to be on the “direct method.”

I do not assert that there are any acts of the Belgian Parliament which decree all this in so many words. In theory the “second language” may be anything, – German or English, for instance. In practice, however, it is nearly always Flemish in the case of Walloons, and French in the case of Flemings.* The one point insisted on is that the child’s MOTHER-TONGUE shall, in any event, be the basis of his earliest instruction.

These concessions were not wrung from the Government without a fight. The fight, in point of fact, was protracted and bitter. But the Government, and the Walloon party generally have long been converted to the view of the Flamingands that Flemish is entitled to full equality with French. The Government appears to be carrying out the principle of equality all round in the spirit as well as in the letter. I have before me a ministerial circular to the Inspectors of primary schools, dated July 31st, 1899.

Its purpose was to promote the more extensive and (especially) the more effective teaching of the second language, and to this end it enjoined on the Inspectors the necessity of seeing that all language teaching should be on the direct method. From the issue of this document, indeed, dates the great wave of enthusiasm in Belgium in favour of bilingual teaching on sound lines.

My thanks are due to M. Charles Rémy, Directeur in the Department of the Interior and of Public Instruction, who placed this and other documents, together with a mass of invaluable information, in my hands. He is himself an enthusiast in education, – just such a man as ought to occupy a high place in a national education bureau, and just such a man as we should expect not to see in such a position in Ireland.

I translate the opening paragraphs of the Circular (which is of course bilingual): –

M. L’INSPECTEUR,

The Central Section of the Chamber of Representatives charged with the examination of the budget of the Department of the Interior and of Public Instruction makes inquiries each year as to the number of schools in which a second language is taught. IT, AS WELL AS THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY FROM WHICH IT DERIVES ITS AUTHORITY, ATTACHES A HIGH IMPORTANCE TO THE DIFFUSION OF OUR NATIONAL LANGUAGES (in Flemish, “in de verspreiding onzer landstalen;” in French, “à la diffusion de nos langues nationales.”)

“Each year also my administration is happy to be able to count a greater number of schools on the programme of which a second language has a place, whether as an obligatory or as an optional branch. Nevertheless, the movement in favour of the teaching of a second language in the various institutions of public instruction is neither so widespread nor so active as the Government would wish; it must be admitted that the progress made and the results attained do not correspond with the extension which has been given to this teaching in the primary and normal schools (Training Colleges), nor to the efforts of the staff appointed to superintend its introduction.”

The Circular goes on to point out that the main cause of this failure is to be found in the defective and old-fashioned teaching methods which so late as 1899 still prevailed in the majority of Belgian schools; and it then makes a series of valuable suggestions from which I shall quote more than once during the course of these papers. The Circular concludes: –

“The diffusion of the languages spoken in Belgium is a powerful means of national education, an important factor in public prosperity; that is why it is to the interest of the country that a second language should be taught in a practical and really useful manner in our primary and normal schools. To this end, I appeal to the zeal of the teachers and professors, for they alone are in a position to carry out this truly patriotic work. Possibly the abandonment of the classical method will cause them some regrets, and the adoption of the natural method will call for greater efforts on their part: they will find a valuable reward is the comforting reflection that, thanks to their devotion, an increased number of their fellow-countrymen will understand and be able to speak two of our national languages, and that closer bonds will this unite one to the other the members of the Belgian family.”

The Circular is signed by the Minister of the Interior and of Public Instruction.

Fancy the “National” Board addressing such a Circular to its Inspectors! The “Circulars” of which we have had recent experience in this country have been documents of quite another complexion.


* In the case of the handful of Belgians whose mother-tongue is German, French or Flemish is usually the “second language.”