“Walloons go home!” A little appetiser for our April debate


These precognizant protesters knew how this language thing was gonna play out in the end

The expanding use of English, both in scientific communication and in the classroom,  has gone by almost unnoticed and seems to only be contested in the margins. However, this is not without consequences, both for the kind of research that is performed, as for the ease with which scientific knowledge flows back to the rest of society. Moreover, the use of English may disadvantage those students that for whatever reason are not as fluent.

Placed in a historical perspective, this is somewhat peculiar. The linguistic emancipatory goes back a hundred years, and it is not until the thirties that students were able to follow courses in the Dutch language at Belgian universities (bar a somewhat embarrassing period under German occupation during the World War I) . But even so, this was not the case at all universities, nor for all disciplines. Still, an important demand had been fulfilled.

However, up until the sixties there remained a bilingual university in Leuven, two different structures under the same heading, enforced by the Belgian bishops who governed the universities. This proved to be a thorn in the eye for Flemish nationalists, and when their demands were rejected by the clerical authorities, they found themselves supported by others who wished to do away with the old bourgeouis establishment. This culminated in massive street protests, riding on the general wave of student protests in the wake of May ’68. Science and education in the language of the people, would also bring it closer to the people, as it was assumed.

Though the University of Leuven was stricly speaking a private university, and not under governmental control, the contestation led to the fall of a government, and was eventually resolved by the expulsion of the Francophone part of the university. The cows and sheep of Ottignies lost their grazing fields as a new city and university was erected on rural Walloon soil; Louvain-la-Neuve, literally ‘New Leuven’.

For some, this had the air of ethnic cleansing. Others were put at ease by the thought that the Francophone wing of the Catholic University of Leuven would no longer serve as a beachhead for French incursions into Flemish territory, which had been officially and legally defined by the drawing of the linguistic border in 1962.

So now, almost fifty years later, Dutch is again losing footing to another language. Are the issues that lay at the base of this struggle still relevant in our globalized world today, or is this no more than a rearguard fight of some disgruntled banner waving nationalists? We can’t pretend to answer this question for you, but we can find an outlet for you to debate these and other issues; at deBuren in Brussels, on the 23rd of April.

Be there, or remain forever ignorant!


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