Language Matters

by Kevin Cottrell

Our group landed in Brussels, Belgium and spent the past two days with a focus on the dynamics of both Belgium and the European Union.

We spent time touring Brussels and engaged in dialogue on the current political situation in Belgium. Cultural identity and language have threatened to drive a wedge in the governance of the country- primarily between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking populations. Our speaker, Bart Dirks (pictured right), a Dutch correspondent and author with newspaper de Volkskrant, concluded the current political challenges are rooted in language, which defines the largest division threatening Belgian political unity. In reflecting on this concept, I am reminded of the debates around English-language-only movements in Southern California and the states; as well as the much-covered primary results from Puerto Rico. We clearly have much to learn from Europe about national identity and multilingualism, and perhaps some lessons to share as well.

We also visited the beautiful city of Ghent (pictured below). It was an important European city between 1000 and 1550 for trade and its universities. Today its architecture and landscape are well preserved, making it a one-of-a-kind, walkable experience in history.

We closed our weekend with a dinner and presentation from Paul Taylor, Reuters’ Bureau Chief in Brussels. Taylor provided a journalist’s perspective on the E.U., including the key ‘schools of thought’ that are defining E.U. coverage; contrasting ideas ranging from the E.U. as a tremendous economic benefit to all nations, to the E.U. as negatively absorbing national autonomy, identity and economic prosperity. He also included insights on food quality and importation, and climate change issues and regulations that are currently dominating the U.S./E.U. agenda.

Kevin Cottrell is Executive Director of the Southern California Leadership Network, blogging from his fellowship with the German Marshall Fund in Europe.