Thanks to their exposure to English in different media, Flemish adults are generally competent English-speakers. Although English is now a more popular option than Dutch at francophone schools, French-speakers tend to lag behind. Overall, Belgium finished in ninth place on the 2014 English Proficiency Index, a worldwide ranking that maps the knowledge of English. This a considerable improvement compared to the previous year, when Belgium ranked 13th.
It begins with the schools. In Brussels, a law dating from 1963 makes the teaching of Dutch mandatory from the third year in French- speaking primary schools. After-school Dutch- language options are also available to children of working parents. The teaching of English starts in the third year of secondary for three hours a week.
In Wallonia, schools have traditionally taught Dutch from the fifth year of primary school, but some have started offering it earlier. At secondary school, pupils are free to choose their first foreign language in the first year and the majority now opt for English rather than Dutch, returning to the latter in their third year. This is one reason why it is now not uncommon for Flemings and Walloons to communicate in English. In recent years, the Walloon region has tried to boost its students’ language skills. International relations agency Wallonie–Bruxelles International offers scholarships to higher education language students to study abroad.
In Flanders the hours are less strictly regulated, but the goals for achievement by the end of year six are the same. Non-Dutch-speaking pupils who have lived in the Flemish region for less than a year can qualify for extra support through reception education. In Okan, which stands for onthaalklas voor anderstalige nieuwkomers, or reception education for non-Dutch-speaking newcomers, they learn Dutch and get an opportunity to practise their new language – with an emphasis on the practical use of the language.
In primary education, schools are free to decide how they organise their Okan programme: in a separate class, via extra support in the class itself or through a combination of both. In full-time secondary education, non-Dutch-speaking newcomers are immersed in Dutch on a full-time basis before they move on to regular education. In secondary education, there are a number of designated Okan schools.
At the end of 2013, the government of Flanders approved a decree that allows secondary schools to teach up to 20% of courses in three languages other than Dutch: English, French or German. The Content and Language Integrated Learning project has been launched to better prepare pupils for a multilingual future. Every school has the choice of whether to participate in the project or not, and pupils are not obliged to take part. As a result, all courses remain available
in Dutch. This school year, 25 Dutch-speaking secondary schools are participating. About 1,780 students will be able to choose whether they follow certain courses in Dutch or in one of the three other languages. The Flemish initiative is similar to the Walloon system of language immersion education. Under this system, up to 75% of non-language courses are taught in Dutch or English, and it is mostly used in primary schools.
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