Listening to Learn in the 21st Century

By Hania Mariën 

“University tuition in the United States can cost ten thousand dollars?” Emilia’s eyes grew until they resembled the two big, brown, Belgian pancakes on her plate. We were sitting at a café in Leuven’s Oude Markt watching passersby brace themselves against strong gusts of wind. “Private universities can charge more than $50,000 for tuition,” I told her. “Oje” she exclaimed. 

Emilia grew up in Germany and is enrolled at a university there. She, like me, is studying for a semester at the University College Leuven-Limburg. Our conversation about college education started earlier that morning in an Erasmus Programme class. The Erasmus Programme is a higher-education student exchange program, and one of the European Union’s many initiatives to strengthen cross-cultural awareness. There were eight students in our class, and collectively we represented citizens of seven countries: Belgium, Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States. 

As we enjoyed our pancakes, I listened to the voices chattering around me in Arabic, English, Flemish, French, Polish, and Russian. I began to wonder what it means to be “a Belgian” in 2016. Belgium itself was built on divisions. It has three autonomous regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels) and three linguistic communities (Flemish, French, and German), each with their own separate governments. An invisible but existent language border separates the northern Flemish speaking region of the country from the French speaking Southern region – the German speaking region is relegated to the east, bordering Germany. For years, the balance, distribution, and sharing of powers between Belgium’s regions and linguistic communities enabled democratic coexistence through what Arend Lijphart called a consociational democracy. That is, it facilitated a system of “agreeing to disagree” and maintaining separate competences.

But Belgium’s population is changing. It no longer fits so neatly into the historic identity groups this consociational democracy was built upon. Younger generations aren’t as supportive of separatist movements. Fien, a student at the University College Leuven-Limburg, says the language border seems sort of ridiculous – “I’m not sure you’re going to find an invisible border of that caliber anywhere else.” Fien’s family speaks French at home, but her parents enrolled her in a Flemish speaking primary school. She grew up bilingual. “My siblings and I speak both Flemish and French, but my dad won’t learn Flemish – he thinks it’s an ugly language,” she says. Another student who grew up in the Northern Flemish-speaking region of Belgium, explains, “if you travel a half-hour by train, some people will refuse to answer you if you don’t talk to them in French.” 

In 2013, the country’s foreign-born population had risen to around 15.5% of its total population. And in a country the size of Maryland, the proximity and diversity of cultural and demographic groups can pose challenges. Such challenges are evidenced by Belgium’s government shut down in 2011, contentious immigration debates in light of the ongoing refugee crisis, and an increasing number of individuals (including younger generations and foreign-born residents) who don’t feel the same regional or linguistic ties that have historically guided government decision and provision processes. 

Belgium is not unique in such demographic shifts. Percentages of foreign-born populations in other countries are increasing as well. Of course, such statistical measurements are only one indicator of increasing diversity, and are reductive. Numbers overlook important differences in individuals’ backgrounds, motivation, and/or reasons for residing in these countries; and in turn, also overlook the cultural capital and worldview they bring with them. 

Unaddressed, such cultural differences can brood contempt and conflict. In higher education, liberal arts colleges and international exchange programs such as Erasmus strive to open up these discussions. These programs bring together scholars from varied backgrounds to learn from, and with, each other. In the process these students gain insights and cross-cultural communication skills that can nurture the type of understanding and cooperation so critical in the 21st century. 

When I walked into my Erasmus class that morning, I was feeling a bit skeptical: attending a class in English wasn’t in my original plan. In my decision to study abroad in Belgium, I searched for schools that would allow me to direct enroll and take classes in Flemish. While attending a Belgian university, I envisioned myself engaging with “local” Belgian students, rather than “international” students. However, I walked out of this class with a new perspective. This class opened a small window into life in each of these seven countries. It reminded me that although no one government is perfect, each of our systems offers something that is working to serve some part of the population. 

I left feeling hopeful. I was eager to return and excited about our future conversations. As I sat at the Oude Markt with Emilia, I admired the rich cultural and generational diversity around me, and I tried to imagine what Belgium might look like in five or ten years. I considered what it means to be a “local” in Belgium in 2016. We finished our pancakes, and I was far from coming to a conclusion. One thing, however, is clear: our changing demography holds bountiful opportunities to listen and learn. And as citizens of our world, we all need to listen keenly to the voices around us.

Hania Mariën is a junior at Willamette University majoring in anthropology and Spanish. Willamette University is home to the Delta of Oregon Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.