February 2012 issue

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Belgium’s melting pot

As the political centre of Europe, Belgium is an easily accessible, multicultural study destination with many charms, writes Matthew Knott.

Belgium, a multilingual country located in the heart of Europe, just a stone’s throw away from Paris, London and Amsterdam, is an attractive destination for learning French and soaking up the culture,” enthuses Jonathan Quique at CLL Centres de Langues. Referring to a recent study by the European Union, Dr Virginie Goffaux at Vesalius College in Brussels also underlines the fact that Belgium was ranked as offering the highest quality of life within the EU.

Nowhere is the cosmopolitan air more evident than in Brussels. “Studying in the capital of Europe is a wonderful experience. The city’s location on the crossroads of Europe offers international students a unique opportunity to sample different cultures and practise a variety of languages,” says Hans Smet at CVO KHNB, an adult language school located at Vrije Univeriteit Brussel. Home to the EU and NATO, as well hundreds of international businesses, Goffaux also acknowledges that around 30 per cent of the city’s population is comprised of foreign nationals.

Brussels is also pleasantly compact, advises Quique at CLL, “A whole variety of attractions are within easy reach – something the students really love.” Some of the favourites include: Grand-Place, the city’s World Heritage main square of stunning 17th century guildhall buildings; the Atomium, a striking monument of nine steel spheres; the Magritte Museum, dedicated to the surrealist artist; and the Mannekin Pis, the small bronze sculpture depicting a boy urinating into a fountain basin. A stroll through the city is like a journey through architectural styles and periods, informs Goffaux, “Brussels has a rich variety of architecture including Baroque buildings from the 1600s, classic Flemish, art deco, art nouveau, and the modern architecture of the EU buildings.”

Despite all this activity, Sylvie Lubinski at AAA Europa Language School ASBL affirms that, “The atmosphere is relaxed here and there is a certain ‘art of life.’” She adds that students love to soak up this ambience through the city’s café culture. “In their free time, the younger students enjoy staying in the numerous cafés and bars here.” Visitors can also pass the hours strolling through the shopping districts of international chains and fine speciality boutiques, recommends Goffaux, adding that streets such as Nieuwsstraat and Louisalaan are favourites for students looking for that “special something”.

With so many international organisations and companies concentrated in such a compact city, there are unrivalled opportunities for networking, something that Vesalius College actively encourages. “Through the Vesalius Internship Programme, students can apply for credit-earning internships with some of the most prestigious organisations in the world, such as NATO, the European Parliament, Ernst & Young, ING Bank, Time Warner and many, many more,” attests Goffaux.

All of the contributors were eager to highlight that Belgium’s experience of federalism and multiculturalism leads to a warm welcome for international students. “Thanks to its history, Belgium is very multicultural. We have three official languages: French, Flemish and German,” informs Roland Bartholomé of Ceran Lingua, “so people are very friendly and accustomed to speaking several languages.” Belgium’s uniqueness does give students an opportunity to experience a variety of languages and Bartholomé explains that Ceran offer 11 different languages at their executive residential centre in the town of Spa in the Ardennes mountain chain, all in “a real complete immersion”.

As well as Belgium’s multilingual credentials, Jean-Luc Goddard of Dialogue Languages, also based in Spa, emphasises Belgium as an important standard bearer of the French language, citing influential Belgian-born French language professionals Maurice Grevisse and Joseph Hanse. “Belgium is the birthplace of great personalities who have contributed to the influence of the French language and culture,” he adds.

As a city of around 10,000 inhabitants, Spa offers a relaxed and beautiful study environment. The so-called “Pearl of the Ardennes” is famed as a healing hot spring site, and Goddard says that the natural mineral water sources of Spa are a huge draw for visitors. He also recommends “the remarkable buildings of Spa: the oldest casino in the world, the Waux-Hall, the Leopold II Gallery, the Sept-Heures Park, the Town Hall and the Saint Remacle Church”. The friendliness of the town also relaxes visitors, “The Spa shopkeepers often help our students to express themselves in French and congratulate them on their level,” he adds. In contrast to the soothing tranquillity of the waters, the nearby Spa-Francorchamps Race Circuit plays host every year to the roar of Formula One racing cars and the Spa 24 hour endurance racing event. Goddard also recommends the Festival of French Songs (Les Francofolies), where the biggest names in French music rock the stage in Spa.

Indeed, musical events across the country are perennially popular. “During the summer months it is festival time all over Belgium. Every kind of music is represented in some way,” attests Quique. “Alongside world renowned festivals such as the Werchter Rock Festival, free festivals are plentiful,” he adds. For Lubinski, meanwhile, “The Jazz Rally, organised in June, with three days of free concerts everywhere in Brussels is maybe the most famous musical event.”

Another tranquil town where students can become fully integrated into the local culture is Louvain-la-Neuve, a city 30 kilometres south east of Brussels, where CLL Centres de Langues was first established in 1984. “The campus is spread throughout a charming pedestrianised town, where students and residents mingle daily.” All the facilities, including a mall, theatres and a wide selection of cafés and restaurants, are within walking distance, informs Quique, while “something not to be missed is the Hergé Museum, dedicated to the works of the famous creator of Tintin and Milou”.

As a country of less than 12,000 square metres, it is very easy for students to visit the country’s many charms. Goffaux advises that Belgium’s inter-city trains provide quick, easy and inexpensive access and recommends exploring. “Belgium’s landscape varies widely: 67 kilometres of seacoast and flat coastal plains along the North Sea, a central plateau and the rolling hills and forests of the Ardennes region in the southeast.” In particular she recommends Bruges and Antwerp. “Bruges is one of the most popular destinations and one of Western Europe’s most visited medieval cities with its surprising architecture and winding canals. Bruges is known as the ‘Venice of the North’. Antwerp is known as the ‘diamond capital of the world’ and also contains a wonderful zoo located in the heart of the city.” Quique, meanwhile, suggests students visit Ghent, Bruges and Leuven and “discover the splendour of Flemish architecture”. Moreover, the rest of Europe is easily accessible, as Ceran emphasise with regular trips to Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France.

Belgium is also, of course, famed for its gastronomic indulgences. “For food and drink enthusiasts, Belgium is a paradise,” enthuses Goffaux. “A favourite dish is mussels and French fries which, according to legend, are a Belgian invention.” She recommends some delights that make any trip complete: “Nowhere in the world will you find such a variety of chocolate pralines. The Belgian waffle is world famous. It is lighter, thicker, and crispier than standard waffles and often served with ice cream or whipped cream and fresh strawberries as a dessert.” To wash all this down, she adds, there is the beverage that has been brewed since the Middle Ages: Belgian beer. “No country in the world boasts a brewing tradition as rich and diverse. And nowhere will you find the quantity and quality of beers as is offered in Belgium.”

Agent viewpoint

“Belgium seems to be an up and coming destination for Costa Rican high school students looking for an exchange programme abroad. Why Belgium? It provides a small country feeling which is well accepted by Costa Rican students and parents. French is a sought after language for our students, it has an excellent geographical location and offers flexibility in accepting students when compared with France. We are certain this destination will continue to grow.” 
Alfredo Fonseca, Intercultura de Centroamérica, Costa Rica

“For our Spanish students, Belgium is among the top five most popular destinations. This is due to its location, culture and reputation. It is a multicultural and multi-language country, easy to access and welcoming to foreigners. From Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona and several cities, we have direct flights both with regular and low-cost companies to Brussels. One of our main partners in Belgium for both junior and executive programmes offers the opportunity to learn our three more demanded languages, French, English and German. Both of their locations also offer our students a wide range of safe and interesting excursions. Both Spain and Belgium are part of the European Community, so we avoid visa and currency exchange problems. We encourage other European countries to explore this wonderful country as a destination.”
Fernando Aguilar, Astex, Spain

“Our clients choose Ceran as one of the leading schools providing very effective programmes based on an extremely intensive, full immersion, methodology. While staying at the school, located near Spa – the city that gave the name to any place having a natural water force – students have a chance to combine learning with impressive sightseeing. Providing programmes both for adults and juniors, Ceran gives its students the opportunity to [experience] a very helpful and positive atmosphere while they are involved in different learning activities every hour of the day.”
Nina Koltashova, ITEC Travel and Education, Russia
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