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The linguistic situation in Luxembourg is characterized by the recognition and use of three languages : Luxembourgish (Lëtzebuergesch), French and German.
Luxembourg’s multilingualism is rooted in the historical co-existence of two ethnic groups, one Romance and the other Germanic.
Until 1984, the official use of languages was based on grand ducal decrees of 1830, 1832 and 1834, which determined free choice between German and French.
In the administration of the country, French was already given clear preference over German, thus following a tradition at the heart of which French had been designated as the language of administration in the 14th century. During the reign of the Habsburgs, neither the Spanish nor the Austrians called into question the privileged use of French as the official and administrative language.
German was used as a written language in the political domain to comment on laws and ordinances in order to make those texts comprehensible for everyone. At primary school teaching was limited to German, while French was added at secondary school level.
The Treaty of London of 1839, which gave Luxembourg its autonomy, did nothing to alter linguistic practice. The law of 26 July 1843 markedly reinforced bilingualism by introducing the teaching of French at primary school level. It is worth noting that for a long time Lëtzebuergesch, a Frankish language from the Moselle region, had a less significant status than it enjoys today. Its teaching was introduced at primary school from 1912 onwards.
The current situation
The current linguistic situation in Luxembourg follows the logical thread of the country’s history. Hierarchical bilingualism still reigns, but acquired a new significance from the time of the constitutional amendment of 1948. In effect, this amendment gave the legislator the power to determine the linguistic regime by law. This new option led Parliament to vote a law in 1984, which, for the first time, acknowledged the linguistic identity of Lëtzebuergesch by determining it as the national language.
The law of 1984 recognises the three languages of Luxembourg – Lëtzebuergesch, French and German – as administrative and judicial languages. This parity is slightly moderated in a provision of the above law (Article 3), which mentions that citizens must use the three languages “in as far as possible”. However, French remains the language of legislation (Article 2), since the origins of the latter are founded in the Napoleonic Code.
Bilingualism or multilingualism?
Bilingualism having been transformed into multilingualism, no one would dare to suppress French and German in order to promote Lëtzebuergesch.
The importance of French and German is not just political, but represents the national identity born of the co-existence between the Romance and Germanic worlds. By maintaining these two languages, Luxembourg remains the symbol of a meeting place between Romance and Germanic cultures, as well as many other cultures nowadays. The recognition of Lëtzebuergesch serves to reinforce and enrich traditional bilingualism.
The sociopolitical dimension of multilingualism
It is mainly during preschool education that teachers speak Lëtzebuergesch to their pupils. Young children learn to read and write in German from the first year of primary school and then learn to read and write in French from the second year onwards. Lëtzebuergesch is taught for one hour per week only during the early years of secondary school. Linguistic practice in schools also reflects the situation of the country in terms of language use, characterised by an openness towards Europe as far as politics and higher education are concerned. Indeed, the number of hours devoted to language-learning during the whole of a student’s school career and over all sectors of education represents 50% of the syllabus.
On the political level, the command of two major European languages has enabled Luxembourg to integrate easily into the European structure and even to become a unifying and progressionist force.
At university level, trilingualism enables Luxembourg students to pursue university studies in any French-, German- or English-speaking country. Indeed, English is taught intensively in secondary school in addition to other optional languages, such as Latin, Spanish or Italian.
This linguistic situation favours adaptation among incomers to daily life in Luxembourg, since they may also express themselves in French or German. Multilingualism thus represents both openness towards the outside and the desire to receive those from outside in Luxembourg.
Some words in Lëtzebuergesch
Wéi geet et?
Mir geet et gutt/schlecht
... de Bäcker?
... de Metzler?
... e gudde Restaurant?
... de Kino ?
... de Flughafen?
Wéivill kascht dat?
Kann ech de Menu kréien?
Wann ech gelift
Gär geschitt !
Ech hunn en Zëmmer reservéiert
How are you?
I’m feeling fine/bad
… the bakery?
... the butcher’s?
... a good restaurant?
... the train station?
... the cinema?
... the airport?
How much does it cost?
Could you please give me the menu?
I beg your pardon?
You are welcome!
I have booked a room