This is a shorthand phrase people often use when you walk into a store here. Translation: “Good morning, Luxembourgish or French?”
To which I usually answer, “English?” and, with ease, the conversation carries on in my requested tongue. They don’t have to ask at the big stores like Auchan in Luxembourg City, where little hanging flags identify the languages spoken by each cashier.
Having grown up between Venezuela and the United States, and comfortable in both Spanish and English, I feel happy living in this small but multicultural, multilingual country—bordered by France, Germany, and Belgium. But from the day I arrived, how the language of Luxembourgish—or Lëtzeburgesch, among other spellings—is used had me scratching my head: where and when was it spoken? Did foreigners learn it at all? What would it mean if it disappeared? Is this language worth getting tangled up with now that I live here? What are my kids going to do with it? As an immigrant and a mother, I felt compelled to find the answers.
Luxembourgish is a West Germanic language with many loan words from French and about 600,000 speakers worldwide. If you take a look at UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, you will find Luxembourgish classified as “vulnerable.” This term is applied to languages which most children speak but that, according to the atlas, “may be restricted to certain domains, such as the home.” But in the year and a half since I arrived in this country, I have been utterly impressed by the country’s conscientious effort to protect and promote its local tongue.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg’s history is colored by the political and cultural brushstrokes of its neighboring regional giants, France and Germany. Depending on the popularity of either of the country’s neighbors at the time, or the linguistic background of the sovereign in power, Luxembourg’s official language would be either French or German.
It wasn’t until a debate in 1848 that Luxembourgish was spoken for the first time in the country’s ruling chamber, by Karl Mathias André. As Luxembourgish writer and historian Germaine Goetzinger explains, the discussion centered on Luxembourg’s participation in the Frankfurt Parliament—the Frankfurter Nationalversammlung—the first such freely elected body for all of Germany.
“They indeed spoke about democratic participation passionately and wanted to be understood by those concerned,” Goetzinger says. “The idea was not to promote Luxembourgish, but they wanted to be understood by a large number of his (André’s) compatriots.”
When I ask people about the history of the language, many mention an 1896 speech by Deputy C. M. Spoo, who demanded that Luxembourgish (“our German,” as he called it then) be allowed in the Chamber of Deputies, the national legislature. The deputies voted on the issue but almost unanimously rejected it. However, in the 1912 Education Law, Spoo succeeded in incorporating Luxembourgish as an obligatory subject in primary schools. He was one of the language’s first champions.
“Luxembourg has always been a multilingual country with German and French,” Goetzinger explains. “Luxembourgish was used for oral communication, but not really considered an independent language. The divide between Luxembourgish and German happens only after World War II.”
German occupiers declared that Luxembourgish was not acceptable, hence the country’s various resistance movements coalesced around Luxembourgish as a marker of their national identity. And so Luxembourg has gone from being pro-French language to pro-German language, back to pro-French, and so on.
In 1984, a new law established Luxembourgish as the one national language. Finally, it made all institutions formally include the country’s native language. New dictionaries were published, and discussions regarding orthography (systems of spelling) and grammar deepened. French and German are still administrative languages. Most street signs are written in French, and you hear it spoken more than the other two in the fields of construction, industry, and commerce. German is used mostly in the press. Most everything else is written in French. Increasingly, books and movies are released in Luxembourgish.
As a result of the law, the three years that make up preschool education are taught in Luxembourgish. I already have two little Luxembourgish speakers at home! German is introduced in first grade and French by late elementary school. According to a 2018 study, 98 percent of the country speaks French, 80 percent English, 78 percent German, and 77 percent Luxembourgish.
In Europe, Luxembourg is seen as a wealthy country, one of the richest by per capita income. It’s part of why the nation attracts so many workers and residents from neighboring countries and afar—in fact, nearly half the population are foreigners. A majority of them are francophones from France and Belgium, so French is the language I hear most in the streets of Luxembourg City, the capital. However, the largest minority population by nationality is Portuguese, so this is also a language ever-present in the spoken symphony of the country. The foreigners who cross the border each day to work in Luxembourg, often referred to as frontaliers, tend to take up the language, looking to improve their chances in Luxembourg’s labor market or gain citizenship.
Luxembourg is also generous with its wealth: on March 1, 2020, it became the first country with free public transportation, and, among its ample social services, we find initiatives that reflect its desire to preserve and strengthen the language. Upon my arrival to Luxembourg, I registered with the National Reception Office, which subsidizes three language courses for those interested in “fully integrating” into society. Thanks to this program, I am on my way to becoming a Luxembourgish speaker myself, and while I’m at it, my French is also improving.
The program extends to refugees as well. As in most European countries, refugees are provided basic needs while waiting for an official status—a bureaucratic process that often takes eighteen months. During this time, they are not allowed to work but can receive language classes.
Through government programs, you can even take a leave of absence from work to learn the language. My classes at the National Institute of Languages are intense. Available two or three times per week, they are taught in a very professional manner and have been a great place to meet other adults on the quest for full integration. I enjoy chatting with the ladies at the supermarket: “Ech wëll mat cart betzuellen” (I’d like to pay with a card) or “Eng tut wann ech glift” (I need a bag please). I have had fun discovering new words and phrases. I’ve learned, for example, that in Luxembourgish, mothers-in-law or fathers in-law are called “difficult” mothers and fathers (schwéier mamm and schwéier papp), my favorite words so far!
While researching for this article, I met with Marc Barthelemy, commissaire à la langue Luxembourgeoise—the “Commissioner for Luxembourgish Language,” a post created in October 2018. I asked him if there was any quote or poem emblematic to Luxembourgish language, and he told me about the words chiseled into a famous balcony in the city center, behind the royal palace: “Mir wölle bleiwe wat mire sin”—“We want to remain what we are.” It sounded like a nationalist slogan to my ears; he explained that the phrase arose from an urge to preserve the Luxembourgish identity in the face of the great historical influence France, Belgium, and Germany have played in all aspects of life in Luxembourg.
I also spoke with Serge Tonnar, one of Luxembourg’s most prominent singer-songwriters and a cultural critic. One of his most famous songs takes the balcony phrase as its title but gives it a smart turn. “To say this thing is great as long as we examine the bad things as well,” he sings in Luxembourgish. As it turns out, Tonnar is related to Spoo, the man whose 1896 speech on language challenged the Chamber of Deputies.
Tonnar founded and until recently led the nonprofit organization Maskénada, a cultural collective through which he supported Luxembourgish theater, and still leads We Want to Show You Our Land, a welcoming organization that creates intercultural encounters between refugees and Luxembourgers. The organization produced a video that presents the beauty and diversity of the country. It also offers a good sample of what the language sounds like, as it’s rare to find Luxembourgish lyrics with English translations online.
To some, it may seem like Luxembourg has to work hard at preserving their language because it’s tied very closely to their cultural identity. But I think it’s more nuanced than that. I remember the thoughts of Germaine Goetzinger.
“Nowadays, Luxembourgish is an element of national identity, but in combination with multilingualism,” she says. “If your only language would be Luxembourgish, your participation in social life would probably be rather difficult.”
This I find extraordinary, but it is true that my kids will speak four languages by the time they finish high school. Although they will speak to their friends in Luxembourgish, without formal instruction since preschool, they will speak it imperfectly—just like the majority of this society.
As Barthelemy points out, “the success of the language is related to the success of the country.”
For me, the most telling data came from my son’s teacher as she told us about the international school’s approach in introducing English to the kids. This year, it has been more of a challenge than usual, not because of COVID restrictions, but because immigrant parents have taken quicker advantage of preschool programs. In the eleven years I’ve been teaching here,” she said, “this is the first time that all the children in the classroom speak some level of Luxembourgish. So, it’s actually been tricky navigating them away from that common language.”
Luxembourg is a country that takes pride in their three-language system. In fact, many residents say the true mother tongue of Luxembourg is plurilingualism—“The Peace of Languages.” Perhaps, taking all this into account, Luxembourgish may soon pass from “vulnerable” to “safe” in UNESCO’s atlas.
Patricia Abdelnour has served as a producer and translator for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. She is the director of El Sistema Luxembourg and works for Mir wëllen iech ons Heemecht wisen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting intercultural dialogue between refugees and residents of Luxembourg.
Samantha Beach Sinagra is a graphic design intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is pursuing her master’s degree at George Mason University in arts management.