Parliament begins debate on expanding the use of Luxembourgish
Tiny Luxembourg could squeeze out French and German as official languages, leaving just Luxembourgish — currently spoken by about 385,000 people in a country where 45 percent of the population are foreigners.
The Grand Duchy — population: 550,000 — has three official languages in Luxembourgish, French and German. But two petitions are pulling the country in opposite directions: One calls for Luxembourgish to become the main official language in government and the civil service, the other wants to safeguard a “multilingual state.” The parliament began debating both petitions Monday.
In 2016, the petition to make Luxembourgish the country’s principal language and “save the Luxembourgish language before it disappears” gathered a record number of signatures —14,683 — while the counter-petition collected 5,182. Just 4,500 signatures are required to force MPs to hold a debate.
The talks that began Monday are open to the public but lawmakers are not bound to take legislative action.
Making Luxembourgish the country’s first official language “would mean translating all the [country’s] laws,” said a government source. “We wouldn’t even have the legal vocabulary for it.”
It would be more useful for students to take Portuguese classes than to learn Luxembourgish — Joseph Schloesser
The language debate hasn’t exactly set the country’s pulse racing — public support for a change is about 3 percent — but the debate highlights an ongoing struggle to define a sense of national identity in a country where 45 percent of residents are foreigners. More than 350,000 people commute to work in Luxembourg every day — mostly from France, Belgium and Germany — making a mix of languages, including English, a necessity in navigating local life.
The author of the pro-Luxembourgish petition, Lucien Welter, took to social media to deny any right-wing agenda, posting on Facebook: “I dissociate myself from any racist, populist and xenophobic statements.” His only motivation, he said, was to preserve Luxembourgish.
Despite its lack of a major far-right, anti-immigration political party and its status as a hub for international financial and technology companies — Luxembourg has been dubbed a “European Dubai” — locals have voiced concerns about feeling outnumbered in their own country, and point to an apparent decline in the use of Luxembourgish as a measure of how the country has changed.
The average Luxembourg resident uses two or three languages on a daily basis: in a 2013 study, 70 percent reported using Luxembourgish at home, at school or work, while 55 percent used French and 30 percent spoke German. Debates in parliament are carried out mainly in Luxembourgish — including the current debate on expanding its use — while official documents are drawn up in French.
“It is essential that contact be made in a language understandable to everyone and that administrative forms and other official documents be written in one of the three compulsory languages taught in schools,” Joseph Schloesser, author of the counter-petition, said.
In October, Education Minister Claude Meisch announced that the government planned to make Luxembourgish classes mandatory in private schools and was considering pushing for Luxembourgish to be recognized as an official EU language.
It would be more useful for students to take Portuguese classes than to learn Luxembourgish, Schloesser said, as the country’s Portuguese population accounts for more than 15 percent of residents.
Under the EU’s refugee relocation scheme, Luxembourg volunteered to take in about 700 refugees — the highest per-capita intake in Europe.
But Luxembourg’s sometimes uneasy relationship with its foreign population predates the migration crisis. In June 2015, voters used a referendum to shoot down Prime Minister Xavier Bettel’s proposal to integrate non-Luxembourgish residents by granting them voting rights.
“I completely understand the people who think that they’re losing their national identity,” said Nick Geoffreys, a 30-year-old British citizen who grew up in Luxembourg and started taking Luxembourgish lessons after the Brexit vote last June, as part of his citizenship application.
According to Geoffreys, the petition goes against Bettel’s efforts to make it easier for Luxembourg residents to become naturalized citizens. A law slated to come into effect in April will lower the threshold for mandatory Luxembourgish lessons and the number of years an applicant needs to have lived in the country from seven to five.
“This is such a small country, you have to appeal to the international market too,” he said. “If [Luxembourg] loses that, then it would become very isolated. There must be a middle ground. People could be encouraged to learn the language, but not have to depend on it for everything.”
But business doesn’t appear to be concerned. “Luxembourg will, of course, remain a multilingual country,” a spokesperson for the Association of the Luxembourg Fund Industry, said. “There is thus no impact on the fund industry, which is indeed benefitting hugely from the multilingual environment in Luxembourg.”