Keeping the language alive

Most closely related to German, Luxembourgish is part of the Moselle Franconian dialect area.

The small language of Luxembourgish is thriving in a multicultural nation 

Like many European nations, Luxembourg has its own language. What may make it a bit different is that only 350,000 people speak it. This small Luxembourgish-speaking population causes some people to consider it a ‘minority language.’ However, defining it as one is not that easy.

“It’s a minority language I would say, though they wouldn’t always like that, it’s a bit of a contested term,” says Julia De Bres. “It’s certainly a small language, but it’s also the national language and that’s the big difference.”

De Bres is a sociolinguistic professor with a focus on minority languages at the University of Luxembourg. The New Zealand native moved to Luxembourg seven years ago after completing her PhD, which focused on the language of the indigenous Maori people in her country. “I like that feeling you get of looking into a different cultural world, that’s what appeals to me about languages,” she says.

According to De Bres, Luxembourg was mainly a monolingual country before the 19th century, when the country officially became a trilingual nation. “Mainly everyone used Luxembourgish to speak, they didn’t write it but it was the main language of everyday communication.”

Luxembourg has three national languages: French, German and Luxembourgish. But in the last 50 years or so, De Bres says French has become the general language of interaction in the country. Though French is growing in the country, it is not to the demise of Luxembourgish, as De Bres says the amount of people speaking their country’s native tongue is on the rise as well.

Young speakers

Luxembourgish is unique in that it is a prospering minority language. And one of the reasons why it is growing in usage is because of the youth.

De Bres says that her students will often receive text messages or emails from their parents in French or German, but will respond in Luxembourgish. “People who have this language will almost always pass it on to their kids at home,” she says.

According to De Bres, many young speakers are using Luxembourgish to communicate in informal written domains.

In Luxembourg’s school system, pre-school is taught in Luxembourgish. The students aren’t reading or writing at this point, but all of the oral communication is done in the language. Once they move on to elementary, the language used switches to German. In high school, the schooling is done in French, while students are also required to take classes in English.

“It’s a very complex situation and some people get quite concerned about what’s going to happen to Luxembourgish in this very multilingual environment,” De Bres says. “But what I always think is interesting is except maybe for German…all these languages are on the rise instead of on the decline. There’s more French, there’s more Luxembourgish, there’s more English. They’re all developing in their own kinds of ways in different types of areas.”

Money talks

Luxembourgish is the first language of many people in power and in the government of Luxembourg. It is a required language for most government jobs, which make up a large percentage of the country’s workforce. Luxembourg is a prosperous nation, which is different from many other countries with less-popular minority languages. “There are financial reasons to learn it. There are jobs where you need Luxembourgish…and you’ll be paid more if you can speak it,” De Bres says.

“In other kinds of sectors and workplaces it’s a language that you need for career advancement. It’s useful. I think minority languages, people can be interested in them, but if people actually want to learn them there’s got to be some personal incentive.”

Luxembourg is home to a large population of immigrants. Much of the population is made of natives from surrounding France, Germany and Belgium, as well as many Portuguese who came over to the country in the 1960s.

However, De Bres believes that this diverse population has contributed to the growth of the language today.

You need to be trilingual to work in the Luxembourg government, which some researchers think protects those jobs for native Luxembourgers, according to De Bres.

You need to be trilingual to work in the Luxembourg government, which some researchers think protects those jobs for native Luxembourgers, according to De Bres.

Luxembourgish is required in order to pass the country’s citizenship test, which has led to more of a demand for migrants to learn the language, De Bres says. In fact, because written Luxembourgish is never taught in schools, there isn’t a standardized variety of the language. Because of this, migrants are often able to spell the language, while the natives who have it as their mother tongue are never taught how to write it.

De Bres also credits many of the migrant’s children for their use and promotion of the language. “Portuguese young people, even just the second generation or third generation, of them are really great users of Luxembourgish, it’s often a language that they’re attached to out of all the languages that they can speak,” she says.

Looking Forward 

A lot of the time, active suppression can be the main reason why minority languages diminish, as is the case with Gaelic, Maori and many other indigenous languages. And although the Germans forced the country to speak and identify in German during the war, Luxembourgish hasn’t faced the same linguistic oppression as many of these other minority languages. “That’s a massive difference between Luxembourgish and other places. The Maori language or Indian languages in the U.S. usually are in some sense socially oppressed and here that’s not the case at all,” De Bres says.

Luxembourgish is unique for its size and stature. While not many people speak it overall, a high density of Luxembourgers do, and there aren’t any signs of that changing anytime soon. “I came here expecting things to be a bit more like the case of Maori back home, a small language with not many speakers,” says De Bres. “But as soon as you get here you can see that although it’s not many speakers, Luxembourgish is very vital, you hear it spoken around you all the time.”