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The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is one of those rare countries in the world where several languages are spoken and written throughout its territory and in different spheres of life - private, professional, social, cultural and political.
Multilingualism has been legally defined since 1984 with Lëtzebuergesch as the national language, French as the language used for legislative matters, while French, German and Lëtzebuergesch all share the status of judiciary and administrative languages.
This trilingualism is a reality lived by about 290,000 native Luxembourg people. More recently, as a side effect of the outstanding economic growth and a policy of social promotion, the mother tongues of some 170,000 foreign nationals now living in Luxembourg, enrich the linguistic landscape of the Grand Duchy today.
In fact, as no language bears the status of the official language in the Grand Duchy, French, German and Lëtzebuergesch are omnipresent, at different degrees, and share the roles of language in the workplace, for publication and for communication, be it formal or informal.
Laws are drafted in French and henceforth it is important to note that on the judicial level only the French language text is authentic, which is true for all levels of the public administration. On the other hand, spoken French has progressively vanished from Parliament, in spite of the fact that sometimes Deputies prefer French when making important declarations. In this official place no spoken language is clearly defined, and politicians choose the idiom corresponding to their personal preferences.
The fact is that these days regular debates in Parliament are held in Lëtzebuergësch. The language borrows many words from French (de Congé pénal, en Débat an der Chamber ) and from German (d’Gleichberechtigung ).Hence, accounts of public parliamentary sessions published in the daily newspapers illustrate the mix of languages: the debates are transcribed in Lëtzebuergësch (which represents the highest amount of regular written production in the vernacular), while questions to the Government as well as the legal texts are usually in French.
In order not to lose sight of the bigger picture, it is important to note that the law of February 1984 states that in administrative and judicial matters, "use may be made of French, German or Lëtzebuergësch". Citizens enjoy the right to choose a language when they make an administrative application, yet the Administration is not strictly bound to respect their preference.
Generally speaking, the weak presence of German at the national level of public life is counterbalanced by its strong presence at the local level, both spoken and written (publications from local councils). The manner in which the Luxembourg State is administered is based on a clear balance, preferring French in written texts and Lëtzebuergësch as the spoken language (in the workplace and for communication purposes).
This situation has however become standard practice at the highest level: in 1996, for the first time in the history of Luxembourg, Prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker delivered the annual "state of the nation address" in Lëtzebuergesch.
Since the beginning of the waves of mass immigration, compulsory schooling has started at the age of four, while before children were sent to school at the age of five. This initiative, which was mainly launched in order to expose immigrant children to the Luxembourg language as early as possible, was supplemented by the implementation of a scheme offering preschool education to children from the age of three.
Primary school introduces the other two languages. At the age of six children learn to read and write in German, considered to be the written version of Lëtzebuergesch. The following year they start learning French. The lingua franca of primary school education is German. However, depending on the composition of the class (the number of children from immigrant families), teachers speak German, sometimes Lëtzebuergesch or French.
In 1991, local schools began a programme offering some classes in Portuguese and Italian, studied two hours a week. Since then, these courses, run in parallel to the official curriculum, have been replaced by integrated mother-tongue courses at the primary school level. They give children the opportunity to develop their native language by maintaining contact with their own culture. Subjects appearing in the official curriculum are taught in Italian or Portuguese during two lessons a week.
During the first years of secondary education, most classes are taught in German. Then the lingua franca for all subjects other than language courses becomes French in grammar schools, while German prevails in comprehensive schools.
The recent University of Luxembourg, created by the law of 12 August 2003, replacing a certain number of post-secondary education schemes, like the Centre Universitaire, also operates along the lines of multilingualism: among the university’s fundamental principles figures the "multilingual character of its teaching". Numerous Luxembourg students continue to go to universities abroad, be it in German-, French- or English-speaking countries: theoretically no linguistic border can stop them.
Last but not least, the foreign schools in Luxembourg - French, British, international - account for 7% of pupils. In these private schools, where high tuition fees reserve entry to the wealthier classes of the population, French and English are the dominant languages, even though German and Lëtzebuergesch courses are mostly on offer as well.
For a Luxembourg person to be spending an entire day speaking just one language would be a first! Similarly, among foreigners, all generations considered, how many of them could survive on their mother tongue alone? In the land of mixed marriages, the following figures provide some of the answers:
There is no doubting the fact that everybody chooses different linguistic paths in their daily lives. Today, linguistic variation blends together and is superimposed: people speak more and more languages in more and more varied places. The juxtaposed bilingualism of times past has been replaced by a superimposed multilingualism: now the same people juggle with different languages according to place, time and circumstance.
Regional differences also come into play as well. From a statistical point of view, Lëtzebuergësch is used 45% of the time in the Capital, 54% in the remainder of the central part of the country and 68% in the north. Farmers use Lëtzebuergësch without exception as their working language, the figure amounting to 75% among teachers. For workers without any professional training, French dominates, with 46%.
So languages tolerate one another, come close without jealousy, borrow from each other and lend to each other with no false modesty. This phenomenon appears, in particular, in code mixing, an art in which Luxembourg people excel, borrowing an idiom from one language, while loaning an expression from another. These are methods of communication in their own right.
Is the country saturated by languages? On the contrary, it has even allowed many others, such as English, Italian and Portuguese, to become established.
In the financial market place, in trade and in industry, English may unite the different nationalities working together, even though a third of the banks in the capital are German and, for several years now, French-speaking cross-border workers have been leaving their mark on the Luxembourg labour market.
Coming across English in an evening dress is no surprise when you consider the sizable international community in the capital enjoying the nightlife. Whether they are from Iceland, the United States, Scandinavia, Asia or from Slavic countries, English is the preferred language in all their relationships.
The larger immigrant groups - Italian, Spanish, Portuguese - become apparent by the considerable number of meeting places which exist in Luxembourg (associations and clubs, bars, restaurants, etc.), as well as by the use of their respective mother tongues in their different workplaces (especially in the building sector, the hotel business and the cleaning sector).
As far as French is concerned, it puts on an unusual face. It is not exactly the French language from France because the influences of Belgian Walloon are rather strong. But examples of that influence are extremely subtle. When Luxembourg people have to speak in French, they are very conscious of grammatical rules, a remnant of strict teaching in school. They speak a careful and formal kind of French, sometimes too correct, which runs wild only when penned by poets and authors, or when spoken by younger generations.
That also applies to the language in which journalists choose to express themselves. Most of them use only one language. The choice sometimes depends on the country in which the writer was educated, and sometimes on the subject treated: those who write about domestic politics and local news generally prefer German, and those dealing with economy or culture often opt for French. The target readership also plays a role in the choice of idiom: given that weeklies are aimed at the family, German is appropriate for them. Nevertheless, the use of language is undergoing changes, both in daily life and in the media.
Since 1991, Lëtzebuergësch has gained significant ground on television after the launch of a daily news-programme. Twelve years later, its simultaneous translation into French offers a choice to viewers and demonstrates a considerable flexibility towards French-speakers.
This is the medium where Lëtzebuergësch is most used. Of course, the national and local Luxembourg radio stations enjoy the highest ratings. These results combined with the success of the television news programme underline the emotional importance which Luxembourg people attach to their mother tongue.
Moreover, immigrant communities are not ignored. Apart from the fact that the main radio stations from the neighbouring countries are available, English and the Romance languages, inter alia, have enjoyed a daily presence on the Luxembourg radio waves for several years.
Particular features: a language which borrows from others
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