Multilingualism in Luxembourg
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Multilingualism is a part of everyday life for the population of Luxembourg. Legally and socially, different sectors of Luxembourg use French, German, and Luxembourgish, which is a Germanic language that arose in the 19th century from German with a strong French vocabulary. Additionally, most citizens learn English and may study other languages as well. A substantial immigrant population has brought other tongues to the small state. However, the different languages are used in different social situations.
The use of languages for legal and administrative purposes is regulated by a law promulgated in 1984, including the following provisions:
Article 1: The national language of the Luxembourgers is Luxembourgish.
Article 2: The laws are in French.
Article 3: The language of the government: Luxembourgish, German and French can be used.
Article 4: Administrative questions: If a citizen asks a question in Luxembourgish, German or French, the administration must reply, as far as possible, in the language in which the question was asked.
In many other multilingual countries, such as Belgium, Switzerland or Canada, the distribution of the languages is geographic, but in Luxembourg it is functional—that is, the choice of language depends on the situation.
At school, all students are taught in all three official languages, although divided by age group and subject matter. At primary school, the course is in German and explanations are often given in Luxembourgish. At secondary school, in general, until the 9th class every subject is in German, except mathematics and sciences (in French). From the 10th to the 13th class, it depends on what level the students are in: In the more difficult level, as well as at the commerce and administrative division, the course is mostly in French, but throughout the whole secondary school, explanations are often given in Luxembourgish. The easier level, on the other hand, tends not to switch to French.
In the Chamber of Deputies, the language used is Luxembourgish, but sometimes also French (e.g., when laws are cited).
In the press, articles are mostly written in German, sometimes also in French. On TV and on the radio, Luxembourgish is mainly used. Spoken Luxembourgish used in news broadcasts tends to be strongly influenced by standard German in pronunciation and idiom. Radio broadcasters are under pressure to translate news releases sourced from German press agencies in real time and have no special training in the prose style of Luxembourgish. As a result, news tends to be superficially translated into Luxembourgish. Syntax mostly follows standard German and many words and idioms from standard German appear unmodified. Phonology is also affected with the resulting use of intonation phrases alien to Luxembourgish.
Generally, in everyday life, when talking to a foreigner, Luxembourgers will attempt to respond in the language they have been addressed in (mainly French, standard German, English, but also Dutch). Due to the large number of foreigners in Luxembourg, locals now expect to use foreign languages in daily life, and as far as they are able, will use the foreigner's native language. For example, American students who have learned standard German are often spoken to in English.
By custom, French is used in restaurants and brasseries to the point that Luxembourgers assume that the service staff will be French speaking and make no attempt to use Luxembourgish. In rare case when foreigners attempt to speak Luxembourgish in these establishments staff will rebuff them in French with "Qu'est-ce que vous dites?" ("What's that you say?"). In less formal drinking establishments though, Luxembourgish remains normative.
Luxembourgish has a literary tradition that began in the 1820s with the development of serious forms of poetry, followed by drama and eventually narrative prose. However, the average Luxembourger finds Luxembourgish texts difficult to read. Schoolchildren do not read Luxembourgish until the age of 11 or 12. Even then not all teachers adhere to the curriculum requirement to teach written Luxembourgish, some preferring to teach standard German instead, and consequently some students may not be taught written Luxembourgish. As a result, only a minority of literary-minded intellectuals find reading Luxembourgish easy or enjoyable. The majority of Luxembourgers regard their language as a spoken one only.
For private correspondence, language choice tends to reflect social class. Member of the upper middle and upper classes tend to prefer French, although Luxembourgish may be used to convey a sense of close identification with one's nationality. German tends to be viewed negatively among the upper class, with the assumption that anyone writing in German has a poor mastery of French. In spite of this, a minority of members of the upper class do prefer standard German when corresponding with close relatives. Use of German becomes more prominent the lower down the social scale one goes, followed by Luxembourgish, with French tending to be the least popular among the lower classes.
Generally speaking, for correspondence between people who are related, standard German is preferred, followed by French and Luxembourgish equally, although social status has an influence. When people who are unrelated correspond, use of Luxembourgish drops off dramatically, and it tends to be used not at all between strangers. The choice of Luxembourgish therefore appears to reflect the closeness of the ties between the two people corresponding.
- (French) Mémorial A no. 16 (27 February 1984), pp. 196–197: "Loi du 24 février 1984 sur le régime des langues".
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