Walking in the streets of Luxembourg will expose visitors to a wealth of languages, making Luxembourg almost opposite to Spain and France. Most Luxembourgers are fluent in at least Luxembourgish, German and French. They speak English simply because it is useful and often another language for pleasure. Outsiders may think that Luxembourgers have a talent for learning languages, but they themselves have different ideas about that.
The first person I speak to is Jos?, who works as a truck driver. His parents are Portuguese. They moved to Luxembourg when they were only 17 years old. Jos? he himself was born and raised in Luxembourg. I speak to him in French, but quickly find out that he speaks German, Luxembourgish, Portuguese and English as well.
..may well be using five different languages on one day
The local language
The Luxembourgish language has much in common with French and German. It combines German structures and sounds with French insertions, and on the whole slightly resembles to Flemish as well. Claude (29) tells me that Luxembourgers are often mistaken for Germans or Dutch, mainly because of their accent. Being called German does not particularly please them, Dutch is a little better but they preferred to be taken for Luxembourgers or remain unrecognised.
Luxembourgish is more of a spoken language than a written one, and it is usually kept for conversations between friends or within families. Luxembourgish kids learn their native language in primary school, German from the age of 6 and French from the age of 7. From the age of 15 onwards, including university, most subjects are taught in French. Luxembourg`s legislation and state documents have all been drawn up in French, and most people have a slight preference for speaking French over speaking German.
When Luxembourg was offered the choice, it did not insist on having Luxembourgish recognised as an official EU language. EU Directives, brochures, websites and others therefore do not need to be translated into Luxembourgish. Still, the local population usually thinks in Luxembourgish, rather than French or German. Liz (31), who speaks all local languages and English, says she dreams in Luxembourgish, except when she dreams about meeting French- or German-speaking people. Exposure to French and German is so massive however, that it only takes her very little effort to change to another language. Bear in mind that we don`t even have more than a few hours of Luxembourgish TV per day. We watch the regular Belgian, German and French channels instead.
In the meantime, Luxembourgish is gaining popularity in the same way Gaelic is on the rise in Ireland. Dictionaries French-Luxembourgish have never existed before but are now starting to appear. After all, Luxembourgish is more than a spoken than a written language. Monique (37) even claims that three people writing down one sentence would be likely to all use different spellings to say the same.
Monica (21, photo) is another one out of many multilingual examples. Her father is Italian, her mother Portuguese. They speak French among each other, while Monica`s father spoke Luxembourgish to her and she learned German and English in school. She changes language according to the occasion, which is a very typical thing for Luxembourgers to do. Monica disagrees that Luxembourg people have an amazing talent for languages. `We are simply constantly exposed to different languages, we start learning them at an early age and we practice them regularly. Films and TV programs are all in the original language, which is another help in getting used to having foreign languages around.
The parents of Jennifer (25) are English and Luxembourgish, which resulted into her speaking four languages fluently, with two bonus languages at sub-fluent level. She speaks a little Italian and understands quite some Dutch. Jennifer explains that Luxembourgers can even easily speak different languages at the same time. `Some words in one language describe things that would require an entire sentence in another language. We use language in a functional way, so we will just use the word that seems most appropriate, regardless of the language. Then hope for the other person to understand, otherwise we re-explain in the original language of our conversation`, she says.
Jennifer pities the fact that people only moderately master most languages they speak when it comes to, for example, writing official letters. Although she has no problem speaking French or German, she still considers them foreign languages, simply because they don`t come by themselves. She doesn`t know which languages she uses for thinking: `I guess it depends on the subject, on the people I think of, or whether it requires any specialised terms that I may not know in each language.` She does sometimes get irritated when shop personnel does not know names of products in Luxembourgish. This annoyance is felt by many and it will soon lead to a requirement for immigrants to familiarise themselves with at least a basic command of Luxembourgish.
Luxembourgers in Europe
Luxembourgish would make a perfect work force for all of Western Europe. They are highly educated and one-by-one speak three languages or more. I wonder why they do not leave their country in huge quantities, to get the best possible jobs abroad. Jennifer explains: `The only reason to leave Luxembourg is for holidays or because you think it`s getting to small. We have the highest salaries, best social security and best healthcare.` She is at least right for the last two ones: Luxembourg is currently putting together a premium system which will pay for people`s attempts to stop smoking: doctor visits and medication included.
Summarising the secret of foreign languages: like any skill in the world, they require practice and exposure. Tradition rather than talent. Subtitles rather than lazy dubbing. Unlike the Spanish and the French, Luxembourgers can`t afford to be lazy about languages ? they would be lost without them.
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