Luxembourg's election-driven language debate
(This article was corrected to reflect the fact that the 2016 petition received 14,500 signatures, not 7,000)
As Luxembourg's national election fast approaches, the Democratic Party (DP) is running on the campaign slogan "Zukunft op Lëtzebuergesch" ("Future in Luxembourgish"). The Luxembourg Socialist Workers' Party (LSAP), meanwhile, uses "Lëtz speak about politics" – "lëtz" being the first syllable of the Luxembourgish word for the language, which sounds similar to the English "let's"). All in all, the campaign trail appears to be a contest on who's willing to do the most to promote Luxembourg's national language.
For expats in the Grand Duchy, the sudden foregrounding of this issue must seem odd, given that it has never been considered 'political' for a coalition government that has been in power for five years now. To be more precise, the issue was political but not 'party' political.
In 2016, a petition calling for Luxembourgish to become the first official language in the country's Constitution received 14,500 signatures – 10,000 more than needed to be granted a hearing in parliament. Despite definite political interest in the topic, it was barely debated in Luxembourg's Chamber of Deputies. Apart from the Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR), with its spare three seats in parliament, no other political party seemed overly interested in the idea of promoting the language, beyond the government's efforts to improve language classes for foreigners.
There are, however, several grievances you'll find within the Luxembourgish population regarding the language situation:
- Luxembourgish citizens who were either barred from learning French during the Nazi occupation or who did not benefit from adequate primary or secondary education cannot communicate with French and Belgian commuters and foreign residents who only speak French
- This situation becomes particularly striking in hospitals, were precise vocabulary is essential for pinpointing areas of pain or explaining medication regimes, for example
- A feeling of national pride, suppressed by the impression that the use of the Luxembourgish language is in decline (according to the University of Luxembourg, the opposite is the case)
- A lack of understanding by politicians who are said to not take the issue seriously
- A comparison with neighbouring countries, were national languages are extensively promoted – particularly French –with national pride
In this electoral campaign, politicians seem to have just discovered that the Luxembourgish language is a significant contributor to people's voting behaviour. The question now is whether the new debate is a genuine one – and whether it is likely to translate into actual policy.
Here are the key problems politicians will have to address:
- Should Luxembourgish be enshrined as the first official language of the Grand Duchy?
- If yes, what does this mean for the functioning of the legal system, the administrative state and relationships with organisations such as the European Union, which does not recognise Luxembourgish as an official language?
- How can the government solve the issue when there is a shortage of Luxembourgish teachers and study material, which has resulted in long waiting lists for those classes?
- Should the level required to pass the language test within the framework of acquiring citizenship be lowered? Should foreigners who acquire citizenship be compelled to write in the language when many Luxembourgers cannot?
Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: the things said during the campaign on the Luxembourgish-language debate – be they genuine or not – will give future opposition leaders a platform from which to demand answers that actually do have an impact on policy.
Bill Wirtz is a political commentator from Luxembourg, based in Brussels. He has published in Le Monde, Le Figaro, Die Welt and The Times of London