On Monday, the Parliament of Luxembourg began debating two opposing petitions: one created in order to preserve Luxembourgish by declaring it the sole national language at the exclusion of French and German, the other to preserve the country’s long tradition of multilingualism.
The question of cultural preservation is a familiar one to anyone who has grown up in Scotland, where the attempt to preserve Gaelic has been an increasingly important issue for the last few decades. Once widespread across Scotland, Gaelic is now spoken only by about 60, 000 people, mostly concentrated in the Western Isles. Gaelic signs and a Gaelic BBC channel, BBC Alba, are some of the more public efforts to keep Gaelic alive. However, an article in The Guardian has criticised this movement as superficial and perhaps even discriminative. The article compared Gaelic to more prevalent languages spoken by immigrants, whose involvement in the community is undermined when local place names and signs are changed to a language that is indigeous but completely unfamiliar to foreign residents.
Similar complaints of xenophobia follow this petition in Luxembourg where 45 per cent of residents are foreigners, commuting from outside of the small country for work or living there on visas. French and German visitors do their work in French or German and they too have made a mark on Luxembourg. Lucien Welter, who started the petition, denied claims of discrimination, stating that their sole motive was to preserve Luxembourgish. Like Gaelic, the language has a historical legacy, yet lacks outposts of speakers in other countries where it might survive without intervention.
While most residents of Luxembourg speak at least two languages, a failure to speak one of the three languages could lead to exclusion. Much business is done in French and German, most parliamentary debates take place in Luxembourgish, and official documents are written in French. For those who were educated in Luxembourg, all three languages are compulsory. However, for immigrants, getting by without all three languages could mean a potential sacrifice of full political participation or viability in business.
In the past, motions have been made to teach Luxembourgish to refugees or to mandate Luxembourgish classes in private schools. However, even without these measures, 70 per cent of residents reported using the language at home, school or work. It is a much higher percentage than that which Gaelic could boast, but with the total number of speakers not exceeding 400,000, not necessarily a number large enough to secure the language.
In the Hebrides, where the number of people seen on a daily basis is likely to be small, the seclusion could likely make dependence on a single language viable were there a motion to do so. This is not the case for Luxembourg, with highly trafficked borders on each side and the second highest GDP per capita in the world relying on international business.
In any sort of conversion to a monolingual society, there would be a massive demand for translation for everything from entertainment to legal documents. Installing a new national language would not stop populations speaking German, French or other languages from continuing to do so; however, it would add a lot of extra effort to navigating traffic signs or government paperwork.
For some, the effort might be worth it. While Luxembourg benefits dramatically on a financial basis for its robust international ties, some residents feel excluded, as if they are foreigners in their own nation. In such a small country with so many foreign nationals, it can be hard to maintain local culture. The prospect of losing the language and the untranslatable, intangible meanings that come with it, and blending into a larger and more homogenous Europe without a sense of distinctive identity, is increasingly seeming like a frightening reality.
Determining the future of Luxembourg’s national language is only one element in a more complex search for Luxembourg’s place in the world as globalisation both aids and damages local communities. However, the Luxembourgians have survived for many years between some of the biggest imperial powers in the world; some sort of national identity is likely to stick.