Multilingualism in Luxembourg is embedded in the historical coexistence of the Romance and Germanic ethnic groups.
In the 14th century, the territory was made up of two parts: Walloon was spoken in the French area, whereas the Lëtzebuergesch dialect was used in the German area. French and German of that time were written and administrative languages. French occupation in the 17th century and the return of French troops in the late 18th century promoted the use of French and allowed it to become an important language in the administration, even in the German-speaking areas. The Napoleonic Code (French civil code) was introduced in 1804, and its influence has lasted until the present day as French has remained the exclusive language of legislation.
After the Treaty of London of 1839 and the dismemberment of the Grand Duchy, the territory of the new independent state lay entirely within the German-speaking zone. However, the Luxembourg notables managed to impose French as the language of administration, justice and political life. The law of 26 July 1843 introduced French teaching in primary schools and French became a compulsory subject, on a par with German. German-French bilingualism was enshrined in the Constitution of 1848, which stipulated that people were free to choose between German and French.
Throughout the 19th century, alongside French and German, the people of Luxembourg spoke a Moselle-Franconian dialect in everyday life known until the end of the century as Lëtzebuerger Däitsch (Luxembourg German). As a sense of national identity developed, Lëtzebuergesch eventually became the mother tongue of Luxembourg people. It was introduced as a taught subject in primary schools in 1912.
The law of 24 February 1984 on language policy officially established the linguistic status of Lëtzebuergesch for the first time, enshrining it as the national language. Lëtzebuergesch became an administrative and judicial language, and the first dictionaries and grammars started to get published. However, Luxembourgish spelling and grammar remain a difficult subject, as sometimes more than one spelling can be correct for the same word.
The current law on Luxembourg nationality marks another important stage in so far as it includes an adequate active and passive knowledge of Lëtzebuergesch among the conditions for acquiring the Luxembourgish nationality, thus recognising it as an important factor of integration.
Although traditional bilingualism has been transformed into multilingualism following the various waves of immigration and despite the presence of a community of foreign residents from all over the world representing almost 50% of the population today, French and German are solidly established as vernacular languages. The importance of these two languages is not purely political, but represents a national identity born of the coexistence of the Romance and Germanic worlds.
Languages occupy an important place in the Luxembourg education system. German is taught in the first year of the second learning cycle of fundamental education and French is introduced into the syllabus in the following year. The lingua franca in fundamental education and the first years of secondary education as well as secondary technical education is German. In secondary education, by contrast, French is the main language from the fourth year of study onwards.
English is added during secondary education, with students also having a choice of Latin, Spanish or Italian. Language learning over the entire school career accounts for 50% of the curriculum.
The different languages all have their part to play in Luxembourg’s cultural scene, although their importance varies depending on the artistic genre.
A large number of publications are written in French and German, but literary output and publications in Lëtzebuergesch are currently experiencing an unprecedented upsurge. Bookshops and libraries mainly supply publications in French and German, but also in English or even in other languages. Moreover, some bookshops stock exclusively French, German, English, Italian or Portuguese titles.
Plays are performed in Lëtzebuergesch, but also in French, German or English, either by Luxembourg theatre companies or by major companies from Germany, France and Belgium.
Foreign films at the cinema are mostly screened in the original version with French and Dutch or German subtitles.
Public life would be unthinkable without the coexistence and even the simultaneous use of several languages, with variations according to location and activity.
Speaking Lëtzebuergesch is considered by many to be one of the most important factors of integration. That is why the authorities have put the concept of ‘language leave’ into place. Unique in Europe, this time off allows people working in Luxembourg to take paid holiday to study the country’s language. Everybody is entitled to 200 hours to learn 'Lëtzebuergesch schwätzen' (speak Luxembourgish).