Research summary written by Aura Prisecaru, Master student at the University of Luxembourg

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"Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth." Gandhi

We, as English speakers, have encountered the expression “mother tongue”. It is the language in which, mothers, as traditional caregivers talk, sing, and teach it to their new-born; it is our first contact to the world outside. We go to school; we learn to read and write, and we refine our mother tongue through hours of study. It goes without saying that our mother tongue is the national language, and it is part of our identity and our belonging to the community.

How about living in a country where you have three official languages? And, to make things even more complicated, what if our mother tongue is not necessarily any of the three languages? These places do exist and one of them is Luxembourg, a small country of only 2,586 km2 and a bit more than 600 thousand inhabitants. Luxembourgers are multilingual and if you become acquainted to them, you will notice how quickly they switch languages, in such a way that it almost seems like a magician’s trick that puzzles most of the people coming from abroad.

Luxembourg – a language paradise and a paradox

Luxembourg is stunningly cosmopolite, about 170 different nationalities live currently in this tiny spot of Europe’s map, making up to 47% of total population and not mentioning the cross-border workforce that adds up to one third of total population. In the sense of its language abundance, Luxembourg can be depicted as an earthly paradise.

Moreover, the country has three official languages: Luxembourgish, German and French and they are a prerequisite in the education system and in any Luxembourgish institution, as well. Living in Luxembourg means daily interaction in any of the official languages plus English as Lingua franca.

Despite this multilanguage environment that would theoretically encourage interactions and communication, there is very limited possibility to take advantage of this rich language repertoire. It is a paradox, as the large number of languages does not necessary act upon as a positive factor in facilitating communication and intercultural diversity or it happens in a very punctual sense.

Children often mix languages and use them in creative expressions, so that mother tongue is part of their communication. Still, the road to being a Luxembourger is paved through the official languages taught in school. As such, Luxembourgers often need to use English or any other official language which is not necessarily their mother tongue. This kaleidoscope raises many questions in a newcomer’s head, but probably the most salient one would be if it is possible for Luxembourgers to preserve their own oral and written heritage of our home language in such a diverse environment.

UNESCO - Mother language day

Gandhi said that “even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth". In Bangladesh, in 1952, people paid with their lives for their home language. UNESCO honors their sacrifices and commemorates them though the “mother language” day. Therefore, on 21 February, their heroism is celebrated throughout the world though various cultural events in order to raise awareness and safeguard the languages that may encounter a similar threat. To shed light over the amplitude of the current circumstances, it needs to be mentioned that around 7,000 languages are being spoken around the world, and half of them are in danger of extinction.

Luxembourgish is also on the UNESCO list of endangered languages, nevertheless, multilingualism, identified by the three official ones, is considered as part of national identity. No matter how impossible it may seem to accommodate the large variety of mother languages spoken by all the nations living in Luxembourg, we need to recognize their fundamental role, especially in children’s life. We should acknowledge this richness and not take it for granted. Shall Luxembourg give a voice to more mother languages?


Further Reading:

Key words: mother tongue, mother language, Luxembourg, multilingualism, UNESCO

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