Research summary written by Olívia Alves, Master student at the University of Luxembourg

Picture credit: Photo by Cedric LetschCedric Letsch on Unsplash.


Luxembourg’s linguistic situation is rather curious: frequently hailed as an example of successful multilingualism, Luxembourgish, French and German are simultaneously the official languages of the country, present in media, education, and everyday life. Other tongues also find their home here, e.g. English in the financial sector and Portuguese, the idiom spoken by the largest foreign community in the nation.

However, it is important to note the relationship between power and languages, its resulting hierarchy, consistently reinforced or contested by residents.

For instance, some believe Luxembourgish is disappearing[1]. This might be the result of Luxembourg’s past: historically, great European powers have repeatedly torn at the small nation’s territory, from the Middle Ages up until the 19th century. During Nazi Germany’s invasion, Luxembourgish itself became a symbol of resistance. These circumstances, combined with an influx of migrants since the 1970s, may have fed the idea of a dwindling language.

The truth is, over 50% of the population speaks Luxembourgish[2] ; nevertheless, it is sector dependent. With the language safe from extinction, is the above-mentioned opinion rather a consequence of multilingualism?

Multilingualism exists in various forms, and some are more desirable than others: ‘societal multilingualism’, resulting from migration, is less advantageous and valued than ‘elite multilingualism’, spoken and privileged by institutions of power and part of the public[3].

Anecdotal evidence points to (Portuguese) pre-schoolers being punished for speaking their first language in kindergarten[4]. Students from migration backgrounds and low socioeconomic status are less able to access grammar schools due to the lack of linguistic proficiency, mainly in German (compared to Luxembourgish students); many quit secondary school before acquiring their diploma, thus losing out on job market opportunities. Additionally, the students of migration backgrounds are accused of being the reason for poor Luxembourg PISA results, owing to their presumed linguistic deficiencies[5].

Furthermore, voting rights are reserved for Luxembourgish nationals, in terms of national elections. Becoming naturalised requires proof of Luxembourgish proficiency. And in a 2015 referendum, Luxembourgish citizens voted against foreign residents’ right to vote, thus a large section of the population cannot participate in democracy up to this day.

This is Luxembourg’s linguistic paradox. Instead of ‘successful multilingualism’, two contradictory positions co-exist: the idea of Luxembourgish as an endangered language, and groups with migration backgrounds being setback at various levels, i.e., linguistic, institutional, and otherwise.

For a more in-depth, yet approachable, reading on the topic of multilingualism, I recommend Introducing multilingualism: A social approach (2018), by Kristin Horner and Jean-Jacques Weber.


Further reading:

  • [1] Weber, J.-J., & Horner, K. (2012). Introducing multilingualism : A social approach. Taylor & Francis Group.
  • [2] Fehlen, F., et al. (2013). Die am besten beherrschte Sprache (Hauptsprache): Recensement de la population – premiers résultats No 17. Luxembourg: Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques.
  • [3] Tavares, B. (2020). Compounding forms of inequality: Cape Verdean migrants’ struggles in education and beyond in Luxembourg. European Journal of Applied Linguistics, 8(2), 307-332.
  • [4]
  • [5] Sharma, A. (2018). Migration, Language Policies, and Language Rights in Luxembourg. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, European and Regional Studies,13(1) 87-104.

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