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Luxembourg broaches dropping French and German as official languages

On Monday, Luxembourg's Chamber of Deputies will discuss a popular online petition that seeks to make Luxembourgish the country's only official language. Is the movement's success a sign of insecurity or populist revolt?

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A monolingual Luxembourg?

Once a tiny duchy, Luxembourg has grown to boast the world's second-highest gross domestic product per capita. It is home to a number of EU institutions and has courted major international financial firms and technology companies to get them to base their European headquarters there.

 As a result, Luxembourg has drawn people from the world over. Around half of the country's 550,000 inhabitants are foreign nationals, while some 350,000 more workers commute into Luxembourg from neighboring countries on a daily basis.

Accordingly, the country operates in three official and administrative languages: French, German and Luxembourgish. All are taught in schools, although French is the language of legislation and the most visible. Unsurprisingly, English has also become increasingly commonplace, both in education and the workplace, twining together a diverse, multilingual society.

That could all be upended, however.

An online petition submitted to Luxembourg's Chamber of Deputies last year called for "Luxembourgish to be the No. 1 administrative and national language for all residents of Luxembourg."

What began as an ordinary petition on language has transformed into a heated countrywide debate concerning Luxembourg's national identity. Petition 698 has attracted almost 15,000 signatures, shattering all previous records. And although the petition's author, Lucien Welter, has explicitly distanced himself any populist agenda, right-wing groups have been spurred by its subsequent success.

Luxembourg's government will host a public hearing on January 16 to discuss the proposal, alongside a subsequent counterproposal, Petition 725, that calls for an even more multilingual state.

The country's parties will be forced to take a position: more Luxembourgish or more multilingualism?

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The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg

Identity politics

Could Luxembourg be about to take its country back? Though the petition has gathered a share of populist support, Peter Gilles, a professor of linguistics at the University of Luxembourg, doesn't see the motivation as particularly populist, although he does believe that "it encroaches on populist tendencies that are becoming commonplace in Europe these days."

"Certainly there some people, particularly of the older generation, who feel pressured by Luxembourg's large share of languages," Gilles told DW. "This creates the feeling that the Luxembourgish language is under threat - that it's declining or even at risk of becoming extinct."

Welter, who did not respond for comment, has distanced himself from anyone who has used his petition to spread a right-wing agenda. In a discussion on his Facebook page, he wrote: "I dissociate myself from any racist, populist and xenophobic statements." He had previously stated that his motivation behind the petition was to "save the Luxembourgish language before it disappears."

That fear, however, is misplaced, according to Gilles, whose research shows that Luxembourgish was far from in decline.

"When we look at the data from a scientific perspective, we know that Luxembourgish is in a very strong position, and indeed the number of speakers is actually increasing," he said. "What is often overlooked in this debate is the young people and children from foreign background learning Luxembourgish as a foreign language. When you look at this, there should be no reason to fear that Luxembourgish is in decline, since there are more children learning and studying the language."

A monolingual state?

Following Monday's public hearing on the petition, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel and lawmakers on the committee will debate the motion privately, although they do not need to take legislative action. Many have written off Petition 698's chances of success already, deeming it unfeasible, and, although it did gather a wave of support, that support still only amounted to about 3 percent of the population.

Still, Gilles says, lawmakers should take heed from the concerns raised by the petition and stem any unease spurred by Luxembourg's increasingly international makeup. "There should definitely be efforts to make Luxembourgish more visible in day-to-day life," he said, adding that while it isn't an immediate issue "because people know which language to use where, changing demographics nevertheless test these situations and show that the use of Luxembourgish is far too narrow."

Making Luxembourgish the only administrative language would risk isolating a country located at the heart of Europe whose success in no small part relies on a foreign workforce. However, for many locals it is a part of their identity that they see threatened. Lawmakers should listen to concerns of those who signed Petition 698 and endeavor to promote Luxembourg's mother tongue without impeding the country's multilingual fabric.

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