My first encounter with a Luxembourger – at least so far as I can remember – was in 2012. It was dark autumn evening, and we met outside a church in the Bruntsfield1 area of Edinburgh. Not because we are pious, which is neither here nor there (mainly there, as in, we’re not), but because it served as a suitable midway between our two domiciles at which to meet for what would be the first of many dates and subsequent co-ownership of a dog. But again, that’s neither here nor there. Mainly there.
As a Swede living in the UK I had become accustomed to being lauded for my linguistic brilliance – “you speak two languages! That’s amazing!” – and I had, embarrassingly, started to believe that I was indeed quite the linguist. Meeting a Luxembourger quickly put my feeble knowledge of languages into perspective, as she spoke not one, not two, but four2 languages fluently, and apparently this is essentially the norm in Luxembourg.
Luxembourg, she told me, has three official languages – Luxembourgish, French, and German, and on top of that they generally learn English from an early age. Apparently it’s not uncommon to use at least three of their four languages on any given day. This made me feel rather foolish for my pride in speaking two languages, and as such I wasn’t particularly keen to learn more of their strange ways – for fear that my brittle male ego would be ground into an unrecognisable pulp of even more limited linguistic capability.
Over the years I have heard Nadia switch between her four languages at the drop of a hat, seemingly equally fluent in all of them. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I moved here to find that there were aspects of each language that she – and other Luxembourgers – don’t possess the depth of knowledge to comfortably deal with. And I don’t mean that they don’t feel comfortable analysing the poems of [*insert French poet here*], but things that I would consider so common as to be mundane – filling out a tax form at the end of the year, for instance. This particular document is available in French and German, but not Luxembourgish or English, which meant that I required assistance in deciphering it. We ended up having to use both the German and French versions to decipher the intricacies of what, exactly, is deductible3 and what evidence they need of my UK income.
This was nearly a year ago, and since then I have come to learn that while the average Luxembourger does speak at least two of the official languages, they may not speak all, nor would they necessarily consider themselves ‘native’-level speakers of anything but Luxembourgish. Indeed, many elderly Luxembourgers don’t speak French at all – Nadia’s grandmother being one of them. I find this extraordinarily peculiar given that so many of our shops are staffed predominantly or solely by personnel from France or Belgium, who in turn may not speak German, and certainly not Luxembourgish. What must it be like to not be understood in your own country, I wonder?
When I first moved to Edinburgh, eighteen and fresh out of college, I found myself walking up and down the high street to get my bearings. Hunger soon struck me with a vengeance, and – bear in mind that I was 18 – I spotted the familiar golden arches down the road, and swiftly set off in their direction. Having ordered my meal I was asked something by Scottish cashier, but hadn’t the faintest clue what she’d said. I asked her to repeat, which she did – still nothing. We went through this process a full three times before, with great annoyance, she said: “DO. YOU. WANT. KETCHUP?”
Having graduated college at the top of my English class, I had been stumped by the simple question of whether or not I might enjoy some ketchup with my processed beef slab and fatty potato sticks. “Yes,” I said, and swiftly ran to a table in the far corner of the room to swallow my embarrassment down with a side of sweetened tomato puree. I would never return to this, or any other, McDonalds again. I think I’m a better person for it.
My English improved quite rapidly after that, you will be relieved to hear, so situations such as this arose with ever diminishing frequency. But this was me struggling to comprehend a particularly strong accent of my second language – even the BBC will frequently break out the old subtitles when a Scotsman enters the screen. In Luxembourg, residents have no choice by to learn at least one foreign language to get around in their own country. I can only imagine the chaos that would ensue if it was announced that Polish would become a second official language in the UK, and, a few years down the line, residents would find that some official documents were no longer available in English. Britain First and Nigel Farage’s jolly group of lager-swilling xenophobes would have an absolute field day.
This is an issue (or a topic, for those of you who might take issue with its classification as an issue) that requires analysis beyond what can be carried out in a blog post. For that reason I think we will leave it here or now, but we are working an episode that looks into the curious linguistic situation in Luxembourg – stay tuned for that in the future.
1As someone who lived in Bruntsfield, a lovely middle-class area largely free of students, I would contend that church in question is actually in the less fancy Tollcross area of town. I have to tell myself this to justify the 20% higher rent I was paying for the privilege of living in Bruntsfield.
2I realise that you may be jarred by my sudden transition from “… not two,” to “but four!” – “Where did three go?!” I hear you exclaim. I left it out as a means of cutting down the number of words in this already quite lengthy post, my reasoning being that I had already established a pattern that led up to the great reveal at the end. Please be assured that I can indeed count to four without skipping a beat (or a number) should this be called for. Prospective employers need not worry.
3Very little – these are meagre times for editors cum podcast producers.