Newcomers to Luxembourg not only struggle to understand the sheer variety of languages spoken here, but also the seemingly random way that they are used: your German might get you a ticket on a bus but a blank look in a clothes shop, while English might get you an account in a bank but absolutely nowhere with setting up your Internet connection. Maybe you got top marks at school for French or German but are flummoxed by unfamiliar accents or machine gun delivery. Never fear – here’s an introduction to the whys and hows of making yourself understood in the Grand Duchy.
Luxembourgish, French and German are the official and most used languages in Luxembourg. Luxembourgish is a Germanic language and is mainly spoken by the native population, while German tends to be their second language and widely used in local schools. There are also many Germans who live across the border but work in Luxembourg. French is the official written language of the country and is spoken by the large numbers of French and Belgian cross-border workers. English and Portuguese are also common as many companies have selected English as their working language, while the Portuguese are the largest minority group in Luxembourg.
Luxembourgish tends to be spoken by civil servants such as post office clerks, bus drivers and staff in government departments. You’ll also hear it in local bakeries, newsagents and butcher shops. It’s possible to get by with German, French and even English as Luxembourgers are usually proficient in many languages, but its always handy to have a few Luxembourgish phrases on hand. Your effort might help untangle some of the red tape and speed up any requests. The written form was only officially standardised in 1975 and isn’t used as much as French and German.
French and German
In the cities you’ll need some French in most restaurants, clothes shops and supermarkets. This is mainly because a high proportion of service and retail employees are from border towns in French and Belgium, or from elsewhere and speak French as their second language. If you can read French you’ll have a welcome advantage as many contracts, legal documents and forms are written in French.
Outside of the cities German is more commonly spoken especially in the towns near the German border. Most of the national media like the Wort newspaper and the radio stations are in German, however there is the weekly English news magazine News 352.
It obviously depends on where you’ll be living but you could do worse than to learn some French and German before you move over. Get a translation dictionary or two as they’ll be handy if you get stuck. Once you’re here you can take one of the many language classes available or your employer may offer free classes to their staff.
Tips on Making Yourself Understood
You’re bound to have a few panicky moments when your plumber can only speak French or your German is just getting you stonewall stares. Just take a deep breath, swallow your pride and act out what you want – might not be the most dignified way of making yourself understood but chances are the person you’re dealing with will have been in the same position themselves.
You may be delighted to encounter an official in your commune who speaks English but doesn’t seem to understand your requests. Believe it or not, in Luxembourg it is possible to ask the wrong question – just try rephrasing your question or explaining why you are asking for xyz.
Perhaps you’re having a problem with your mobile phone but no-one in their call centre speaks English. Instead, try emailing them or visitingone of their stores and you might get lucky. Otherwise get the translation dictionary out or use Google Translate to get some French or German vocabulary together. Chances are someone will have enough English to fill in the blanks.
In short: think ahead, don’t forget your smile and your sense of humour, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and keep trying!