A View from the Grand Duchy: Reflections on What I Learned in Luxembourg

Moien, Äddi, and Kaweechelchen are the three Luxembourgish (Lëtzebuergesch) words I know. They were committed to memory during my recent stint as a Fulbright Faculty Fellow at the University of Luxembourg where from February through June of this year I taught American Studies courses in the Faculty of Language and Literature, Humanities, Arts and Education. The first two words (Hello and Goodbye) seem obvious; they allowed me some modicum of respectability as I entered and left meetings, shops and the like in my adopted country. The final one (squirrel) is thanks to my students whose multilingualism and linguistic and cultural curiosity led us on many occasions to play with sounds and words and explore the similarities and differences between Luxembourgish, English, German and French – the languages of daily life and academe in this country–the world’s last remaining Grand Duchy. Luxembourg is a proud sovereign nation of half a million people. Its 2,500 square kilometers (a bit smaller than Rhode Island) of rolling hills and rivers nestled between France, Germany and Belgium where it was ground-zero for much of what we know as the Battle of the Bulge. Upon arrival I found myself in the midst of a nation that, while extolling a national cultural identity separate from that of its neighbors, functions in many ways as a border culture on a nation-wide scale with cross-border workers, linguistic and cultural blendings and the associated questions of nation, identity, power, rights and “belonging”. It is a cultural critics dream.

I have a confession to make: when I found out that I had, in fact, been invited as a Fulbrighter at the Univ. of Luxembourg about a year and a half ago, I was ignorant of so much: what was “Luxembourgish”? What exactly was a “Grand Duchy”? How unique (really?) was Luxembourg among the nations of Western Europe and how would I, as an American, be seen, received, understood….? I knew that Luxembourg was very small, an international center for banking, and home to both the permanent exhibit of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibit (he was a native son) and some EU activities. Other than that, I was in the dark—not unlike, I suppose, many of my fellow Americans. My learning curve was steep. As I taught courses on “American Identities” (exploring the origins and validity of commonly-held ideas about the US) and a course on “The History and Literature of US Immigration”(examining the creation and formal structure of “immigrant narratives” in the US) I found myself increasingly caught up in a comparative framework in which I and my students (and colleagues) reflected on how and why Luxembourg identity is created, defined, maintained (or not) and about such hot-button issues as immigration policy, language policy, religion and civil society and the acceptance of racial and ethnic minorities – in the US and in Luxembourg. So many humanities/policy issues emerged that I have had to rein myself in here and will offer merely two points for thought:

Language and identity: In an earlier post I wrote about the lack of bilingual education in the US and the impact of this on the US’s future ability to engage fully in global goings-on. I am even more convinced of this now. In my university classes this spring (taught in English) I found myself among 18-21 year olds who, if Luxembourgish (there were also Erasmus students from across Europe) spoke Luxembourgish, German, French and English. All are an essential part of Luxembourgish society and all are part of the public education system. This pluri-lingualism is unique, functions as a cultural marker and is being closely studied by many of my colleagues at the University and from across the globe from policy and linguistic perspectives. I was drawn into and fascinated by this discussion on many levels but as a practical matter in my classroom it allowed me and my students to range far and wide, reading some items in the original, clarifying words and concepts by reverting to their linguistic roots and, most importantly allowing students from all over Europe and the world to communicate with one another and engage fully in the intellectual and social worlds of many cultures. To hear students switching back and forth from one to another language mid-sentence and to assist each other in certain areas where one was a bit weaker and another stronger was amazing. There is no other word for it.

Yet what is most thought-provoking is that that this pluri-lingualism exists in a nation that does have a national language. Passed in 1984 the Luxembourg language law established Luxembourgish (once merely a spoken German dialect) as the national language of Luxembourgers. Since 2001 naturalization is dependent upon a prospective new citizen possessing a baseline knowledge of the language. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that, as the multidisciplinary authors of a wonderful new book Inventing Luxembourg put it “the processes of inventing Luxembourg and inventing Luxembourgish are closely linked.” (p. 229) The spoken, familiar language of the majority of Luxembourgers is Luxembourg and it is the language of early childhood education. So how/why the pluri-lingualism I encountered? Because the ’84 law also established the following in its remaining three articles:

Article 2 – Language of legislation

Legislative acts and their regulations are written in French. When accompanied by a translation, only the French text is valid…

Article 3- Administrative and judicial languages

In administrative matters, contentious or not, and in judicial matters, French, German or Luxembourgish may be used…

Article 4 – Administrative requests

When an inquiry is written in Luxembourgish, French or German, the administration has to reply in the language chosen by the applicant if feasible.

Ironically, very few official or public documents are available in Luxembourgish meaning that as I moved from the rental office to the post office to my classroom to shops and restaurants I moved between and among all of these languages (albeit only functioning well in French). There are many debates in Luxembourg about this linguistic-citizenship link (related to immigration) and the privileging of French in the political realm, but in contrast to the US where there is no official US language but where English functions as the de facto national language, Luxembourgers live in a place where the existence of a national language has done nothing to squelch public promotion and legislation of plurilingualism. (By law public education prepares students in all of the languages mentioned in the language law). The two policy points are mutually exclusive.

Immigration and Immigrants as Workers: If there was one common belief my students had about the US (other than ideas about Hollywood stars) it was about the US as a “nation of immigrants” and as a place where “the American Dream” was possible for those who immigrated. Some of my assignments furthered this idea – such as the oral history project I coordinated with the Luxembourg American Cultural Society in which my students recorded family narratives from the descendents of Luxembourg immigrants in the US. And when the Arizona immigration debate emerged mid-semester I was ecstatic: here was a debate and a story that might introduce alternative immigration narratives. And, as I imagined, as my students read arguments on many sides and explored the linked issues of ethnicity, language and immigration in the US, they were quickly shocked that there were some in the US who did not see immigration as a good thing, that there was a history of the US employing immigrants (legal and other wise) in low-wage work when convenient, and that some US immigrants did not see the US as fulfilling their dreams.

Initially the students commented a great deal on what they thought was hypocrisy in the US (“But the US is a nation of immigrants…why do you want keep people out”?) but soon the discussions became more nuanced and at the same time more reflexive. To discuss current US immigration so openly was to offer students a way and a place to discuss Luxembourg’s immigration and labor issues openly too. And over time our discussions were about Luxembourg. In a nation that has a strong social system with national health, pension and other services, maintaining a balance between population and resources is critical and immigration is somewhat limited.

At the same time, not unlike the US, Luxembourg has historically and currently welcomed those who had skills and desire to help grow certain industries. In 2010 this happens in the financial sector but in the 1950s – 1980s as the nation’s steel industry grew to great prominence Luxembourg welcomed workers (both temporary and permanent) from Italy and then Portugal whose labor was critical to economic growth, but whose practices of temporary or non-permanent status, remittances to families “back home”, and lack of Luxembourgish language acquisition has continued to shape many discussions about immigration and nationalism.

All spring long my students continually drew parallels between US discussions of immigrants and the issues in their own country. Ideas about ethnicity, language and economic need (both for the country and the individuals doing the migrating) were hard to untangle – in either our US or our Luxembourg contexts. For certain the parallels are limited (for example, the creation of the EU has changed the legal position of other EU citizens who wish to work or live in Luxembourg on a temporary basis) but worth examining for what we can learn about large global questions of migration, nations and globalization.

We also explored the question of cross-border workers in both discussions. In Luxembourg the economy depends on cross-border workers who make up 40% of the country’s private sector workforce. Every day workers living in bordering countries (where the cost of living is less), come in on the highways and trains to work and then return home at night. These workers are recognized as essential to the Luxembourg economy but there are questions and discussions in many sectors about how such a large non-resident workforce impacts services or national pride and whether it diminishes in any way the idea of being “Luxembourgish”. For my students this cross-border workforce is a fact of life and as they began to study and learn about border cultures and border areas of the US and Mexico in my class they suggested that perhaps it might work for certain sectors in the US as a third option in the immigration debate there.

As I leave the Grand Duchy I will remember the stunningly rugged rocky crag upon with Luxembourg City is perched, the banks of the Moselle river, and the welcome I received from my colleagues and neighbors. But perhaps what will be hardest to forget is the complex tapestry of language, people and geography that shape and challenge the idea of a “Luxembourg identity”. I wish that I had known more about this border-nation before I arrived. If so I would have taught a bit of Gloria Anzaldua’s magnificent Borderlands/LaFrontera and tackled head on the ways in which borders are inhabited places that create and erase and complicate identities again and again and again. I will be thinking for a long time about Luxembourg…this place that holds unity and borderland in tension. Äddi et auf wiedersehen mes amis. (And if you are following the Tour De France, Andy Schleck—the current leader – is a Luxembourger. )

Photos: Liz Duclos-Orsello

Author: Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

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