Babel Bubbles

When you move to a new country, learning the local language should be a must – at least it’s a very good idea – as a sign of respect, humility and willingness to adapt, but also to make it easier for yourself to get to know people and how things work.

I know all this, of course I do, and I could give you plenty of other reasons and advantages as well, but have I practised what I preach? Let me hurriedly say that I admit this with my head lowered in shame – and I do mean that – but no, I haven’t.

speakMy perception of this little language called Lëtzebuergesch is 1) that it is just that, little and 2) that it is a bit of a funny mix, at least to foreign ears. It is a Mosel-Frankish dialect with a certain Dutch touch -although I think I offended a Luxembourgish ambassador once claiming this, so I might be wrong – and I guess an unavoidable French influence.

Through my glasses, the language reflects the culture and the society – small, somewhat different, with strong French and German influences and an international air. I have also pondered whether this might lead to certain identity issues – the mix of French laissez-faire and German rigidity can be hard to master! But this is of course pure speculation and a tiny digression.

This is what I understood when I was eavesdropping to a phone conversation the other day:

– OK, ça va (OK, that’s fine – French)

– Hald op (stop it – Dutch)

– Bis dann (until then – German)

– Merci villmools (thanks a lot – French and German / local mix)

– Ciao! (Italian and International)

Luckily, by now I pick up quite a bit more than that as well. My main excuse, petty as it might be, for not learning the language is that it is… you know, little. Lëtzebuergesch is spoken by less than 400 000 people and still struggling to become a written language in its own right. It would require a lot of time and effort to learn it, and by that time we might very well be moving on.“Had I known how long we would end up staying…” sounds like a cliché by now, but still I use the same excuse.

Besides, the locals are doing us a huge favour by being admirably multilingual and accepting of all of our languages. With our less linguistically welcoming neighbours France and Germany, the situation is different. The HSBC Expat Explorer Survey shows that expats in France rank as number 3 and in Germany as number 4 when it comes to using the local language, out of 30 countries (Luxembourg is not on the list).

So this is my defense, and not only mine. There are almost as many expats as locals living in Luxembourg, and very many of us don’t learn the language. We come and go, bringing our own language, often showing little interest in the language of the country we’re in. The David and Goliath of the languages, brave little Lëtzebuergesch versus a many-headed linguistic giant.

There are so many language bubbles in the air that you never know which language you’ll hear around the corner. Babel bubbles. Bubbles are fun, linguistic ones as well, but sometimes they can create a certain distance, especially if we stay inside our own. If more of us learned the local language, we would perhaps pop some bubbles.

I still think I should learn the language, and I truly feel bad that I haven’t. But I probably won’t. My loss.


By Unni Holtedahl, February 2012


  1. I have to say I totally agree – to all of it! I try to always greet in Luxembourgish, and then it’s either German or English for me…. I’m aware of that this is in one way disrespectful of the locals but as you wrote – they are so helpfully accepting other languages. I think the “international” language of a big smile helps us pop some of those bubbles as well.


  2. Thank you Liesel for adding that important language 🙂


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