Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Stéphanie's Luxembourgish: What an Expert Has to Say

Liz Wenger
Since Hereditary Grand Duchess Stéphanie gave her first Luxembourgish interview about a week ago, there has been quite some discussion going on about just how good her Luxembourgish is and so we thought we'd get an expert opinion. 

Thus we asked Liz Wenger, a born Luxembourger and certified Luxembourgish teacher, who kindly agreed to giving us her opinion in an interview. Liz is the writer and founder of Learn Luxembourgish, a website focusing on teaching Luxembourgish to English speakers around the world. Also follow her on Twitter at @LearnLuxembourgish to get your daily dose of the Grand Duchy's language.

The Luxembourgish language is a bit obscure to many people. Some don't even know that it is an own language. What are some of the most important characteristics and what are the challenges that someone learning Luxembourgish faces? 

Yes, people often ask me whether Luxembourgish is simply a German dialect. There is some truth to that as German and Luxembourgish share common roots, i.e. they are part of the Germanic languages. So is Dutch, by the way, and English, but no one would argue that Dutch or English are only and simply German dialects. 

To me it is clear that Luxembourgish is a language of its own: it is spoken primarily in the country of Luxembourg, is different enough from Standard German that a lot of Germans can’t understand it, and it is tightly linked to the identity of the Luxembourgish people.
Linguistically, Luxembourgish belongs to the West Central German group of High German languages and is considered a Moselle Franconian language. There are many differences between German and Luxembourgish, ranging from pronunciation and spelling (G.: das Schiff, L.: d’Schëff, E.: the ship) to grammar (differences with the grammatical case called genitive, for example: die Bluse des Mädchens, dem Meedche seng Blus, the girl’s blouse) and vocabulary (Murmeln, Jicken, marbles). 

Learners of Luxembourgish face different challenges depending on their mother language, of course. Other than that, they often struggle with the fact that Luxembourgish has a lot of variations, whether it is pronunciation (“Ech dinn en Hiem un” versus “Ech doen en Hiem un” - I’m putting on a shirt), grammar (there are three different ways of saying “she”: hatt, et, si) or vocabulary (I say “Ram”, other people say “Schmant” for cream). I don’t consider that a weakness though. It is a part of the rich heritage of Luxembourgish, which makes the language interesting and fun. Learning Luxembourgish is not more and not less challenging than learning any other foreign language.

So how does Hereditary Grand Duchess Stéphanie's Luxembourgish sound to you? How does it stack up to that of other people who have been learning the language for about two years? Would you be able to say how much time it has likely taken her to reach the level she is currently at? (Only a few hours a week or constant practice?)

I first heard Hereditary Grand Duchess Stéphanie speak Luxembourgish in her exclusive interview with RTL on June 24th and thought her Luxembourgish was excellent. She was born in Belgium and, yes, allegedly only started learning it two years ago. She has definitely learned it very fast. Even with constant practice, achieving language proficiency up to that level is very hard. She must be taking her language learning very seriously in order to sound as good as she did. 

Malicious rumours claim that she memorized her answers, but listening to what she is saying and how she is saying it, it is clear that she masters the Luxembourgish sentence structure, pronunciation and vocabulary. She uses typical Luxembourgish phrases like “ech mengen” (I think), complex vocabulary “e ganz wichtege Bestanddeel” (an important component) and she does make a few mistakes indicating that she is speaking freely (“gréisst Ënnerscheed” instead of “gréissten Ënnerscheed” - biggest difference).

I’m pretty sure she practised a little bit for the occasion, but, honestly, who wouldn’t prepare for a TV interview? 

Do you think it helped the Hereditary Grand Duchess that she is fluent in German (and French)? Is it generally easier to learn Luxembourgish if you know German? 

In general I would say that the more languages you speak, the easier it is to learn new ones because you know how you yourself learn a language best and because your brain has already made certain connections that can facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge. 

Sometimes knowing one language can get in the way of learning another and habits that work in one language have to be “unlearned” because they don’t work in another language. In the example of Hereditary Grand Duchess Stéphanie, we can hear her pronounce the Luxembourgish “Leit” (people) and “frou” (happy) more like the German “Leute” and “froh”. 

How easy (or difficult) will it be for her to make further progress, maybe to sound like a native some day? Is it difficult to immerse yourself in the language considering that a lot of French is spoken in public life (when you go to the shops for example)? 

Judging by the existent but small accent she has when speaking Luxembourgish after just two years of learning it, I would say that it is absolutely possible for her to sound like a native some day. I would recommend that she forces herself to speak only Luxembourgish for at least one hour a day. This is difficult for all foreigners learning Luxembourgish because a lot of people you meet and talk to each day do not speak Luxembourgish. But if she can do that, it will be immensely beneficial to her fluency and the ease with which she will eventually be able to speak it. 

To sound native in a language, you also need someone to persistently correct every little mistake you make, be it related to grammar, syntax, vocabulary or pronunciation. In Stéphanie’s case, this will be more difficult as people generally don’t dare to correct a hereditary grand duchess. 

How important is the Luxembourgish language to the people of Luxembourg? The Grand Ducal Family occasionally faces criticism for allegedly being Francophile. Some people actually seemed surprised that Stéphanie gave the entire interview in Luxembourgish. Do you think her commitment to learning Luxembourgish will endear her to the people? 

When the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was created during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, it was not so much out of the will of the people but more out of the will of Great Britain to create a “buffer state” between France and Prussia. At that time, the people living in Luxembourg did not really feel “Luxembourgish” but over time, one of the factors that contributed to the Luxembourgish identity the most was the language that (almost) everyone had in common: Luxembourgish. 

From this point of view, the Luxembourgish language is extremely important to the people of Luxembourg and speaking it is a must for the Grand Ducal Family.

Once again, thank you to Liz Wenger for giving us an insight into both the Luxembourgish language in general as well as Hereditary Grand Duchess Stéphanie's language skills in particular.

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