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Trilingual and Proud: One Country’s Path to 0.5 Million Polyglots

There’s a country in Europe which you would probably have difficulties finding on a map. And even if you did, you would have to think hard to come up with anything noteworthy about it. Today, you’ll find out how one tiny country manages to turn its children into polyglots – with style and little effort.

Get ready for a trip to Luxembourg!


This landlocked country in Western Europe ticks all the boxes for an “old, quaint and slightly boring European place.” It is the world’s oldest Grand Duchy (ruled by a prince, in case you were wondering). Many agencies and institutions of the EU are located here. History, rolling hills, business. Yawn.

The fun part begins when you look at the country’s education system. Yes, I know: it’s almost impossible to use “fun” and “education” in one sentence. And yet – there’s something unique about the Luxembourgish schools.


Three languages, one system

Luxembourg recognises three official languages: Luxembourgish (also known as Letzeburgesh), French and German. Each of these can be used, heard and read throughout the land – each has its press and authors, and is present in the community. This makes sense in Western Europe, which has for centuries dealt with shifting borders, migrations and other countries’ influences – and it certainly makes sense for a tiny country which borders such giants as France and Germany to be influenced by their languages.

The problem begins when it’s time to teach somebody something. How to deal with these three languages in a fair and modern manner? Establishing separate schools with only one language would just lead to a segmentation of a nation that’s small enough already – and to isolating communities from one another.

So here’s what the Luxembourgers did instead.


Learn Them All

Tuition in Luxembourg begins in nursery school. There, all kids are taught in Letzeburgesh. The language is used for school instruction until primary school.

When Luxembourgish kids go to primary schools, they still learn in Letzeburgesh – but German is introduced in their first year as a school subject. By the end of grade six, German takes over as the language of instruction.

The instruction in German takes quite a long time, but by the time those little Luxembourgers make it to the secondary school, they already know a lot of French, too (it’s introduced in grade 2 of primary school). Towards the end of secondary education – in its fourth year – French becomes the language of instruction for the students. The longer one remains in education, the more French they’re exposed to. (Read more about it – here)


21st Century Polyglots

The system described above is bold, modern and surprisingly effective. It’s a response to Europe’s cosmopolitan and fast-paced reality: by encouraging children to learn about the world in three different languages, the schools are also preparing them to adapt several world views, look at things from different perspectives – and to find various ways of expressing their ideas. From a merely pragmatic point of view, this system turns Luxembourgers into insanely employable folks (did I mention that most people in Luxembourg are also fluent in English), which comes in handy when you live in the heart of European Union.

And the fact that kids start off by learning in Letzeburgesh is more than just a nice touch. The country seems to be well aware of its geopolitical position – and of the possibility of simply losing its inhabitants to its more attractive neighbours. Placing Letzeburgesh at the foundation of this trilingual leviathan means that it remains “a language of the heart” – the first language for many little Luxembourgers, and the one they often most cherish. Hence, despite a more powerful socioeconomic status of both French and English, the position of Luxembourgish seems unthreatened.


Food For Thought: What’s Wrong With Variety?

You don’t have to live in Luxembourg to pull of that trilingual trick. In fact, by doing it on a small scale you’re much more flexible and independent. You can choose your own languages to make up your own mix.

Becoming multilingual – as you can see on the above example – is more than just a fashion or a craze. Luxembourg recognised early on that in today’s complicated reality, multilingualism is an asset (it can’t be an accident that Luxembourg’s GDP per capita is the highest in the world).


Here’s a quick question for you then: if you were to become multilingual – which languages would you choose, and why?

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