Multilingualism as an opportunity and a challenge for higher education

By Camille FratiLex Kleren Switch to French for original article

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The cohabitation of the country's three languages is a question of balance in higher education, between inclusion and international openness.

Trilingual by heritage, the Grand Duchy assumes that it must juggle between Luxembourgish, French and German. However, the traditional contours of the three languages are being challenged by the evolution of society and the country’s place in the world. English now has a prominent place in economic relations, among others.

Multilingualism remains a tremendous opportunity and a key asset for the country, but it is also a challenge to be applied in higher education. The existing language division in basic and secondary education disappears after the secondary school final exams have been passed, leaving room for the discretionary decision of the institution.

Agathe*, aged 18, is enrolled in one of the 30 BTS accredited in the Grand Duchy. French and living just across the French border, she does not understand Luxembourgish, which should not have posed any difficulty since her education is supposed to be taught in the language of Molière. Except that teachers tend to speak more in Luxembourgish, the mother tongue of most students. “We had to ask them to speak in French, ” explains Agathe. “The teachers agreed, but the other students didn’t like it.”

Three months after the start of the school year, most of the lessons are held in French or, if the teacher speaks Luxembourgish, the teacher makes sure that he or she repeats in French for the French-speaking students in the class. But the atmosphere in the class has taken a hit. “We tried to mix with the other students but they keep to themselves, ” deplores Agathe. “We still hear a lot of unpleasant remarks in class and outside.”

A difficult situation for the young woman and her French classmates. “The first few weeks I cried a lot, it was hard. There were mornings when I didn’t want to go. But we helped each other.” As for the teachers, “they tell the others to stop talking or laughing in class, but they don’t intervene about the mockery”.

 "The choice of languages of instruction should be made according to the needs of the field".

Christiane Huberty, Government Counsellor, Ministry of Higher Education and Research

The Ministry of Higher Education and Research assures that it has “not heard” of such tensions between students. “If such situations arise, it is up to the student to speak to the college management, ” says Christiane Huberty, government councilor in charge of coordinating higher education. “Sometimes students contest the result of an exam and file an ex gratia appeal, in which case we ask for a report from the college, but we have never been seized until now concerning a conflict situation regarding language”.

Anxious not to break Agathe’s* anonymity, the Lëtzebuerger Journal did not question her establishment, but the ECG (École de commerce et de gestion) which puts forward thirty years of experience in bac +2 training. “No tension was reported to me”, assures its director Joseph Britz. "As everywhere, groups are formed but there is still a good understanding.”

Twelve schools, including the Lycée technique des arts et métiers, share the 30 BTS offered in the country.

In fact, the language of instruction for the BTS is not chosen vertically and centrally by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research as is the case in secondary education under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education, Children and Youth. “The ministry is responsible for accrediting BTS programs drawn up by curricular groups made up of teachers from the high school from which the project originates and representatives of the professional milieu concerned, ” explains Huberty.

Accreditation is valid for five years and is given the green light by an independent committee comprising experts in the subjects concerned, experts in quality assurance at higher education level and representatives of the target profession. Priority objective: “the holder of a BTS should be able to enter working life immediately, ” says Huberty. 

Languages are one of the ministry’s validation criteria. “The choice of languages of instruction should be made according to the needs of the field”Huberty stresses. “This is the approach that the ministry supports. And generally speaking, for Luxembourg, it is clear that we cannot do without multilingualism.”

English, an unavoidable rival

Among the thirty BTSs awarded by 12 approved establishments, almost all are taught at least in French, to which English is increasingly being added, for example in the fields of tourism and the hotel industry or even computerization and digitalization. German is still making a place for itself in the BTSs dedicated to the craft industry. 

“French remains the main language in Luxembourg for administrative purposes”, Mr. Britz agrees, “but we are adding more and more English to our economic and administrative BTS because this language is gaining in importance. It is absolutely necessary that our young people know how to express themselves correctly in English with the appropriate administrative terms”.


As for Luxembourgish, it is generally not a vehicular language unless there are specific needs, as in the BTS in media writing intended for budding journalists. The latter even offers a course in Luxembourgish to enable French-speakers to learn the language and others to master its writing. Apart from this exception, no exams are held in the language of Dicks.

The origin of the students also plays a role in this choice. “Courses cannot be given in Luxembourgish, otherwise French-speaking students would not be able to follow them, ” says Britz. However, these border recruits – and also residents – are the driving force behind these courses: they represent 28% of those enrolled in the BTS commerce and marketing and 10% of those enrolled in the BTS accounting at the ECG. They are students who intend to enter the job market in Luxembourg and want to give themselves every chance by presenting a local diploma.

“An asset, a strength and a challenge” for the Uni

Openness and diversity also guide the language policy of the University of Luxembourg, which spearheads the country’s higher education with a student population of 6,000. “We want the university to reflect the multilingual character of the country and we know that being multilingual is very important for the employability of our students in Luxembourg and abroad, ” says Catherine Léglu, academic vice-rector of the Uni.

In fact, the Uni has set down in black and white its “Multilingualism Policy”, drawn up by an ad hoc working group and approved by its governing board. As a matter of principle, the Uni recognizes four languages: German, French, English and Luxembourgish. “Each of these four languages has a particular role at the University, deriving from its position as an academic, legal or national language, from the context of disciplinary research or from the specificities of a teaching program”, states the 12-page document.

English, French and German are the main languages of instruction, while Luxembourgish only appears in some humanities and social sciences programs. As with the BTS, professional reality dictates the linguistic use of each curriculum. “For example, it is absolutely essential for a student in education sciences who is going to study basic education to master French, German and Luxembourgish, ” says Léglu. “And since law is written in French, the Bachelor of Laws degree is mainly taught in this language.” With a few specificities since German is required for a student wishing to study criminology, if only because it is the language of the reports of the Grand-Ducal police force. The same goes for future engineers who will probably have to work on the German side, even if English remains central.

“Very few universities are really multilingual, ” says Léglu. For a program to be considered as such, each of the three languages must account for at least 20% of teaching. Countries praised for the linguistic openness of their universities, such as the Netherlands or the Scandinavian countries, often only offer bilingual programs combining English and the national language.

“Multilingualism is an asset, a strength and a challenge – and I hope not a weakness, ” says Léglu, aware that this criterion attracts students as much as it can frighten them. The same applies to teacher-researchers who must have a command of at least English and undertake, if they speak neither French nor German, “to learn within three years one of the two languages at the minimum B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages if they wish to be considered for promotion or a permanent contract, ” says the University’s language policy.

As for students, “they must have proven skills or several years of school learning to be admitted to a course” adds Léglu. At this level of study, the profile of less well-off students changes compared to the BTS. “Some students in the French baccalaureate program complain that there are a lot of students from the Greater Region, who are perfectly French-speaking, whereas they themselves would appreciate the teacher spending more time on certain explanations” she reports. “It’s up to the teacher to bear in mind that he doesn’t teach in a 100% French-speaking environment and that technical vocabulary needs to be explained more.”

Especially since at the Master’s level there are graduate students from German universities who do not find their mother tongue among those used on campus. “It goes well in principle, but they need support and explanations” says Léglu. There are also technical language courses, for example in economics.

Professors are also asked to explain the course and examination procedures in French and English to ensure that all students understand them. “There are sometimes tensions, especially in courses given in a language that is not the mother tongue of either the students or the teacher” admits Léglu, who emphasizes the “shared learning” that this can generate. “Group work is often quite useful, especially for students who are less confident in a language. It brings both mutual help and an opportunity to force oneself to express oneself.” 

A modus vivendi confirmed by a French 3rd year law student. “The courses are 60% in French and 40% in English. Many of the students in my class are French, but everyone has a fairly good level of English. The very first law course in English was not an easy one to take – without ever having studied law or knowing the legal vocabulary in English… But if we have difficulty understanding, we can go to the teacher and ask for more explanations.”

The temptation of remaining between oneself

Denis Scuto, associate professor and head of contemporary history of Luxembourg at the Centre d’histoire contemporaine et digitale (C2DH), makes the same observation. “I have never encountered any difficulties. Some students sometimes have problems with the language, especially those from the Erasmus program, and take language courses alongside them. It also happens that some French people have difficulties with English at master’s level.” As for Luxembourgish, “I can sometimes express myself in this language if a working group is made up of Luxembourgers, but it is neither possible nor desirable for Luxembourgish to be a lingua franca. Bilingualism is developing more and more in the university world, but multilingualism is the specificity and strength of Luxembourg.”

This multilingualism finally puts everyone on an almost equal footing: teachers and students are often required to give or follow a course in a language other than their mother tongue. “And for exams, students can choose the language in which they want to express themselves”, says Scuto.


Such is the Grand Duchy’s opportunity and challenge: to defend its multilingualism, the key to its openness and attractiveness, while ensuring a balanced presence of each official language in the face of the steamroller of English. “We would be making a serious mistake by ignoring the increasingly important role of English, but we will never turn 100% to English”, notes Britz. “We are in Luxembourg, we live by multilingualism and we need it.” All this while trying to integrate all students, whether they are Luxembourgish, French, German or of other nationalities, of remaining between oneself is great. 

*The first name has been changed to preserve the anonymity of this student.