Getting people to pay for something that will only directly benefit someone else is always going to be a bit of a struggle. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that a recent petition to make Luxembourgish classes ‘free’ was met with mixed reactions.

Naturally the classes would only be ‘free’ in the sense that they would be paid for with tax money, which means they would actually be anything but. The alternative would be to seize learning facilities by force and enslave language teachers, forced not only to work without pay but somehow find a side-hustle that brings in sufficient income to buy food. This would also lead to the problem of how we are going to pay for the small private militia needed to storm and secure learning facilities (and given that we are in Luxembourg this should be quite possible), which in the end may actually mean that whomever is in charge of this educational rebellion would have to collect a small fee from each citizen to fund the project. At that point what we’ve got is basically a new government with a very specific agenda, which renders the whole endeavour kind of pointless. In fact, if we are already collecting taxes to pay for an army we may as well raise them slightly to actually pay the teachers as well.

Given these two options, I think it’s fair to assume that people in favour of ‘free’ classes actually want the (extant) government to set aside a part of its budget to pay for the classes. If we accept that the classes would be ‘free’ in the sense that they do not require direct contribution from prospective students, and that the funding will come from taxes, this leads to the question of why free classes should be offered.

While comments on RTL Today’s Facebook page were quite positive, I noted that discussions elsewhere on Facebook (notably the ‘Luxembourg Expats’ page) were more divided. The three core arguments against the proposal seem to be:

  1. If Luxembourgish classes are free, should there not be free French and German courses as well?
  2. The money would be better used elsewhere, for instance by offering free public transport, and salaries are already high enough that people should be able to afford to pay for themselves.
  3. Free things lose their value, meaning that people will be less motivated to attend if they don’t pay for it themselves.
These are all fairly valid arguments, but to my mind they fail to appreciate the core issue. While Luxembourg has three official languages, only one of them is the actual mother tongue of (many) Luxembourgers. Yes, they learn French and German (and English) in school, but many speak Luxembourgish at home. This means that while many – but not all – Luxembourgers are fully capable of communicating in the other two official languages, their preference may well be to speak Luxembourgish.

More importantly, there are many who cannot actually speak all three languages. A 2015 Politico article quotes Marie-Christine Wirion, then assistant director of the solidarity and integration department at Caritas, as saying:

“We can’t really speak our mother tongue any more because most people here don’t understand it […] Especially for older people, that creates a lot of anxiety – they can’t speak with their doctor in their own language […]”

This is an issue that I have personally noted as well. My partner is Luxembourgish, and her grandmother does not speak French – considering the prevalence of Francophone workers in service roles, this is somewhat problematic and places quite severe limitations on the options available to her.

As for there being other options for how the money might be spent, this will always be the case. Such is the nature of finite budgets, and while e.g. free public transport would certainly be welcome, it is arguably be less of a priority than the ability to communicate with locals.

Luxembourgers are astoundingly linguistically tolerant, but I think we must see this for what it is – a courtesy. Given that the government is putting in place measures to solidify the importance of Luxembourgish, removing barriers to learning the language would seem a logical first step. That, and making more classes available at times convenient to people in employment.

Martin Jonsson is a freelance journalist and produces Lëtzcast, a podcast about Luxembourg.