Teaching unions in Switzerland have come out for the obligatory teaching of French at primary schools – like the government - but leave the cantons some space in deciding how they do this. The move comes at a time when some cantons are moving towards teaching English first.
In July the government said that the teaching of a second national language should begin at primary school and that there should be a minimum of harmonisation in primary language teaching across the cantons.
It was reacting to moves in several German-speaking cantons to stop teaching French at primary level, preferring English instead, which had caused an outcry in some quarters. The teaching of French is seen as essential for cohesion in multilingual Switzerland.
Interior Minister Alain Berset adopted a softly-softly approach – education being the domain of the cantons under the Swiss system of direct democracy – and sent three proposals on how to resolve the language row out for consultation (see infobox).
Meeting in September, the unions from the two language regions decided on the third variant which gives more flexibility to the cantons.
This would mean that those cantons that want to teach English first could do so, but French (or Italian) would still be taught at primary schools until the end of obligatory school (after 11 years of schooling, generally).
In 2004, the cantonal education directors created a national language strategy that said all cantons must teach two “foreign” languages in Swiss primary schools: English, and one Swiss national language of each canton’s choice.
Since then, the controversy over the teaching of additional languages during the nine years of compulsory schooling has been fuelled by opposition at both grassroots and parliamentary levels. People’s initiatives are underway in several cantons – such as in canton Zurich, for the teaching of only one language at primary level over fears pupils are overburdened. There are cases pending before the Federal Court.
Canton Aargau, for example, has proposed just one year of obligatory French lessons, while Thurgau announced in spring that it wants to stop teaching French at primary level altogether.
Cantonal education directors have already warned against any attempt to undermine cantonal autonomy. They have appealed for patience, respect and an objective debate on the issue of primary school languages.
Berset’s three variants
1. Second national language begins from 5th primary school year at the latest
2. First foreign language from year 3, second from year 5; one language is a national one, one is English, cantons to decide which order
3. Second national language from primary school until the end of obligatory schooling (government favours this one)
swissinfo.ch and agencies