French, English or both? Zurich is the latest canton to decide on whether to teach just one foreign language at primary schools – a move fraught with controversy– when it votes on the issue on May 21.
The initiative “more quality – one foreign language at primary schoolexternal link” has the backing of several teaching organisations. It argues that pupils are overburdened with learning two languages at primary level and that the practice places a large workload on teachers as well, affecting other subjects.
Pupils in the canton currently learn English from age seven and French from age 11, both during primary school.
Backers of the initiative argue that if instructors carefully introduce just one language at the primary level, students will learn a second one faster in secondary school. More time will be set aside for teaching the second language, they say, than if two languages are taught in primary school.
The initiative’s text does not specify which language should be taught first in primary schools.
The canton of Zurich’s government and a majority of its parliament have rejected the initiativeexternal link. They argue that Zurich’s language concept already works very well with two languages and that there is no need to change it.
Also against the move is the “no to abolishing early English” committee, made up of local centre-right politicians and business representatives. It has saidexternal link that the initiative risks “downgrading” Zurich’s education system and would “arbitrarily sacrifice” early English, which is highly popular among both pupils and parents, in favour of other languages like French.
This is not the first time the canton has votedexternal link on the issue: in November 2006, a similar initiative was rejected by 59% of voters.
Language, an emotional debate
The vote comes at a time of increased debate in German-speaking Switzerland over how many languages should be taught to young pupils.
An emotional factor is whether international English should take precedence over the Swiss national language French, traditionally taught for reasons of national cohesion. This meant German-speakers were expected to learn French and vice versa. In French-speaking Switzerland, German is still taught before any other foreign languages.
Interior Minister Alain Berset said in December 2016 that the federal government would not force primary schools to teach the national language of French by law. Cantons are traditionally in charge of education in Switzerland, but the government may intervene under certain circumstances.
But the government has mandated the interior ministry, in charge of education matters, to review the situation should a canton decide not to teach a second national language at the primary school level, Berset said.
Canton Thurgau caused shockwaves when it announced that it had decided to teach English only in primary schools from mid-2018, with French introduced in secondary school. This decision is currently under reviewexternal link in the canton.
Lucerne will vote on a similar initiative to Zurich’s in September. And in 2015, voters in canton Nidwalden roundly rejected a move towards teaching only one language in primary school.
Other votes on school issues
Cantons Basel Country and Solothurn will also vote on education issues on May 21.
Solothurn will decide whether to reject a common curriculum in German-speaking cantons known as “Lehrplan 21”.
Backers argue that the common curriculum harms schools and is an unnecessary reform at the cost of pupils. Those against the initiative, including the cantonal government, say that not adopting Lehrplan 21 would isolate the canton.
To date, similar curriculum votes in other cantons have failed, meaning they plan to adopt the common system.
Canton Basel Country will vote whether secondary school teachers need university degrees. This will ensure higher quality teaching, says the initiative’s backers. The cantonal parliament and government have rejected the initiative, saying such a move will make it hard to find enough teachers in a time of teacher shortages.