English challenges multilingual Switzerland

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The language debate is reaching new heights in Switzerland with French and Italian speakers uneasy about the progressive abandonment of their languages by the German-speaking community in favour of English.

This content was published on June 1, 2012 - 11:00

German-speaking cantonal governments have been responding to what they say is pressure from the globalised economy by gradually giving English priority over the national languages at school; English - not French – is taught as a second language in 14 of the 17 cantons.

Coupled with that, large Swiss companies now tend to use English as their main language of communication. But the reality is not so clear-cut.

Although English is gaining ground, a recent study does not back up “fears of its absolute dominion in the economy”, according to Raphael Berthele of Fribourg University’s institute of multilingualism.

The impact of English differs within various business sectors, says Berthele, who carried out the study in Switzerland as part of the British Council’s international project Language Rich Europe (LRE).

Georges Lüdi, a professor of linguistics at Basel University confirms the variety of practices within different sized businesses.

"In large companies, the leaders all focus on English, but within these companies many languages are spoken. Often there are mixed work groups, with people of different native languages communicating together in a variety of languages," he notes.

It turns out though that in many small and medium-sized companies, staff only use one language at work: the local one.

“However, we do not have precise research on people’s linguistic skills,” says Lüdi. There would need to be more wide-ranging studies on languages used in the workplace.”

Academic language

Meanwhile, the use of English is expanding quickly in another direction at Swiss universities.

"Especially in the natural sciences, at the master and doctoral levels, it is more and more apparent," notes Berthele. "The question is: is this a problem? It depends on how you look at it."

For Lüdi, it is definitely an issue. "In every language, concepts, modes of thinking, interpretations vary,” he points out.

“Our mother tongue has an enormous importance even for understanding science. For this reason, the National Science Foundation is in favour of multilingual science. It is important to master English, but also other languages."

Italian the biggest loser

Italian’s part in the national language learning experience is shrinking and its erosion seems unstoppable.

It is losing ground to immigrant languages – especially Spanish. A trend not just observed in schools, but in all the fields examined by the Language Rich Europe study.

The phenomenon is linked in part to declining immigration from Italy. According to federal census data, the proportion of foreign-born citizens who spoke Italian in 1960 was 54 per cent. This share shrunk to 14.8 per cent in 2000.

But Italian isn’t about to disappear off the language map of Switzerland, since it is still going strong on its own territory, as Berthele points out.

Italian-speaking Switzerland has the highest proportion of people who speak Italian at home but have another mother tongue.

"On the other hand, Italian-speakers in German-speaking Switzerland have much less of a tendency to use German, or Swiss-German dialect, in the family setting," says Berthele.

Making the most of multilingualism

With its four national languages plus those of immigrants, Switzerland possesses a wide range of language resources. Wisely used, they could contribute to national cohesion. 

The Language Rich Europe project could help reach that goal. A brainchild of the British Council, it aims to develop and optimise multilingual policies and practices throughout Europe. (See sidebar)

The project "brings a new dimension: the comparison between different countries and different regions", remarks Lüdi. Results and best  practice from across Europe will be shared in a conference in London in December.

Language figures

Distribution of languages in the Swiss population according to the federal census of 2000:

German 63.7%

French 20.4%

Italian 6.5%

Romansh 0.5%

Others 9.0%.

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Language Rich Europe

The British Council’s project Language Rich Europe compares policies and practices of national, foreign, regional, minority and immigrant languages in 18 countries of Europe including Switzerland.

In each country partner researchers collected data between April 2011 and April 2012 on the teaching of languages from preschool to university, on media, the private sector, public spaces and public services, official documents and databases, then analysed them and produced a report.

The draft for review appeared in May. The first country in which it was discussed with interested parties was Switzerland - on May 23 at Bern University. Presentations for other countries will follow.

In December an international conference will be held in London, with the publication of results and good practices. A final conference will be held in Brussels in March 2013 to present a series of recommendations to the EU.

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Swiss initiative

To promote multilingualism in Switzerland, the Forum Helveticum association launched an initiative in May called the forum for linguistic and cultural understanding. It aims "to promote better awareness in Swiss society that multilingualism and cultural pluralism are a great opportunity and create added value".

It is a centre of competence providing a professional structure, consulting, projects, contacts, organisation of meetings, and proposals for action.

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