Debate over English goes to heart of Swiss identity

Switzerland's image as a muticultural society at ease with itself, where the various language groups live in relative harmony, is being shaken by an increasingly heated debate over the teaching of English in schools.

This content was published on September 20, 2000 - 16:56


Until recently, one of the national languages was the first foreign tongue a Swiss child would learn - usually French in German-speaking areas and German in French- and Italian-speaking areas.

To the consternation of many, a small number of German-speaking cantons - notably Zurich - have now decided to either introduce English as the first foreign language or scale back the amount of French taught.

But it seems that parents in French-speaking cantons might want to follow suit. In a survey published this week in the French-language Le Matin newspaper, 75 per cent of those polled said they wanted English to replace German as the first foreign language taught.

"English is the language of the internet and of tourism and we live in a tourist country," said one.

"German isn't a global language. Even the Swiss Germans don't speak it. When I hear a government minister speaking in dialect I feel like I live in a different country," another responded.

Yet at the very heart of the debate is the question of Swiss identity. Many fear that if English were to become the most common language of Switzerland, it would mean the end for Swiss culture and national cohesion.

"I understand that, for a lot of people, English is more important than German," says Martine Brunschwig-Graf, head of canton Geneva's education department. "But there is a real danger that English will become the Esperanto of Switzerland."

"We live in a country that has three national languages. We must learn at least two of them and German is the most important language in Switzerland," she told swissinfo.

Brunschwig-Graf has been responsible for boosting the teaching of English in Geneva's schools. But she is adamant that it should not be at the expense of German.

"We mustn't give in to fashion. Young people might hear a lot of English music and play with computers, but we have certain responsibilities. A national language is not only a language. It's a cultural question too," she says.

It was for this reason that she was angered by the decision of her counterpart from canton Zurich, Ernst Buschor, to renege on an agreement by cantonal education chiefs not make any public statements on policy before they held a crucial meeting in November. Brunschwig-Graf was moved at the time to accuse Buschor of arrogance.

"We knew there was a trend away from French and towards English in German-speaking cantons," she told swissinfo.

"But our discussions were about us adopting a common line throughout Switzerland. It's difficult to have a common line after such a decision," she adds.

One of the ironies of the debate is that French, which the German-speaking cantons seem to be moving away from - is, like English, a global language. Yet the High German learned by children in French-speaking areas is not widely spoken in places like Berne, Zurich and Basel.

"The issue is not about the teaching of German in Geneva. It's about the teaching of French in German-speaking cantons," Brunschwig-Graf says.

"The question is: do Swiss-German people want to learn French, are they interested in what goes on in other parts of Switzerland?"

In Switzerland, each individual canton is responsible for setting its own curricula. The federal government has no powers to intervene.

But Buschor's decision that English will take priority over French from 2003, regardless of the outcome of the conference of cantonal education directors in November has prompted parliament to urge the government to step in.

There is much talk in Switzerland of the "Röstigraben" - the imaginary divide that separates French- and German-speaking Switzerland. The debate over the teaching of English is threatening to make that gap wider.

The fear is that if English one day becomes the common language of the Swiss, it could also be what ultimately separates them.

by Roy Probert

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