The controversy over the teaching of foreign languages is set to hit the headlines again if voters in central Switzerland agree next month to give English priority at primary school level. It is one of the first public ballots on the issue.
On March 8, citizens in the canton of Nidwalden will decide on a rightwing proposal to simplify the curriculum at the primary school level, limiting the number of foreign languages to only one, besides the native German.
It is widely assumed that the change would be at the expense of French, one of Switzerland’s four national languages.
Supporters of the move say it is too great a burden for children up to the age of 12 to learn two foreign languages simultaneously. Instead, French would be taught at secondary school level and more in-depth from grade seven, possibly including student exchange programmes.
The initiative is the brainchild of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party, a leading party in the region near Lucerne.
“Primary school pupils should first learn German and maths properly,” according to a laconic statement by the party.
The cantonal government, headed by the director of the education department – who is himself a member of the People’s Party – backs the initiative despite opposition by a majority in parliament.
Director Res Schmid says years of practical experience with two foreign languages in Nidwalden have been disappointing.
Most major parties as well as the local teachers association are opposed to the initiative. They argue that the roughly 2,300 primary school pupils of Nidwalden would be placed at a disadvantage compared to students of the same age in other regions of the country.
Efforts to streamline foreign language teaching among the country’s 26 cantons could suffer a setback if the proposal passes. “Any such decision by an individual canton would be disastrous,” says Jürg Brühlmann of the Swiss Teachers Association.
“For the moment there is no urgent need to throw our current language policy into disarray,” adds Hans-Peter Zimmermann, who sits in the cantonal parliament for the Christian Democratic Party.
At a public meeting ahead of the vote, opinions were divided not only among the panelists but also in the audience about the language priority.
Language teaching is an emotional issue with political significance in a country with four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh.
The cantonal education authorities have been trying to gradually adapt school curricula. The plan is for all children to learn a second Swiss language plus English by the fifth year in primary school.
But the parliament of canton Thurgau in eastern Switzerland broke ranks last year, striking French from the primary school curriculum and prompting indignation notably in the French-speaking region in western Switzerland.
Initiatives to reduce the teaching of foreign languages at primary school level are pending in two other cantons – Lucerne and Graubünden – further undermining coordination.
Foreign language teaching
German is the first foreign language to be taught at schools in French-speaking Switzerland.
Pupils in German-speaking regions learn either English or French, depending on which canton they live in.
Italian-speaking Ticino gives priority to French as the first foreign language, while in canton Graubünden there is a choice between German, Italian or Romansh.
English is the second foreign language in most cantons.
In August, the cantonal education directors are due to take stock of their reforms, which were launched ten years ago.
The disagreement has raised the spectre of the federal authorities interfering and limiting cantonal autonomy.
Interior Minister Alain Berset has repeatedly warned that he is not willing to tolerate moves to scrap the teaching of a second Swiss language in primary school. The cohesion of the country is at risk if French is no longer part of the curriculum, he says.
“The government will have to use its subsidiary federal powers, enshrined in the constitution, if the cantons can’t agree a coordinated solution for foreign language teaching,” he told parliament last March.
Under a constitutional article in force since 2006, Switzerland’s cantons have to agree on common education goals.