Switzerland's cantonal education directors on Thursday began their annual conference in Montreux at which they will consider the controversial decision by canton Zurich to begin a pilot project of early English teaching in some schools.
Many cantons, especially in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, believe Swiss children should learn one of the Swiss national languages, such as French, as a first foreign language.
But Zurich education officials are adamant that English is the language both parents and children want to learn first.
Regine Fretz, in charge of curriculum matters at canton Zurich's department of education, says children are especially motivated to learn English, because it is such a dominant language.
"They see and hear it everywhere - in advertising, in pop music, or when they work on the computer," she told wissinfo. "And parents in our canton have told us clearly that they want English first. What are we supposed to do? Surely we should take the wishes of our parents seriously?"
But while teachers in canton Zurich were getting the pilot English project off the ground, another problem in the area of language has become apparent.
Children in the German-speaking part of Switzerland traditionally speak Swiss-German dialect at home and with their friends. It is only an oral language, so as soon as children go to school, they have to learn to speak and write high German, which has a quite different grammar and vocabulary.
A study commissioned by canton Zurich, and carried out by staff from Berne and Zurich universities, has revealed that Swiss-German children have problems learning and above all writing high German.
The study, which looked at 1,500 children, found that 16 per cent of seventh and eigth grade children felt over-burdened by what was required of them in high German classes. In the sixth grade, 36 per cent of children could follow only the most basic content of a given text.
"These are astonishing figures," said Heinz Rhyn, of Berne University and one of the authors of the study. "It seems children feel even more challenged by high German than they do by mathematics, which we found quite amazing."
Furthermore, many school leavers show a poor standard of written high German when applying for jobs or apprenticeships. This is something which is causing concern among Swiss employers who expect their staff to be able to write proficiently.
Rhyn puts the situation down to the increased use of Swiss-German dialect inside the classroom. "I think teachers are speaking too much Swiss-German to the children nowadays and, of course, the kids communicate with each other only in dialect, often using just single words, or slang," he said.
Fretz is taking the findings of the study very seriously. "Obviously schools are doing something wrong if the standard of high German is so poor. I think we have to take measures to improve the situation."
The measures Fretz has in mind are already laid out in canton Zurich's plans for a reform of the school curriculum. Top of the list is a proposal to require teachers to use high German in the classroom at all times, in all situations. "Basically dialect would be banned from our schools," said Fretz.
But the proposal is certain to run into opposition from many teachers. Schlaepfer has volunteered to teach the early English pilot project, and when he's not talking to his seven and eight year pupils in English, he speaks in dialect.
"It's a question of building up a relationship with the children. These are young children, and to establish a good relationship with them I want to use my mother tongue and theirs, which is Swiss-German. Anything else would be artificial. If someone falls down and hurts themselves, for example, I'm certainly not going to comfort them in high German."
Schlaepfer points to the common practice among many Swiss teachers of using high German in formal lessons such as mathematics, science, and languages, and moving into Swiss-German for more relaxed classes such as sport and art. "For many teachers this is a good solution," he said.
But such practices are exactly what Fretz wants to prohibit. "This sort of thing has been going on for years and it's the reason many Swiss adults are so uncomfortable with high German" she said.
"Throughout their school careers they were taught to associate Swiss-German with relaxation, with the so-called fun lessons, and high German with stress, with subjects where they were graded and corrected. No wonder we've got a problem."
No one, however, questions the continuation of the status quo, in which Swiss- Germans speak one language, and write another. "It's part of our cultural heritage," says Fretz, "it's an additional way to express ourselves. You can't erase a dialect, and I'm glad of that.'
And Rhyn says that, if viewed correctly, the Swiss situation can be a positive one. "We have to face the fact that really the first foreign language our children learn is not English or French but high German" he said.
"The way it works in Switzerland may be a burden for the children at first, but in the long run the fact that they have to learn a foreign language so young makes it easier for them to learn other languages later. So in the long run our situation can be an advantage.'
by Imogen Foulkes
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