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English comes first in eastern Switzerland

School children in the German-speaking part could soon be learning English before French (www.obs.de)

English could soon become the first foreign language taught at schools in German-speaking eastern Switzerland.

Eight cantons have announced plans to teach English from the third grade, two years earlier than French which is one of the country's official languages.

Educational directors in eastern Switzerland decided English tuition should be moved forward by four years - currently English lessons start in the seventh grade.

The move is likely to re-ignite controversy over the status of national languages in the education system as well as concerns that putting English above French will undermine national cohesion.

"National cohesion is based on the values of federalism and direct democracy and not on this kind of decision," Ernst Buschor, director for education in canton Zurich, told swissinfo.

"And we still fully intend children to learn their second national language to the same level, but we found that children accept English much more readily than other foreign language."

The cantons of St Gallen, Thurgau, Glarus, Graubünden, Schwyz, the two Appenzells and Zurich announced their plans this week, but they have yet to set an exact time frame for the introduction of the new system.

Under pressure

Werner Stauffacher, the secretary of the education department for eastern Switzerland, said the eastern cantons had come under pressure from industry and the public to teach English at an earlier age.

He emphasised, however, that the educational directors were aware of their responsibility not to sideline the country's national languages, particularly French.

Buschor said some parents had already taken the decision to teach their children English, and the school system needed to respond.

"Some parents had started to set up private English classes because they were worried that their children were learning it too late," Buschor explains. "And we didn't want this kind of division [between richer and poorer children] to arise."

Last year canton Zurich decided to make English - rather than French - the first foreign language in the school curriculum, a move which was met with strong opposition in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland.

Even though the cantons concerned are keen to standardise the new system, the trilingual canton of Graubünden will probably be allowed to introduce slightly different rules and regulations.

According to a recent study, almost 64 per cent of Swiss speak German, 19.5 per cent French, 6.6 per cent Italian and less than 0.5 per cent Romansh.

A final decision on when to introduce the new system will be taken at the beginning of next year.

swissinfo, Billi Bierling

Key facts

English is set to become the first foreign language taught in many eastern cantons.
English tuition will start two years before French, which is an official language.
Almost 64 per cent of Swiss speak German, 19.5 per cent French, 6.6 per cent Italian and less than 0.5 per cent Romansh.

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