English sparks war of words in parliament

The debate continues on the thorny issue of prioritising foreign languages in schools imagepoint

The row over English as a foreign language at primary schools is set to reach parliament during the last week of the regular winter session.

This content was published on December 17, 2006 - 16:01

The discussions are part of legislation aimed at boosting and protecting Switzerland's four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.

The most controversial element of the law is a proposal to give a national language preference over English in foreign language teaching.

Several cantons, notably Zurich and other regions in central and eastern Switzerland, have already introduced English at an early stage in their primary schools.

The authorities of Switzerland's 26 cantons, which enjoy a high degree of autonomy on education, have agreed on two foreign languages during the first six grades, but did not rule on a preferential status.

"We need two languages, but it is not a question of playing them out against each other," said Gabriela Fuchs, spokeswoman for the Conference of Cantonal Education Directors.


But Christian Levrat, a parliamentarian from the bilingual canton of Fribourg, says such a rule doesn't go far enough.

"I strongly believe that the national languages have to be given priority," he told swissinfo.

Levrat, a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party and union leader, is the main sponsor of the bill and works both in the German- and French-speaking parts of the country.

"An increasing number of people, particularly youngsters, have trouble communicating in both German and French.

"There is a real risk that the national languages would lose out sooner or later if English were to become the first foreign language at school," he added.

Other points in the law, to be discussed by the House of Representatives, face no opposition in principle.

"A policy on languages is crucial for the cohesion of the country," says Levrat. The focus of the law is a national centre for languages, exchanges between the regions as well as support for minority idioms, he pointed out.


This position is also upheld by the cantonal education authorities, says Fuchs.

Levrat says he is willing to work towards a compromise in an attempt to prevent the failure of the language law at an early stage in parliament.

He says a plan by the cantons to enshrine in law two foreign languages at primary school level without setting the same priorities is a possible solution.

The government came in for harsh criticism over its response to the draft law.

"The short and not very constructive statement [by the cabinet in October] is considered a mistake and sign of disrespect towards the political intentions of parliament," said the parliamentary committee in charge of drafting the bill.

Two years ago the government shelved a bill, saying it was unnecessary and too costly to take additional measures to sustain the national languages.

The cabinet is prepared to review its position if both houses of parliament approve the bill, said government spokesman Oswald Sigg.


In brief

Switzerland has four linguistic regions. The majority of the population are Swiss-German speakers, followed by the French, Italian and Romansh-speaking population.

Two years ago the government shelved a language bill necessary to complement a constitutional article agreed by Swiss voters in 1996.

Instead parliament drafted its own proposal including regulations on foreign language teaching in schools.

Proponents want to give national languages preference over English. Several cantons have already introduced English as a first foreign language in their primary schools.

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Language law

The new legislation focuses on three aspects:
Creation of a national research centre for multilingualism in Switzerland.
Increase the exchange of pupils as well as teachers between Switzerland's language regions.
Support for linguistic minorities and cantons with more than one national language.

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