Zurich voters support current foreign language approach

English first? That’s what some Swiss cantons want in primary schools Keystone

Two foreign languages will continue to be taught in canton Zurich primary schools.

This content was published on May 21, 2017 - 15:21,

On Sunday, around 60% of voters in the canton rejected the initiative “more quality – one foreign language at primary schoolExternal link”.

The proposal, which had the backing of several teaching organisations, argued that pupils were overburdened with learning two languages at primary level and that the practice placed a large workload on teachers as well, affecting other subjects.

According to the initiative supporters, if instructors carefully introduced just one language at the primary level, students would learn a second one faster in secondary. More time would be set aside for teaching the second language than if two languages were taught in primary school.

The initiative’s text did not specify which language should be taught first.

Now that the plan has been voted down, pupils will continue learning English from age seven and French from age 11, both during primary school.

The canton of Zurich’s government and a majority of its parliament convinced voters that Zurich’s language concept was already working very well with two languages, therefore there was no need to change it.

Also against the move was the “no to abolishing early English” committee, made up of local centre-right politicians and business representatives. It saidExternal link the initiative risked “downgrading” Zurich’s education system and would “arbitrarily sacrifice” early English, which is highly popular among both pupils and parents, in favour of other languages like French.

This is not the first time the canton votedExternal link on the issue: in November 2006, a similar initiative was rejected by 59% of voters.

Language, an emotional debate

The vote comes at a time of increased debate in German-speaking Switzerland over how many languages should be taught to young pupils.

An emotional factor is whether international English should take precedence over the Swiss national language French, traditionally taught for reasons of national cohesion. This meant German-speakers were expected to learn French and vice versa. In French-speaking Switzerland, German is still taught before any other foreign languages.

Interior Minister Alain Berset said in December 2016 that the federal government would not force primary schools to teach the national language of French by law. Cantons are in charge of education in Switzerland, but the government may intervene under certain circumstances.

But the government has mandated the interior ministry, in charge of education matters, to review the situation should a canton decide not to teach a second national language at the primary school level, Berset said.

Canton Thurgau caused shockwaves when it announced that it had decided to teach English only in primary schools from mid-2018, with French introduced in secondary school. This decision is currently under reviewExternal link in the canton.

Lucerne will vote on a similar initiative to Zurich’s in September. And in 2015, voters in canton Nidwalden roundly rejected a move towards teaching only one language in primary school.

Other votes on school issues

Cantons Basel Country and Solothurn also voted on education issues on May 21.

Solothurn accepted a common curriculum in German-speaking cantons known as “Lehrplan 21”.

An initiative had sought to block introduction of the curriculum saying it harmed schools and was an unnecessary reform at the cost of pupils. Supporters of Lehrplan 21, including the cantonal government, said the canton would be isolated if it failed to adopt the common curriculum.

To date, similar anti-Lehrplan 21 votes in other cantons have failed, meaning they plan to adopt the common system.

In Canton Basel Country 4 out of 5 voters rejected an initiative which would have required secondary school teachers to hold university degrees. The cantonal parliament and government were against the proposal, saying such a move would make it hard to find enough teachers in a time of shortages.

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