Initiative aims to shake up the language debate

Many German-speaking cantons prefer to teach English first Keystone

Will canton Zurich go down the controversial one-language route for pupils in primary schools, as in canton Thurgau? If so, would it be French or English?

Isobel Leybold-Johnson, Zurich,

“We realised that for most primary school pupils learning two foreign languages does very little good. You just have two lessons a week for each language, English and French, and that isn’t intense enough to learn a language,” former Zurich cantonal politician Hanspeter Amstutz told

Amstutz is helping to spearhead a local people’s initiative calling for only one language to be taught in the canton’s primary schools.

It comes at a time of increased debate in German-speaking Switzerland on the issue of how many languages should be taught to young pupils. Also raising emotions: whether international language English should take preference over national language French, which has been traditionally taught for reasons of country cohesion.

Amstutz, himself a former teacher, says the best pupils manage two languages, but a majority struggle. There is also a burden on teachers and other subjects suffer from lack of attention, he argued.

Currently pupils learn English from age 7 and French from age 11. The initiative “more quality – one foreign language at primary school” does not dispute that two languages should be learned during a school career, he added, just when this should be.

He and the other backers, which includes several cantonal teachers’ associations, say that if one foreign language has been carefully introduced at primary level, a second one will be learned faster in secondary school than if two had been introduced in primary school.

The text does not, however, stipulate which language should be learned in primary schools.

Why a people’s initiative?

But why is a people’s initiative needed? The answer is that any change to the number of foreign languages taught at primary school - normally a decision made by the cantonal education board - necessitates a change of cantonal law. A people’s initiative has the power to challenge laws.

“We simply felt that education policy was not moving any more and the whole issue of foreign languages has become a matter of prestige for education politicians including the Cantonal Directors of Education… we think it needs a political discussion and we wanted to give our opponents a ‘hosenlupf’ [trouser lift to unbalance your opponent] like you do in Swiss wrestling,” said Amstutz.

The initiative was handed in to the canton Zurich justice authorities on February 26, with 9,270 signatures. 6,000 were necessary. Validity was confirmed on March 14.

This is not the first time that citizens in canton Zurich have been called upon to vote on the issue. In November 2006, a similar initiative was rejected by 59%.

Amstutz thinks the situation is different this time because “we have 9-10 years’ experience and people are disillusioned”.

But Martin Wendelspiess, head of the canton’s Office of Elementary Education when the initiative was handed in, is convinced the current two-language solution is the correct one.

“We are convinced that most children benefit from it. That a few individuals are overburdened by it, well, you can say this for any subject. Some are overburdened by sports lessons but we don’t cancel them,” he said in an interview shortly before his retirement at the end of May.

“We are convinced that that if the cantons can’t come to an agreement then it will come to a centralised solution from the government.”

French or English or both?

This is a key issue. Discussions about whether one or two languages should be taught in primary schools and which one first have been raging in other German-speaking cantons, such as Thurgau, Lucerne and Graubünden.

Thurgau has gone it alone and in April decided to teach English only in primary schools from mid 2018, with French in secondary school. This caused much uproar from French-speaking cantons which have accused it of damaging Swiss cohesion by prioritising international English over a Swiss national language. For many years, French was automatically taught first in German-speaking schools. German is still taught first in French-speaking Switzerland.

Around the cantons

There are moves towards one language at primary school in other cantons. In Lucerne, a similar initiative to the Zurich one has been declared invalid by the cantonal government but valid by parliament, Graubünden’s initiative backers challenged the cantonal parliament’s decision that their text was invalid in the cantonal administrative court in May and won. What happens next is still unclear. The issue is or has been under discussion in cantons Aargau, Basel Country, Schaffhausen and St Gallen. But in canton Nidwalden, in central Switzerland, an initiative for one language at primary school was roundly defeated at the ballot box in 2015.

A study mandated by the Conference of Central Swiss Education Directors found that primary pupils learned English well but there were deficits in French by the age 14 (end of eighth grade). But education bosses decided they would still like to keep early French lessons and improvements are being planned

End of insertion

Currently there is a “typical Swiss compromise” as Wendelspiess puts it. “Central and eastern cantons start with English and begin French later on and the cantons which border French-speaking cantons start with French and take on English later.”

The federal constitution states that primary school is the responsibility of cantons and that the cantons have to harmonise their school systems. If this doesn’t happen, the federal government can step in and implement a federal solution, he explained.

Interior Minister Alain Berset has already indicated that he would be prepared to intervene should French be struck out of the primary curriculum.

The controversial nature of which language first is why the Zurich initiative has left this decision to the Zurich cantonal education board. Amstutz would prefer French, only because with music and computers children have a greater exposure to English later, which makes learning it easier.

Wendelspiess says English is by far the more popular choice in the canton for parents and children.

In any case, the text first has to go through the cantonal government, which can recommend whether to support or reject it, before it goes to parliament. It may not come to vote for two years, Wendelspiess said.

For now, the debate in Zurich - and in other cantons - continues. 

Can two second languages be taught effectively at primary school? Give us your view.

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