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Language lessons leave adolescents tongue-tied

Lena and Olivia believe that you can't get far in life without English swissinfo.ch

Educationalists are divided over moves to teach foreign languages earlier at school. swissinfo went to two schools to find out what pupils and teachers think.

This content was published on May 20, 2006 - 10:28

Plans by canton Bern to teach pupils French from age eight and English two years later could be replicated across the country, if the Swiss vote in favour of harmonising education on Sunday.

The German-speaking Pestalozzi and Munziger Schools in Bern are sister establishments and located a stone's throw away from each other.

At the former, a French class is taking place for children who are aged 11. They have been learning the language for a year. Despite my presence, the pupils eagerly finish their exercises, asking questions as they go along, with a minimum of noise.

Their teacher Andrea Duba tells me that this particular class is generally good at French. Some are not as talented as others but that doesn't mean they take a back seat.

"They tend to buckle down as they want to be good too and learn more intensively," Duba said.

When it comes to learning foreign languages at school, Duba believes tuition should start as early as possible.

Both Daniel and Helin – who both speak four languages including Turkish - tell me that they don't find French particularly difficult.

"It depends – it's not really difficult if one practises," Daniel says.

Helin adds that she finds French beautiful. "It sounds nice and polite," she says.

Another pupil, Lena, finds French a bit tricky because of the pronunciation. "You pronounce it differently to the way you write it but I like speaking it," she says.

Learning later

For the older children attending the Munziger School, getting to grips with a foreign language seems to be more of a challenge. Here the pupils are 14 and learning their second language in school, this time English.

These adolescents are reluctant to speak to me in English when I meet them. My experience mirrors that of their teacher, Barbara Macchi.

"It's quite difficult to make them speak English," she tells me. "Some of them do like to talk but – and this is typically Swiss - some don't want to make mistakes so they just keep their mouth shut."

Macchi feels that introducing a second language to pupils when they are 13 years old is a little late.

"It would be better if they started earlier, especially with English. All the pupils hear English songs and they see and use English when they're working with a computer [before they start learning it in school]," she says.

"I would personally prefer [starting English] in the third class [at age eight] - you could learn it with a lot of games and talking and not especially with a lot of grammar."

However, Macchi welcomes canton Bern's decision to start teaching French from the third class and English from the fifth in the not-too-distant future.

When Macchi enters the classroom, there is no discernable drop in the noise level. But when she tells the pupils that I am a journalist, the clamour increases, with more than half the class saying they don't want to be interviewed.

In the end, we come to a compromise – those who want to talk to me can do so in German outside the classroom.

World language

All of the pupils agree on one thing: English is an important language, without which you can't get by in the world today. However, very few like the way it is being taught to them and a minority don't like English at all.

Best friends Noellia and Karin are the most sceptical.

"I don't learn very much in the lessons; we only do exercises out of the textbook and one should learn to speak fluently - I can't do that," Noellia says.

Karin adds: "I would learn more if we could speak more. We do exercises but [the words] don't enter your head."

Noellia is pessimistic about mastering English at all.

"For me it is too late to learn English. We learn things that we can't use as tourists in other countries," she tells me.

Olivia complains that the textbooks "aren't that good". Her friend Lena feels that they "are out-of-date, boring and strange".

There is a broad consensus among the pupils that they should be able to learn a foreign language as early as possible in school.

"It would be very good because children learn better the younger they are and they don't have to put in a lot of effort," Karin says.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

In brief

Schools have been the exclusive domain of the cantons until now. Each of the 26 cantons has its own education law.

All previous attempts to unify or harmonise the various educations systems have met resistance from the cantons.

Any coordination has been carried out until now by the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Education Directors.

In December parliament adopted a constitutional article to harmonise Switzerland's school systems. Twenty-two cantons officially accepted the planned reform.

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Key facts

Reforms planned for the Swiss education system include:
developing a national monitoring system for education;
introducing unified education standards;
bringing forward the starting age for children;
promoting the country's national languages;
introducing foreign languages earlier;
adapting school structures to society and family needs;
reforming universities.

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