Language teaching given a boost

English is gaining ground but has yet to become the primary second language Keystone

Pupils should get lessons in at least three languages, including English, at primary schools in Switzerland. That's according to the cantonal education authorities, who put off a decision on whether English should be made the first foreign language.

This content was published on September 1, 2000 - 10:56

At a conference in Berne on Thursday, the education directors from Switzerland's 26 cantons came out in favour of introducing a first foreign language in third grade. They also recommended that courses in an additional foreign language should begin in fifth grade.

Hans Ulrich Stöckling, president of the Conference of Cantonal Education Directors, said all members agreed that proficiency in a second national language should remain more important than English in order to ensure Switzerland's multicultural identity.

The directors also agreed to introduce pre-school courses at the age of four, instead of five. Under the proposal, the strict separation between nursery school and primary school would be lifted. They said this would take into account the different needs and talents of young children.

Stöckling pointed out the importance of a coordinated approach to the language issue between the cantons. He said the conference could recommend a compromise, if there is no nationwide consensus by November.

Stöckling told swissinfo that several cantons could opt for regional solutions. He said more time was needed to study the issue. "But we all agreed that the aim must be for the pupils to achieve a good level of English. In a way, the issue of when you start English at school is less important."

English as a foreign language has been the subject of debate for several years. Proponents say English has become the "lingua franca" of international business and that pupils who cannot speak the language could be at a disadvantage on the labour market.

However, opponents - particularly in French-speaking regions - say the priority should be to ensure that Swiss citizens can communicate in at least two of the four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansch).

Under the Swiss federalist system, the 26 cantons are largely free to determine their own education policies. Canton Appenzell-Innerrhoden has introduced English as a first foreign language in third grade, replacing French. And in canton Zurich, trials are underway to start teaching English at an even earlier stage.

by Urs Geiser

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