The Swiss canton of Neuchatel has added a new twist to the ongoing debate about the teaching of English in Swiss schools by introducing a bilingual English-French course for high school students.
The decision came just ahead of this week's launch of the European Year of Languages (EYL). The EYL is a joint Council of Europe and European Union initiative, aimed at encouraging linguistic diversity and language learning, whatever the age.
It is, after Zurich, only the second canton to introduce a course partly taught in English, and the first French-speaking canton to do so.
The new course will be introduced in one high school in Neuchatel and another in La Chaux-de-Fonds from September.
Neuchatel introduced a German-French high school exam course this year. It followed the example of number of other French-speaking or bilingual cantons which already offer a successful French-German syllabus.
About one third of the course will be taught in English. The subjects to be taught in the foreign language will be Mathematics, History and Geography.
The choice of subjects has largely been dependent on the limited number of teachers who are comfortable speaking English.
"To make the scheme feasible, we have to limit the number of students," said the cantonal education chief, Thierry Béguin. Only 10 per cent of pupils starting their high school courses will have access to bilingual education, and those that have shown an aptitude for English will be given preference.
The cantonal authorities rejected accusations they had performed a U-turn, after strongly criticising canton Zurich for deciding to introduce English as the first foreign language taught to primary school children.
"One of the goals of a school is to teach languages," said Béguin, adding that the canton still believed that the first foreign language taught should be one of the national languages.
"But after obligatory schooling, it is only natural to offer a choice between German and English," Béguin says, pointing out, however, that teaching of the mother tongue remains of the utmost importance.
Students wanting to sign up for the English-French syllabus have until March 7 to do so. The schools concerned say there has already been a keen interest.
There is concern in the teaching profession about the ability of Maths, History and Geography teachers to teach in English to the required standard. But the cantonal education authorities say they have no intention to abandon the experiment. They say that if demand outstrips supply, they will to recruit from other cantons and from abroad.
This is in sharp contrast with canton Vaud, which has scaled back its plans for a French-German high school course because of a lack of teachers able to speak fluent German.
by Roy Probert