Language vote would be ‘dangerous’ for Switzerland

All children are supposed to learn a second Swiss language plus English by the fifth year of primary school Keystone

Any escalation in the current foreign language teaching controversy in Switzerland that leads to a vote would be dangerous and leave “difficult-to-heal” wounds, warns a prominent linguist.

This content was published on October 28, 2014 - 17:00

Georges Lüdi,External link a professor of linguistics at Basel University, spoke to on the sidelines of the annual Forum of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs)External link, which discussed multilingualism in business and was held in Morges. 

Language teaching and the usefulness of English versus French or German have been in the headlines recently. 

Following a decision by the Conference of Cantonal Education Directors (CDIP)External link in 2004, all children are supposed to learn a second Swiss language plus English by the fifth year of primary school. Lüdi helped advise the CDIP on their strategy. 

But the reality is more complicated. French and bilingual cantons object to the fact that English has become the first non-native language taught at primary level in numerous German-speaking cantons. Recently officials in cantons Thurgau and Nidwalden called for French to be dropped from primary school and taught in secondary school classes. There are fears that other cantons may follow. 

A parliamentary committee in Bern has prepared an initiative urging the compulsory teaching of a second national language in primary schools. They threaten to launch the initiative depending on what CDIP decides at the end of October. 

Georges Lüdi helped advise cantonal education directors on foreign language teaching unibasel Patrick Aebischer, president of Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), recently declared in the press that English should be the priority second language for the professional lives of all Swiss. What is your view?

Georges Lüdi: I think we need to clearly distinguish between the general public and the people Mr Aebischer is familiar with. For scientists he is right. It’s obvious that for them to know English and to publish articles in English is essential. In labs where there are lots of expats the working language is often English, but for SMEs this is not true. 

Indeed, the Swiss Association of SMEs is demanding a change in foreign language teaching. They say Swiss Germans must first learn French and French Swiss must first learn German. For communication within Switzerland in non-academic professions the national languages are more important than English. 

External Content Language learning has become a controversial issue in Switzerland. Is the 2004 objective still appropriate?  

G.L.: I was at the origin of the concept. I'm convinced that the objective remains valid. The entire school population can reach a similar level in a second national language and English, and then improve on them at secondary level or at professional college. 

The big debate is how we can achieve that. The question is: Can we get the same result via bilingual teaching, foreign language stays or by other means than the hours specifically set aside for language teaching?

At the same time the best solution for Switzerland would be that each person speaks their own native language. This would mean foreign language comprehension skills are favoured over production skills. It would be more important for French Swiss to read or understand German, or even Swiss-German dialect, than to speak or write in German. The same goes for Swiss Germans and learning French.

If we insisted on this point we could even add a third national language and say it would be very useful if Swiss Germans not only understood French but also Italian. Given the ongoing language battle, hasn’t CDIPs foreign language teaching strategy failed though?

G.L.: If CDIP’s strategy failed it's because the means to implement it in terms of information for teachers and hours available for foreign languages at primary school are insufficient. If we really wanted to make this a success we should have increased the number of hours, but there are other subjects to teach.

It would only work by teaching the other subjects in the foreign language – or bilingual teaching. But no canton had the courage to go in that direction. Some private schools do it with a great deal of success, however. Officials in cantons Thurgau and Nidwalden want to prioritise English at primary level and delay teaching French until secondary school. What are your thoughts?

G.L.: To have one single language at primary level and then increase the number of hours is perhaps not the worst possible solution. Nidwalden added a proposal to systematically add training sessions during their learning of a second national language – to send Nidwalden children to French-speaking Switzerland or France.

This goes back to a Nidwalden grammar school that measured students’ progress over one year in class after a 4-5-week stay in a French-speaking region. The results were so irrefutable – oral comprehension, grammar and communication skills were fantastic afterwards – that the cantonal education authorities decided stays would become obligatory for all grammar school students. Perhaps a combination of more hours in one foreign language and stays in another could calm the teachers. In a recent poll parliamentarians said they were ready to intervene over the teaching of a second national language at primary school level and two-thirds said national cohesion was threatened by stopping the teaching of French at primary school. Is there a risk this issue may escalate?

G.L.: What threatens the understanding between regions is not so much French or English but the way the issue is dealt with in public. Many people fear that the Swiss People's Party may carry out a public campaign on foreign languages of the same kind as the anti-minaret initiative. This could generate high emotions and leave wounds that would be difficult to heal. So we need to avoid this kind of vote or debate at the national level. I really hope so.

The Swiss cabinet is very cautious. We need to see what CDIP decides.

The CDIP president told me recently that the majority would oppose abandoning French. We could get a solution that emphasises French at primary school level to the detriment of English. This would mean going against part of the Swiss public – parents and school committees, etc.

I don't know what solution the CDIP will choose but I hope they reach a consensus. If parliament has to intervene – and I'm sure they would if they had to – it would doubtless lead to a vote and that could be dangerous.

National languages under fire 

In canton Graubünden, Switzerland’s only trilingual canton, a people’s initiative is calling for English to be taught as a non-native language – and for no other languages – in German-speaking primary schools. That would mean a setback for Italian and Romansh, the canton’s two other languages. The initiative will be put to a vote in 2015.

French is at stake in other cantons where there have been calls for only one extra language in primary school. In canton Lucerne, the signatures for an initiative have been handed in. In August canton Thurgau’s parliament called for the teaching of French to be delayed until secondary school. Voters in canton Nidwalden will decide on a similar proposal next March. Other German-speaking cantons are considering following suit. Meanwhile cantonal governments would like to have an evaluation of the teaching of two non-native languages at primary level, expected by 2015.

In only three out of 17 German-speaking cantons (Basel City, Basel Country and Solothurn) is French now taught before English. In all French-speaking cantons, on the other hand, German remains the first non-native language. In the bilingual (French-German) cantons, English is taught as a second non-native language. In Italian-speaking Ticino, three extra languages are compulsory: first French, then German, then English.

Switzerland has four national languages: German is the most widely spoken (63.7% of population), followed by French (20%), Italian (6.5%) and then Romansh (0.5%). 

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