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Swiss cantons split down the middle on language teaching

Which language should be taught first in Swiss schools?


The directors of education of Switzerland's 26 cantons have failed to agree on a common policy for teaching languages in school. At a two-day meeting in Montreux, they disagreed on whether English or a national language should be taught first.

Ernst Buschor, the head of education in Zurich, told swissinfo 12 cantons came out in favour of English as the first foreign language, while 13 backed teaching a national language. One canton abstained.

Buschor provoked a national debate on the issue by announcing in September that Zurich planned to start teaching English to all third-graders, while delaying French lessons until the fifth grade.

The move particularly infuriated French-speaking parts of the country, which said the decision endangered Switzerland's national unity. Switzerland has four national languages: German, spoken by about 70 per cent of the population, French (20 per cent), Italian (five per cent) and Romansch (less than one per cent).

Buschor told swissinfo on Friday that all 12 cantons in favour of teaching English first were in the German-speaking part of the country.

At the meeting in Montreux, the cantonal education directors failed to agree on a proposed compromise whereby the cantons would aim for children to reach the same level in English and in a national language by the end of grade six.

Instead, they decided children should have comparable levels of proficiency in the two foreign languages by the time they leave school. The decision effectively leaves cantons free to choose which language to teach first.

However, at the same time, they decided to hold discussions between now and the middle of next year with the federal authorities and teachers' representatives, to try to find a common way forward.

On Thursday, the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, pleaded in favour of the national languages, and moves are also underway in parliament to make it obligatory to teach a national language first.

However, Buschor said he did not fear any attempt by the federal authorities to overrule the cantons on this issue.

He said the decision to introduce English first was in response to parents' requests, and that he was therefore confident any federal attempt to force cantons to backtrack on this would be rejected in a referendum.


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