Swiss cantons split down the middle on language teaching

Which foreign language should be taught first in Swiss schools? Keystone

A meeting of cantonal education directors has failed to find a solution to one of the most divisive issues in Switzerland today: whether English or a second national language should be taught first in school.

This content was published on November 3, 2000 minutes

The conference deferred taking a decision until next June. In the intervening period the cantons will hold a national consultation on the issue.

The issue has caused deep splits between those cantons which fear that giving English priority will undermine national unity, and those that see it as a crucial tool for children in the modern world.

The 26 education chiefs, who were meeting In Montreux, did agree on 18 of 19 recommendations for the overhaul of language teaching in Switzerland. These included the introduction of two foreign languages at primary school level and that a pupil should be able to use these two languages equally well at the end of obligatory schooling at 15.

But the were split down the middle on the crucial issue of which language should be introduced first. Thirteen cantons said they wanted it to be a national language and 12 - all of them German-speaking - said they wanted a free choice. One canton, Basel City, abstained.

"This result cannot form the basis for a solid recommendation," the education chiefs said in a statement. They said the text of the two rival recommendations would be used instead as the basis for a national debate.

"The cohesion of our country demands that we understand each other and presupposes a deep knowledge of more than one national language. English must not become the lingua franca of Switzerland," the statement said. "However, a knowledge of English has become indispensable."

The education directors said they would consult the federal government, parliament and teachers' organisations. It called on all cantons to only implement measures in this field as pilot projects.

This was directed principally at canton Zurich, which pre-empted the Montreux conference by announcing it would introduce English as the first foreign language, at the expense of French, from 2003. A number of schools in Zurich have already made the change as an experiment.

The man behind the decision, Ernst Buschor, said he intended to press ahead with his plans, saying that giving cantons the choice to make their own decision was the only logical outcome.

"We are not willing to stop our introduction of initial English. We will continue," Buschor told swissinfo.

"Some people will change their minds between now and June. But only a regional solution will be possible," he added. "There is a coherent bloc of German-speaking cantons in favour of starting with English."

Buschor says he took his decision in response to the demands of parents, who see English as a vital tool for success in the modern world. He dismissed claims that English would become the lingua franca in Switzerland:

"It is a danger, but I don't think it will happen. People from different parts of Switzerland already speak to each other in English. But we will continue to teach both languages - English and French. We will continue to promote national cohesion," he said.

Education is traditionally the domain of the cantons. The federal government does not usually get involved. But this week, the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, said she was against the early introduction of English at the expense of national languages.

And a proposal is currently before parliament suggesting changing the constitution to state that the first foreign language taught should be a national language. If adopted it would have to go to a national vote.

"I would be against a vote at federal level. It should be up to the cantons to decide," says Martine Brunschwig-Graf, Geneva's education chief, vice-chairwoman of the conference and an ardent supporter of the primacy of national languages. "But if we can't arrive at a solution we may have to have a national vote."

She pointed out that no canton was obliged to follow the recommendations of the conference, as they are non-binding. "But if it came to a federal-level vote, Buschor would have to abide by the result," she told swissinfo.

The recommendations of the conference will be implemented by 2010. It will involve a massive retraining programme for primary school teachers, many of whom may only have rudimentary knowledge of English.

Indeed a majority cantons do not even have English as a compulsory subject on the secondary school syllabus. In ten years, they will be expected to have it as an obligatory element of the primary school curriculum.

by Roy Probert

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