Swiss soldiers start learning lingua franca of international peacekeeping

A Swiss army division has begun English classes for soldiers who may serve in peacekeeping missions abroad. The Fortification Guards Corps will be given lessons to help them overcome linguistic barriers in Kosovo and other troublespots.

This content was published on February 18, 2000 minutes

A Swiss army division has started running English classes for soldiers who may be called upon to serve in peacekeeping missions abroad. Throughout this year, the Fortification Guards Corps will be given lessons to help them overcome linguistic barriers in Kosovo and other troublespots.

Multi-national peacekeeping forces face plenty of challenges. One of the most intractable is communication. In places like Kosovo, soldiers from a multitude of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds are thrown together, and must learn to communicate in potentially life-threatening situations.

To do so, they must use a common language and, more often than not, that language is English. As a consequence, Swiss soldiers depend on their commanders to communicate with other peacekeepers. This places a heavy responsibility on platoon and company leaders, and could be dangerous in situations where a commander may not be available.

In 1996, a language specialist, Jean-Louis Hug, suggested that the Fortification Guards Corps, who provide logistical support for Swiss peacekeepers, be given basic English lessons to reduce their "linguistic" vulnerability.

His proposal became a reality this month, when the Fortification Guards began English lessons under the tutelage of an American teacher from the US Defense Language Institute in Lakland, Texas.

Mary Bancroft will spend the rest of the year travelling among bases of the Fortification Guards Corps all over Switzerland, giving each company one week of lessons per month. She's confident that, by the end of the year, the soldiers will have the basic language skills they need.

"Usually, beginners need three months of daily language lessons to achieve a level of proficiency where they communicate relatively comfortably," she said. "The soldiers will be receiving an equivalent amount of tuition over the year, which we hope will be sufficient."

Learning a language today is a vastly different process to the plodding, grammar-intensive lessons that used to characterise language education in most national curriculums. Modern language teaching employs the so-called "communicative method", whereby students start using the target language from the very first day.

"I see myself as a mentor for the students, rather than a teacher," says Bancroft. "I try to make sure they do 80 per cent of the talking, and confine myself to introducing topics and constructions, and keeping things flowing."

Like most language teachers, Bancroft doesn't speak the mother tongue of her Swiss German students, and doesn't need to. The only language used in the Fortification Guards Corps classroom is English, and amazingly, the students are able to grasp all the necessary concepts and constructions.

This is possible because speaking and listening skills are emphasised, along with vocabulary expansion, while detailed explanations about grammar are left until the students have become more comfortable with the language and mastered basic sentences.

At the end of the year, Jean-Louis Hug will try to persuade the best students to volunteer to become teachers themselves. Those who agree will be brought up to proficiency, and then sent for teacher training in the US.

If all goes according to plan, the Fortification Guards will one day be teaching their own recruits English. And will never again be required to guard another Tower of Babel.

By Jonas Hughes

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