MARTIGNY Once again the can of worms has been reopened regarding whether English or a Swiss national language should be the first foreign tongue taught at primary-school level.
Several German-speaking cantons continue to object to a federal requirement that two mandatory foreign languages must be taught at primary level. Many schools in Canton Zurich already have dropped French in favour of English. Last March, the parliament in Schaffhausen asked the federal government to allow cantons to choose which foreign language they may teach on the grounds that two are simply too much at this early age.
Education Minister Alain Berset reacted quickly and warned that this is in violation of a 2010 law stipulating that children must be taught at least one other Swiss national language as well as a foreign one. The president of the Swiss-German teachers union (LCH) Beat Zemp went further, saying it is a political decision whether or not to change a law that clearly states that French, as a national language, must have priority over English as the first foreign language taught at primary level.
His counterpart, Georges Pasquier of the Suisse Romande teachers’ union (SER) in Martigny, said that the issue is larger than honouring cantonal autonomy. “Yes or no, will Switzerland continue to be a multi-lingual country in the four official languages stated in our constitution or not?” Switzerland is unique in that it has 26 different education systems. According to the website for the Conference of Cantonal Education Ministers (EDK), “the main responsibility for education and culture lies with the cantons. They coordinate their work at the national level.”
A comprehensive nationwide project in 2009, known as Concordat HarmoS [sic], attempted to harmonize the patchwork system, in part to facilitate the movement of teachers and families between cantons, but also to harmonize the language problem. It recommended that two foreign languages be taught in primary school – English and one national tongue. The 2010 law went a step further and stipulated that priority must be given to a national language.
The result is a 50-50 split among the 21 German-speaking cantons, with those in eastern Switzerland seeking to drop French in preference of English. Pasquier said the dividing line is mainly along the Reuss River and has become known as the “Fosse Reuss” (Reuss Gap). “Those cantons around Zurich, St Gallen and Thurgovie, which are farther from francophone Switzerland, want to begin with English. The cantons in central Switzerland such as Bern and Basel, which are closer to Suisse Romande, said they wanted to begin with French as their first foreign language.”
SER is sounding the alarm now because Pasquier believes that “Suisse Romande cannot stand alone in defending confederal linguistic solidarity. If instruction in French disappears in German-speaking parts, Suisse Romande may also discontinue instruction in German and the result could be that Switzerland becomes an English-speaking country.”
That horse may have already bolted. German-speaking Swiss are resorting to speaking English amongst themselves rather than standard German or various Schwytzerdütsch (Swiss-German) dialects. English is also the language of finance, commerce and science. English is also the operational language for Swiss humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. Swiss of all ages are learning it at a very rapid pace since it is unavoidable whether in films, on television or on the internet. But Pasquier believes that English will not help Swiss from different cantons understand each other’s cultural differences, or why they vote as they do, which he said is the key to the country’s national cohesion.