Two recent stories are reminders of the cultural and political importance of language in Switzerland. Choosing to learn English as a second language makes sound practical sense in an increasingly global world, however in Switzerland it is not that simple. Switzerland, a country with four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romanche), has to juggle the practical benefits of learning English with the benefits that come from learning the languages of fellow Swiss.
In addition, German-speaking Swiss don’t speak regular High German as a first language. They speak one of a number of dialects of Swiss German while reading and writing in High German. At school they must learn High German before learning another language so a second language for them is in effect their third.
A recent story in the Geneva newspaper Tribune de Genève entitled: French-speaking Swiss, the UDC loves you!, discusses the Swiss People’s Party’s (UDC – French acronym or SVP – German acronym) announcement that they will add support for the teaching of French ahead of English in the non-French speaking regions of Switzerland to their legislative agenda.
The UDC is playing a balancing act. In some quarters they support initiatives that call for a single extra language to be taught in primary schools, i.e. English, while trying to be seen to support Swiss values, which would logically include support for learning national languages ahead of English. On the other side, an article in the newspaper Le Matin presents the controversial vote this Sunday 8 March 2015 in the Swiss German-speaking half-canton of Nidwalden (Nidwald in French) to stop teaching French at primary school. The initiative is the work of the Nidwalden branch of the UDC and a “Yes” result would mean English would be taught in favour of French.
The drama began some time ago when a group of teachers and politicians launched an initiative to stop the teaching of two extra languages at primary schools in the canton of Zurich. They argued that children are over burdened, are losing interest in language learning and neglecting other important subjects.
Similar initiatives were then launched in a number of cantons, however Nidwalden’s will be the first to reach the voting stage and the result could set a precedent.
The parliament of Nidwalden is against the initiative on the grounds it will impact on national cohesion and advises voters to reject the proposal. UDC Nidwalden’s response is that teaching Swiss history would do more for national unity than teaching French.
Understandably the French-speaking Swiss (Romands) are upset by moves to delay the teaching of French at school in Swiss-German regions.
However, some on the Swiss-German side of the Rösti Graben, the symbolic linguistic dividing line between French and Swiss German speakers, argue that French speakers are holding them to a double standard. Many Swiss-German speakers see High German as the first extra language they must learn. French speaking children are not faced with this extra subject because they don’t speak a dialect at home. Perhaps if the Romands were required to learn both Swiss German and High German on top of French at primary school they would have greater empathy with the learning burden on Swiss-German speaking children.
And while High German is taught as a second language throughout the French-speaking part of Switzerland (Suisse Romande) it is not always taught with much gusto. Few primary school children in Geneva would be able to hold a conversation in High German, let alone Swiss German.
Also some Lake Geneva-based expatriates are disappointed to discover how elusive the often-touted benefit of Swiss schooling is – that of trilingual children. Many will identify with the song: Hallo, Susi! Guten Morgen! Komm, wir spielen! Komm, komm, komm! La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. Komm, wir spielen! Komm, komm, komm!, often regaled by their children year after year when asked how their German is coming along – a reminder of just how little progress they have made.
The Federal Council will be looking at the issue again in June. In the meantime votes similar to Nidwalden’s are planned in the cantons of Zurich, Thurgau, Schaffhausen, Luzern and Graubünden. To be contined…
French-speaking Swiss, Nidwalden loves you! (Le News – March 2015)
Are Swiss language divisions increasing? (Le News – May 2014)
Only the young can master a new language – myth or reality? (Le News – December 2014)
French-speaking Swiss, the UDC loves you! (Tribune de Genève)
Nidwalden – vote to end French at school (Le Matin)