Education and Integration: The language learning debate

By Veronica DeVore

Language learning in Switzerland is linked to wider political debates over immigration and education. An online poll shows strong support for giving priority to national languages in school and in the workplace.

Recently, several cantons have been embroiled in disputes over whether to introduce the teaching of English before another Swiss national language in primary school.

A poll of users of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation’s politbox quiz game app showed that a majority support teaching a Swiss national language before English. Poll participants came from across Switzerland, with some located in other parts of the world.

However, Switzerland’s language regions varied in their degree of support for teaching English before another language, with German speakers more in favour of English and Italian, Romansh and French-speakers tending to support learning a national language first.

At a politbox event discussing Switzerland’s multilingualism in the bilingual city of Fribourg, a group of local students hailing from every language region of Switzerland said they observed this divided attitude towards learning English among their friends and colleagues.

“I’m personally not such an English fan because multilingualism in Switzerland is very important to me,” said Olivier Mitulla, whose native language is Swiss German. “But it is true that English is closer to German and maybe comes easier to German speakers. I have several friends for whom French was very difficult to learn and who disliked French class, so the negative association with French could also come from that experience.”

Estelle Seiler, who grew up bilingual in French and German, pointed out that “French-speakers have the extra challenge that it’s Swiss German and not German that’s spoken in German-speaking Switzerland. So those who do want to learn German are really motivated and maybe also more sensitive to the language issue.”

Currently, Swiss education law says that students should learn both English and another of Switzerland’s national languages by the fifth year of primary school. This so-called “3/5 model” introduces the first foreign language in the third year of primary school, the second in the fifth.

However, the situation may be changing quickly, with challenges to the law taking place in several cantons. A referendum in German-speaking canton Nidwalden to eliminate teaching French in primary school was rejected in March. In canton Graubünden, a court has to decide on the validity of an initiative that would have mandated only learning one language in primary school, German or English depending on the region.

None of the students gathered in Fribourg thought that English should become the lingua franca in Switzerland, although it would ease communication.

“I didn’t have any trouble learning German and I think that bilingualism helped me learn other languages more quickly,” pointed out Lucas Jörg, a native Romansh speaker.

“If you want to learn, you have to be challenged,” agreed Mitulla, arguing that learning many languages at a young age is one of Switzerland’s strengths.

Language requirements
Politbox also polled users regarding whether speaking a national language should be a requirement for working in Switzerland. Some 75% of respondents either somewhat or completely agreed with having such a requirement. Currently, Swiss German is the most-spoken language in the Swiss workplace at 66%, followed by high German, French and English.

Following the February 9, 2014 vote to re-introduce quotas on immigrants to Switzerland from the European Union, proposed revisions to the law on integrating foreigners were put on ice and the issue was sent back to cabinet for review. The proposed revisions had included measures like requiring foreigners to prove integration through language skills before receiving a residence permit.
Now, the question of what integration measures to require of foreigners in Switzerland will likely become a task for the next parliament and cabinet, set to be elected in October.

Background: Where the parties stand on language learning
According to Swiss Public Television SRF, here’s how the major Swiss political parties position themselves on the issue of language learning:

The conservative right Swiss People’s Party argues each canton should decide for itself but recommends teaching a national language first.

The centre-right Conservative Democratic Party argues French should be taught before English in German-speaking areas but supports teaching both as early as possible.

The centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right Christian Democrats say two foreign languages should be taught at the primary school level, with their order decided locally or regionally.

The centre-right Radical Party argues a national language should be taught before a second foreign language but underlines the importance of English as a foreign language.

The leftwing Green Party’s ranks are not unified over whether one or two languages should be taught at the primary school level, but the party agrees that a national language should be taught first.


Categories: Europe, Switzerland

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