Switzerland: Language poll challenges schools reform

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Dec 20 15:56:47 UTC 2006

November 19, 2006 - 5:27 PM
Language poll challenges schools reform

Two non-native languages are too much of a burden, the initiative says

Voters in Zurich are to have the final say on a proposal that would make
English the main foreign language taught at cantonal primary schools. The
ballot in Switzerland's most populous canton on November 26 comes amid
efforts to improve educational coordination among the country's different
language regions.  Zurich is in many ways considered a leader in education
matters among Switzerland's 26 cantons, which largely determine their own
schools policy. It has played a pioneering role in the introduction of
English at an early age. However, the Zurich electorate is not the first
to decide on a proposal to give English preference over a second national
language at primary school level.

Other cantons in the German-speaking part of Switzerland threw out similar
plans at the ballot box earlier this year, some by a relatively small
margin. It is expected that further votes, mainly in central Swiss
cantons, will follow. Multilingual Switzerland has four national languages
German, spoken by the majority, French and Italian as well as a tiny
minority of Romansh speakers. Until recently it has been the custom in the
name of national cohesion - for pupils to learn another national language
at school. But many schools also want to teach English.

The whole of Switzerland is watching Zurich.

The Zurich initiative aims at focusing on one foreign language at primary
school level and is supported by many teachers as well as political
parties, including the rightwing Swiss People's Party and some of the
Green Party. Currently pupils learn English from grade two. From grade
five onwards they also have lessons in French - the second national
language in Switzerland after German. The initiative committee claims that
many young pupils growing up with Swiss German dialect can't really manage
two foreign languages, partly also because they struggle with standard
German. "Surveys show that our primary school pupils don't reach the
expected expertise in German," says Konrad Osterwalder, president of the
Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Osterwalder is supported by Remo Largo, a former professor of paediatrics
and a distinguished author of books on education. He argues that it
doesn't make sense to teach two foreign languages for only a few hours
each per week. "Our schools put too much weight on languages at the
expense of science subjects and creative activities," he wrote in an
article in Zurich's Neue Zrcher Zeitung newspaper. Other education experts
disagree, maintaining that children learn two foreign languages easily at
an early age and that expertise in their mother tongue improves at the
same time. Knowledge of more than one foreign language is a key to success
in an increasingly global society, they add.

For her part, Zurich's education director Regine Aeppli has warned that
approval of the initiative could scupper plans to coordinate education
among the cantons. "The whole of Switzerland is watching Zurich," she
said. Aeppli added that plans to introduce French after grade six only
would cause tensions on a national level. "It could jeopardise linguistic
cohesion," she told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper. Two years ago the
country's 26 cantonal education authorities agreed on a common policy and
standards at primary schools as part of a major package of reforms. Aeppli
is confident that voters will acknowledge the importance of foreign
languages and previous efforts to harmonise the education system.

In a nationwide ballot last May, the electorate approved a constitutional
amendment aimed at improving coordination among the different school
systems and giving the federal authorities a bigger say.


Under Switzerland's federalist system the country's 26 cantons enjoy a
large degree of autonomy in education matters. The Swiss education system
is built on a complex interplay between the federal, cantonal and local
authorities depending on the education level and the kind of institution.
English language teaching at compulsory school level has been a bone of
contention in multicultural Switzerland for years amid concern that the
four national languages German, French, Italian and Romansh might lose


The 26 cantonal education directors agreed in 2004 to adopt a policy of
teaching two languages in primary school.  The policy stipulates that one
should be English and the other a national language.  The ratification
process for the accord is due to start at the end of 2007 and should be
complete by 2009.


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