Switzerland: Language law failure leaves cantons speechless

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Dec 20 15:53:04 UTC 2006

May 24, 2004 - 8:19 AM
Language law failure leaves cantons speechless

The law failed for financial reasons (swissinfo)

Cantons and lobby groups have condemned a government decision to shelve
legislation aimed at protecting Switzerlands four main languages. The
government blamed a lack of funds, claiming it could not afford the SFr17
million ($13 million) needed to implement measures set out in the draft

Switzerland has four national languages, German, French, Italian and
Romansh, a Latin-based dialect spoken by only 0.5 per cent of the
population. The new law was designed to maintain the countrys distinctive
multilingualism at a time when it is coming under pressure from English.
The decision gives out a negative signal, especially in relation to recent
discussions in Switzerland about the position of the national languages
and English, said Gabriela Fuchs, spokeswoman for the cantonal education

The controversy over the growing prominence given to English in the
country's schools heightened last month. Cantonal education directors
decided that all primary schools must teach at least two foreign languages
- including English - from 2012. Most German-speaking cantons are expected
to start teaching English before the national language, French. But in a
majority of the French-speaking cantons, German would continue to be given
priority. Fuchs says the new law would have strengthened the position of
the national languages, as it would have supported minority languages and
bilingual cantons such as Valais, Fribourg and Graubnden. The legislation
also envisaged language exchanges between schoolchildren and teachers from
different linguistic regions, as well as the creation of a national centre
of competence for languages.

Fuchs's view is backed by lobby groups promoting Romansh and Italian. They
recently released a statement appealing for more support for both
languages. Like the cantonal education authorities, they have called on
the government to reconsider its decision.If both chambers [of parliament]
agree then the government would support the law. According to supporters
of the legislation, the government has a duty to sustain the national
languages because of an article in the constitution. But government
spokesman Achille Casanova disagrees. The government realises that it has
a constitutional mandate [for the national languages], but it is of the
opinion that this constitutional article is fulfilled by the instruments
and activities already in place, he told swissinfo.

To fund the measures contained in the legislation, the government needed
to find an extra SFr17 million from 2008. The numerous measures in the
draft law would have led to the government paying extra subsidies at a
time when federal finances are already in a critical situation, said the
interior ministry in a statement. Both the cantonal education authorities
and lobby groups say they have not given up hope. Support from parliament
could lead to the draft law being debated there - an option that even
Casanova does not discount. And if both chambers [of parliament] agree on
a motion or a parliamentary initiative, then the government would support
the law, he said.


The law would have cost SFr17 million and would have supported minority
languages, bilingual cantons, exchanges and a national centre for
languages. But cabinet shelved the law last month, citing financial
reasons. It also feels that it is meeting its mandate for the national
languages. Cantons and lobby groups are disappointed, but they hope that
parliament might intervene.


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