Swiss Status Quo

The below story about Switzerland is, like so many articles of this kind, replete with assurances by all concerned that English will not likely tarnish the importance of Switzerland's national tongues, the author even suggesting that measures might at some point be taken to maintain the status quo if it was ever put in jeopardy (one is left wondering if she has ever given the concepts of language or personal freedom any thought). Yet whatever the denials and caveats, the story that we reproduce underneath does describe a situation in which Switzerland's national languages are retreating from vital cultural fields, especially in Academia. In linguistic terms, this means that languages other than English are becoming incomplete languages, i.e. languages that are not suitable for certain areas of life because they lack the necessary vocabulary. The more research is conducted in English only, the more new terms are coined solely in English and the more difficult it gets to describe realities that belong to those new fields of knowledge in languages other than English, both because all the new vocabulary hasn't yet been translated in other languages and because the experts and professionals themselves increasingly lack practice of their very own mother tongue in this or that particular technical subject.
Neither can it be discounted that English is affecting other languages and making them more like itself when ever more people use it in addition to their respective mother tongues in their everyday lives and English idioms and words worm their way into their native tongues. This represents a loss of language diversity which is less obvious than outright language extinction but is also significant in the long run.
The Sarine river running through the medieval Swiss town of Fribourg acts as a language border between its inhabitants, with German speakers living on the east bank and French on the west. Fribourg (Freiburg in German) is one of several towns that straddle Switzerland’s language divide. It is officially bilingual and as such its river also goes by its German name, the Saane.

Switzerland’s multilingual heritage sets it apart in Europe, with the four national languages – German, French, Italian and the little-spoken ­Romansch – contributing to about 10% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to a 2008 study.
English has entered the mix over the last two decades. Its influence has been spread by the numerous international firms headquartered in tax-friendly Swiss municipalities, its increasing use in academia and its general acceptance as an additional language in wider communication.

“Over the last 20 years English has made quite a lot of inroads in Switzerland,” said Daniel Stotz, an English-teacher trainer in Zurich and researcher into the role of language and Swiss identity.

“In most cases now English is used in wider communication among non-native speakers. Quite a lot of Swiss adults have experienced the fact that English has become a company language. Sometimes it was forced upon them as well. I think some of this interest and perhaps pressure has trickled down to family life.

“It is connected a lot to young people’s life chances. There is a perception that English is important, that it allows you to get better jobs. It has a highly symbolic value as well,” Stotz said.

In a ruling last year, the government decided that the most important Swiss laws should be translated into English in response to growing demand for translation of legislation.

Strong demand for English lessons in schools has also undermined the priority given to national languages in the curriculum. Switzerland’s 26 cantons have agreed to introduce measures over the next few years whereby English will be taught in all primary schools alongside a second national language. Eight and nine-year-olds are already learning it as their first foreign language – ahead of another national language – in 10 cantons.

Swiss multilingualism has been the subject of a four-year research programme by the National Science Foundation that aims to understand the role of language and help the government to map out “a new equilibrium”, according to Walter Haas, president of the steering committee.

The programme is currently compiling a final report from 26 research projects, which is due for review by government at the end of 2009. The findings show English has a place in Swiss culture, although not necessarily a dominant one.
In one Bern University study, Swiss people viewed English as the most useful foreign language, although most opted to use one of the other national languages when first trying to communicate with someone from a different part of the country.
Another study by the University of Teacher Education found that early English teaching later helped German-speaking pupils to learn French, while a third project by lawyers proposed making English a semi-official language in order to attract more foreign professionals to the country.

Another contributor, University of Geneva economics professor François Grin, calculated that Switzerland’s multilingual heritage gave it a competitive advantage worth $42bn – a tenth of GDP.

“If society is going to invest money anywhere, investing in foreign languages, which in Switzerland means essentially one other national language and English, the rate of return is simply fantastic. By and large, we find that multilingualism is a very well paying asset,” Grin said.

Past research by Grin also pinpointed that English was more valued in German-speaking parts of Switzerland. As German is the majority language spoken by 63% of the population, it was more advantageous for Swiss ­Germans to know English than French or Italian.

It was different in French-speaking regions. The 1997 study established that while English added 18% to salaries in German-speaking regions, it equated to a 10% pay difference in French areas, compared to 14% increases with German or Italian as a second language. Between 1990 and 2000 the use of English increased in the workplace by about 28% and overall use rose in line with other languages, according to census reports.

According to Grin, this shows that multilingualism is expanding as a whole. “English is a very frequently used language but it is not replacing national languages. It plays a supplementary and complementary role,” he said.

One area where English is gaining prominence is within academia. Switzerland backs the 1999 Bologna Declaration, which aims to create a European space for higher education, and the Rectors’ Conference of Swiss Universities has in the past acknowledged English as the “language of academia”. It supports offering more courses in English as the best way of attracting foreign students.

Grin says use of English in academia has grown significantly, but as an advocate for linguistic diversity, he warns that the dominance of any one language in intellectual circles risks “eroding creativity”.

“I believe we are better off with ­diversity than without, and that it is important to develop language ­policies that are conducive to the maintenance of diversity. This means if a hegemonic language becomes too overbearing, you have to keep this in check.

“Switzerland defines itself not despite its multilingualism, but as a product of its multilingualism. It’s a very deeply rooted cultural value. Without multilingualism, [there is] no Switzerland,” he said.

It is a view shared by the cross-cantonal educational authority, the Swiss ­Conference of Cantonal Education Directors. “In a multilingual state, the coordination and development of language teaching is particularly important,” a spokeswoman said.

“Therefore the notion of a ‘lingua franca’ will not be limited to English, but rather to an ensemble of languages used within a real context in order to achieve a linguistic exchange.”

She said under Swiss linguistic strategy English had and would continue to have “an important status as an international language”.

But, she added, it is still only part of a bigger picture in which Switzerland shares goals set by the Council of Europe to prioritise multilingualism by ensuring a range of languages, including English, are taught.

Jessica Dacey

Hat tip: Edward J. Cunningham

Merry Christmas to you all


Edward J. Cunningham said...

Thanks! I just checked, and there's a report today about language retention in Switzerland. The authors argue that Swiss politicians ignore the importance of allowing non-English speaking immigrants to pass on their mother tongue to their children IN ADDITION to learning a Swiss national language.

Language retention is important, but I can't argue with the idea that if you are going to be living in Switzerland, you should try to learn the native language of the canton where you are living.

Politicians accused of doublespeak on languages

I won't say it in French for your sake, and I can't say it in Breton, but have a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful 2010!

Frogologist said...

If I remember correctly the Swiss Federation has always been dominated by the German parts, with these dominant parts choosing to cede some power and accept the other ethnicities as equals in order to hold the federation together.

If English displaces the second languages of Switzerland (French, Italian, Romansch) then the natural consequence is that the old political order in which the Germans accepted the other nationalities as equals could come to an end. Essentially all Swiss students would be compelled to learn German and English with the other languages only existing in linguistic ghettos, leading to the complete domination of the German parts of the federation, without any pretense at equality.

Or I could be completely wrong.

Anonymous said...

This a very good blog. It is important that you continue to keep this blog running. In Canada, there is a push by the federal government to force non-francophones into learning french. They do this in numerous ways. There is a lot of push by the french side, but there seems to be little push back by the non-french side. The language laws in quebec are essentially life support for a dieing language. I am digusted that I live in a country where freedom of speech and language is hindered by repressive language laws in one of our provinces.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

Thank you for your support, anonymous. I have been struggling against rheumatism for a while now, which has slowed this blog considerably, though it remains among my priorities.
I am aware of the unfair treatment of English native speakers by both the Canadian federal government and the province of Quebec, while native speakers of French get proportionally many more jobs within the federal government and enjoy a number of privileges otherwise. I haven't written much about this because this blog tries to focus on the decline of French, which the aforementioned policies have proved unable to stem.

There would be a lot to say about how these policies and practices have come to be accepted in a country where an overwhelming majority of people are English native speakers. IMHO, this situation has to do with the affirmative action movement, but it also seems to me to be the result of a concerted action by the International Freemasonry, for which French is a sort of sacred language on account of France being the Masons' country of origin. They seem to have made it the elite language of the neopagan Roman Empire they seek to restore.

Artie said...

"I have been struggling against rheumatism for a while now""

C'est vrai que de poster de la propagande anti-française sur Internet est une excellente façon de luter contre les rhumatismes.

Et en espérant que tu crèves rapidement. T'as vraiment besoin qu'on abrège tes souffrances on dirait.

Artie said...

"""result of a concerted action by the International Freemasonry, for which French is a sort of sacred language on account of France being the Masons' country of origin. They seem to have made it the elite language of the neopagan Roman Empire they seek to restore."""

Tiens je l'avais pas vu celle là. LMAO

C'est les francs-maçons en fait.... Et le protocole des sages de Sion. Non ?

Et la France tente de restaurer quoi ? LOL
Je sais pas ce que tu prends pour tes rhumatismes. Mais j'en veux ça a l'air pas mal comme drogue.