Language Rich Europe: English as a hob-goblin

Following our successful first launch in Bern, Switzerland on 23 May 2012, Caroline Morrissey, Director British Council Switzerland, has written an article discussing both the launch and the Swiss language situation in general. Please read on to find out more.

Anything to do with language policy in Switzerland, a country with four national languages, is always going to be political. So, with the British Council being seen to take the lead, and with the UK’s reputation in this country for not teaching and learning foreign languages well in its schools, we had to tread carefully. At the Language Rich launch in 2010, we spoke not one word of English but ran the event in French and German throughout – and got some great feedback for taking Swiss national languages seriously – as well as managing to avoid criticism about English imperialism. For us in Switzerland, it is important to make a clear distinction between this programme, which is about multilingualism and the work we do in promoting English. English is hugely important in Switzerland, but is also seen as a threat to Swiss cohesion.

There is a common perception that Switzerland is a multilingual nation. Reality can be quite different, with the four language areas existing well side by side (and mostly ignoring one another) and with little cross-border integration. The push for English, to the detriment of French in German-speaking cantons and German in French-speaking cantons, is seen as a real threat to unity and to cultural diversity.

So when the time came round last week to launch the results, we decided to do it multilingually. We did not have simultaneous translation as most of the audience would have a passive understanding of at least one other national language, even if they did not want to speak it. The event was hosted by the Italian Department of the University of Bern, we had presentations in German, accompanied by French language PowerPoint slides (and vice-versa), an introduction by one of our speakers in Rumantsch and our very own Martin Hope doing his presentation in French and Italian.

So, what were the highlights?

We managed to get some really top level speakers, including the President of the Swiss Social Democrat party, National Councillor Christian Levrat (French-speaker from a bilingual canton) and a representative of Rumantsch TV, fluent in all four Swiss national languages.

The debate was lively with questions around:

  • the media (how to integrate representatives from all Swiss language groups in live national TV debates for example, plus an accusation that the Swiss media is too heavily biased towards German);
  • education (how can Switzerland halt the inexorable advance of English to the detriment of Swiss national languages);
  • the advantages and disadvantages of early and late immersion;
  • Swiss German being hard to access for French speakers as they learn standard German, versus the argument of Swiss German native speakers that Swiss German is their mother tongue, their culture;
  • the status of Italian, a “wallflower” language- there is no reason why cantons should not choose Italian as the second language to be taught in schools, rather than German and French;
  • language competence: these days, said MP Christian Levrat, many young politicians only possess passive language competence in another Swiss national language; older politicians were able to communicate well in more than one.

The first trawl of press coverage shows 97 articles and radio / TV mentions, mostly picking up on the fact that Switzerland comes out very well in terms of multilingual language policies. Much of the Swiss French-language press, including radio, state that English is a real threat to Switzerland’s linguistic diversity. The NZZ, Switzerland’s most serious German-language broadsheet writes, however, in a thoughtful article, that the perceived threat by English to Switzerland’s linguistic and cultural cohesion is a fearsome but imaginary creature, a “hob-goblin”.

So what does LRE do for Switzerland? I have picked out four areas that seem important to me; there are many more:

  • Switzerland comes out top in many areas, such as policies to extend and improve multilingualism;
  • Migrant languages seem to be well supported in the big cities;
  • In vocational training, Switzerland does not make language studies compulsory so apprentices are losing out;
  • Italian and Rumantsch are losing territory and are under-represented in official life and in education;

The next steps will be to cover some of the emerging issues in a series of workshops. These will cover multilingualism and business; education and migration.

The Language Rich Europe results for Switzerland are now available in draft form in German, French and Italian. Language Rich Europe in Switzerland is partnered by the University Of Fribourg, Institute of Multilingualism.

3 thoughts on “Language Rich Europe: English as a hob-goblin

  1. Nice article and also efforts to save mother language from extinction. English is rampant everywhere, as mentioned youngsters than elder counter parts have least knowledge of their national language in comparison to English. The globalization, extensive media and social connections are also causes for dilution of mother language in all countries of the world.Thanks for sharing the article..

  2. Pingback: Switzerland: ‘there is still progress to be made’ | Language Rich Europe

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