Families who just settled in Switzerland are often confronted with something of a dilemma: what language should their offspring be taught in and for what reason? There are many answers to these questions, from the neurological to the educational standpoint. Swiss Style looked at what schools are doing.
The parameters of daily communications in the country are clear: on the one hand, youngsters have to be able to communicate fluently with their surrounding in order to be integrated in society. Hence, they have to learn at least one of the Swiss national languages. On the other hand, Anglophone adults might want their children to be fluent in their own mother tongue. Schools offering bilingual programmes for very young pupils might well be the best answer for Anglophone families. And an early introduction of English in curricula also contributes to the hegemony of English in relation to the four Swiss national languages. This increasingly dominant position has reached a point where it is becoming a concern for the traditional Swiss multilingual model.
In fact, English is still something of a lingua franca on planet Earth, even though what is generally spoken amongst the globalised hordes of middle managers has often little to do with what might be taught in school. Secondly, children entering school today may be faced with a very different world in twenty years’ time, one in which speaking Chinese or Spanish may well be the ne-plus-ultra asset.
Early bilingual education is very attractive as a teaching method. Tina Roessler, the Director of the Bilingual School of Suisse Romande (BSSR), explains that an infant’s brain is essentially a blank slate, as it were. “Until puberty, children will learn to articulate sounds by creating new connections between their neurons,” she explains. “These will later develop into an intricate system, which is the new language.” At this early stage, it is therefore very easy for young pupils to learn from scratch. Her school’s teaching method concentrates on this early stage of children’s development to hardwire English and French into their memory. “Once youngsters have reached adolescence, it is more difficult to teach them new languages.” Indeed, young adults and adolescents learn to translate ideas into English, they do not learn how to think in this language.
The benefits of bilingual education are much broader than just language acquisition. In her Master’s thesis, Tamera Peters, Director of School Initiatives Europe at Teach Beyond, argues that multilingual education also helps children improve their psychological and social skills, more precisely she argues that it builds up a stronger cognitive ability and broader intercultural competencies. According to her, such a curriculum encourages pupils’ creativity because it fosters divergent thinking, which is the ability to generate numerous ideas on a single topic in a relatively short period of time. This cognitive process is of crucial importance because it is completely neglected in most educational systems around the world. Bilingual instruction gives youngsters a more spontaneous and deeper cultural understanding.
Peters’ work relies on James L. Citron’s theory of the ethno-lingual relativity defined as “a perspective that is not limited by one’s own cultural and linguistic experiences, but rather is open to the contrasting cultural and linguistic patterns of other peoples”. Citron identifies two main components in his ethnolingual theory. The first is the faculty of learners to acknowledge that languages are not direct translations and that their mother tongue’s particular way of conveying a concept is subjective. Hence, there is neither a wrong nor a right manner to express a thought but rather different ways according to each language.
The second component is the ability to distinguish the underlying cultural heritage constitutive of every language. For example, empathic learners recognise that some word or expression might be absent from the vocabulary of a foreign language because the object is unknown to native speakers. Ethno-lingual relativity is, according to Peters, the main reason that explains the greater ability of some to learn a new language. In turn, the fluency of an additional language develops in the speakers’ mindset a greater sensitivity, a deeper appreciation, an extended flexibility and a wider tolerance towards foreign cultures. Altogether these increased characteristics also have a positive effect on the ability and curiosity of learners for new languages.
The growing importance of English as the prime language for international communication is another good reason advocating in favour of bilingual teaching. Some studies have even shown that employees with good English-language skills usually benefit from significant wage premiums, regardless of which linguistic area of Switzerland they may live in. The non-economic advantages of additional languages are equally important. People speaking English will be able to expand their network thanks to their new communication skills, because most foreigners use English to communicate beyond their linguistic community.
The popularity of English amongst Swiss citizens is so widespread over all the different linguistic regions that it has given rise to a controversy about its dominant position relative to French, German and Italian. In the German part of Switzerland, some cantons give English priority over French and Italian and hence they have introduced early English teaching as of second grade. It is no surprise that this general trend is perceived by some as a threat to Switzerland’s traditional multilingualism. Some even fear that English could in the future be used by inhabitants from different linguistic regions to communicate between themselves, making it a kind of lingua franca, much in the way Latin may have been back in the days of Caligula. Without Latin, you would have missed the opportunities for some social climbing. Today, English is a necessary tool to do research, conduct business and even negotiate internationally.
For some German teachers this Anglophile trend seems rooted in the post-war Germanophobia amongst Swiss French speakers, who perceived the teaching of German as negative. Of course, this explanation is completely outdated because the negative feelings of babyboomers towards German have gradually disappeared and has been replaced by far less emotional and much more pragmatic feelings amongst younger generations. Youngsters have apparently understood the importance of German literacy for their professional success, at least in the Swiss labour market. This could explain why, according to the ISOPUBLIC study “Frühenglisch an Schweizer Schulen,” (Early English at Swiss Schools), 48 percent of French speakers in Switzerland think that the first foreign language public schools should teach is German and not English. The reason for any lingering doubts of some Swiss French speakers towards German has thus to be sought elsewhere. A good explanation could be the irrational emphasis on Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German dialect) driven by the fear of the current increasing use of Hochdeutsch (standard German) due to the intensification of German immigration in the past decade.
In the final analysis, the best solutions for children from the Anglophone community is most probably the bilingual model. Bilingual education provides cognitive advantages and enhances socialisation. Even public schools are now considering adopting this educational model. In Switzerland, bilingual education is not necessarily as sensitive a topic as might be thought when reading the patently nationalist yellow press that is spread around for free. In a country that lives off of exports, it is absolutely crucial that generations of young persons speak other languages. And English, like it or not, and for whatever evil or logical reason, has become a global language, both in the real world and the virtual one.
The Anglo edge
An employee living in Geneva and speaking English fluently can expect to earn on average 10% more thanks to his language skills. In Zurich, the difference is even greater and the salary premium reaches 18%. In the academic world, the language of Shakespeare also has a dominant position. In human sciences the total of research published in English amounts to 32%, in natural sciences it represents 52% of all publications and in biomedicine it amounts to 79%. Further, 64% of the professors at Berne University think that the students’ level of English is not adequate.
Article by Julio Jaton