What are the reasons for English at an early age in Switzerland?

What are the reasons for English at an early age in Switzerland?

by Gisela Liebe

The whole world admires the plurilingualism in Switzerland. It is not naturalness that on such a small territory various language-communities with different cultures are able to peacefully coexist and communicate with each other.

The teaching of different languages imposes high requirements on the educational system. Swiss children must learn more than in other nations – and they did it for decades. From time immemorial, as was the Swiss custom, nearly every child had learnt a second language within school. The foreign language teaching of a second language of the country ordinarily began with secondary school (age 11 to 15), therefore after primary school. The bilingual Cantons and Grisons by contrast always had a different arrangement adjusted to the needs of the respective Canton. At the latest with school entrance, many children learnt the very first foreign language, which is High German. Young men could practice and consolidate their language knowledge from school in the military training school, whereas many young women until some years ago did a so called “Welschlandjahr” after school (one year in the French part of Switzerland) in order to deepen their knowledge of the French language.
Only at the end of the eighties, most Cantons postponed the learning of the second language of the country on the end of primary school, in most cases the 5th grade. Gradually English was taught at many schools, mostly as an optional subject.
In 1989, the Federal Department of the Interior submitted a considerable report “Zustand und Zukunft der viersprachigen Schweiz” (“State and perspective of the quadrilingual Switzerland”).
Concerning the own mother-tongue even then in all language regions it declared among others a “striking change in the use of the languages of a large section of the population, which is accelerated and influenced by modern communication technologies. This transition becomes apparent in an increasing rejection of content and formal still by humanistic education values characterised cultural language and in an augmented orientation towards a mere functional, content and aesthetic impoverished communication language. At the extreme this change leads to a far-reaching loss of the active and above all written command of language”. (Report, p. 294)
Considering the increasing spread of the English language in media and economy the 1989 report already stated that in a few years English could dominate the languages of the country. The report identifies “a clear evidence for the growing predominance of both a pure utilitarian thinking and a worldwide lingua-cultural interdependence in which we range” in the fact that students showed more motivation for the learning of English than the languages of the country. (p. 295) In order not to loosen the national cohesion by the use of English the languages of the country should be reinforced. Target was a “type of general trilingualism”. (p. 303) The report concedes that the achievement of this goal would mean a huge burden of the educational system.
The about 400 pages counting report, which met with a wide response, does not mention in a word which way the targeted trilingualism of the Swiss population should be attained. This question got nothing to do with the confederation; it was a question of the control by the cantons over the domain of education.
The OECD also appreciated this. Still 1990 in its report about Switzerland it praised the high adaptability and pragmatism of the Swiss decentralised educational system and “that this specific decision-making system shows an enviable efficiency” (Swiss education report, report of the OECD, p. 83, quoted from “Standort Schule”, Vol. 1, p. 159).

Zurich breaks the first ground, made in USA

In 1996, the department of education decided the introduction of compulsory English lessons at elementary and secondary school (“Volksschule”) and grammar school (“Gymnasium”). First, it was planned to implement English as second language from secondary school on (7th grade). The teaching staff and the cantonal grammar schools in a legislative process by consultation said that English should not be taught before 8th grade. In December 1997, the Zurich council of education decided to schedule the start of English lessons in grade 7, thrice-weekly.
Surprisingly, only half a year later in Zurich English lessons at an early age were established, which was contrary to all previous decisions, even from the 2nd grade at primary school on. How could such a knee-jerk-decision happen, that put all previous decisions upside down?
The Zurich Director of Education Ernst Buschor, who visited a conference in the USA in April 1997, brought along some radical ideas, which shape Swiss school reforms until today right up to the Curriculum 21. By the so called “Schulprojekt 21” (school project 21) they were effectuated the first time. The most important contents were: learning in mixed age classes, self-organised learning by computers and the-sooner-the-better English tuition even from scratch. In order to intensify the English language acquisition, the children were exposed to the language even in other lessons (immersion programmes): so for instance subjects like mathematics or needlework were taught in English. The Jacobs-Stiftung allocated a million Swiss francs for the project. Schools that volunteered for participation were rewarded by attractive infrastructures, teachers by multi-week trips to the USA. According to the president of the cantonal educational commission, Oskar Bachmann, the whole school project 21 “completely went tits-up” (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 9 March 2003). The immersion programm led to the fact, that students did not proceed in both mathematics and English language. A concerned teacher reports that after the end of the trial at her school, teachers destroyed all material by a bonfire.
In July 1998, the expert commission of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) submitted the “Sprachenkonzept Schweiz” (conception for languages in Switzerland), which went even further. It recommended that children at the age of kindergarten should already encounter other languages, at the latest in the second primary school class should learn the first foreign language and at the latest in the fifth grade a second and in the seventh grade secondary-school a third one. Learning languages at an early age would not overstrain the children. Neuro-linguistic research of the last 15 years would have shown this. Correlating findings, it did not mention, though.
Explicit the conception for languages in Switzerland references to the compatibility with the language policy of Council of Europe and the EU. The EU’s White Paper, published in 1995 by the European Commission, demands the knowledge of three common languages of each European citizen.
Accordingly, ever since then in the EU English has really been taught very early. In the Spanish region Galicia kindergarten children already learn English at the age of three, even before they learn to write and read in their own mother tongue. They have to do this by means of expensive working materials produced in England, which the parents have to pay.
The purposes of the foreign language teaching also changed now: the competency based teaching is formulated the first time. It was merely the matter of “certain immediately applicable basics” (also called partial competencies) [emphasis in the original, gl] and to develop a “learning competence” (source: EDK, “Sprachenkonzept Schweiz”, Berne from 15 July 1998). The “functional plurilingualism” was important for the international applicable worker in the globalised working environment, which means to understand work instructions and to read manuals. No longer there is talk of becoming acquainted with and understand the belonging culture. It was already rudimentarily perceptible what students later were in for exposed to todays’ language teaching materials: build small talk sentences, which you can use everywhere instead of learning and practising grammatical essentials and vocabulary. Superficial gimmickries with languages take precedence over profound command of the language.

The “Sprachenkompromiss” (languages compromise) – a political decree at the cost of the children

In 2004, the EDK finally determined the so called “Sprachenkompromiss”, without any democratic participation of their citizens. In order that the Romandie could not feel neglected, not only English was to be learnt at primary school, but also the second language of the country. Whether this was reasonable under pedagogical aspects or not was not scrutinised. It was a pure political decree. Since the EDK had no decisional authority to the cantons, the EDK-decree had and has until today only recommendatory character. In the confederative language law, that Federal Councillor Berset wants to modify now, solely the following is determined: until the end of primary and secondary school (“Volks-schulzeit”) English and one second language of the country should be learnt. The point in time remains open and hence is left to the cantons. The HarmoS-Concordat (2007) on the contrary compels the ten Swiss-German participating cantons to teach both foreign languages from third resp. fifth grade on.

Teacher resisted from scratch

From the beginning, from the teachers there was strong resistance against learning two foreign languages from an early age in primary school for pedagogical reasons. Main reasons for the rejection were that weaker and foreign-language children are overchallenged and that too much precious learning time is used for foreign languages, while other, more important subjects at primary school go short. As well the unqualified, competency oriented teaching materials, that do not allow a systematic knowledge building and which only create confusion to the students have been criticised for a long time.
Therefore, various cantons such as Appenzell Inner Rhodes and Uri never introduced two foreign languages from an early age in primary school. Resistance has not decreased – on the contrary: it has increased from year to year due to the negative experiences that have been made. In the Canton of Zurich, as in the Cantons of Lucerne and Grisons, a popular initiative is pending, that stipulates to teach only one foreign language at primary school. A survey of the St. Gallen Teachers Association in 2015 showed that out of more than 3,000 teachers only a minority of 17% supported two foreign languages from an early age. Meanwhile there are enough serious empirical studies demonstrating the poor success of learning foreign languages from an early age. The last major study was presented by Dr Simone Pfenninger at the University of Zurich. She took advantage of the unique opportunity of the transitional period in Zurich from learning English in a later age to learning English in an earlier age and was able to show that the so-called “late learners” had well caught up with the “early learners” until graduation, most of them even after six months. Also important is Pfenninger’s realisation that good command of one’s own native language is an advantage for the learning of foreign languages.
In the past decade, teachers in all cantons were able to make similar experiences in practice. With its decision to postpone the second foreign language (in this case French) to the secondary level, the Canton of Thurgau has drawn the consequence from the failure of this experiment.
Why despite all negative experiences and in contradiction to reputable scientific findings the EDK and Federal Councillor Berset continue to insist on the teaching of two foreign languages at primary school level, this is only explainable in a political context, anyway not in an educational one. Obviously, the adaptation to EU standards and the interests of large international corporations are more important than decades of personal experiences which are thrown overboard without hesitation. Half a generation of children has been sacrificed for this senseless project. This is more than enough to return to rationality.     •

The Zurich Experiment

Gl. The then-employee of the Education Director Ernst Buschor and leader of the school project 21, Christian Aeberli, describes what he called “Zurich experiment” as follows: “In April 1997, the Director of Education of the Canton of Zurich attended an international education conference in the US. The meeting provided an overview of the latest trends of teaching at the primary and secondary level. Topics discussed at the event, were amongst others the language learning, e-learning and autonomous, self-directed learning. The conference proceedings of the Education Director formed the basis for the work at the school for the ’21st century’; after his return he gave the order to that.
In early May the staff members of the Department of Education met together for a first time. Out of that the school experiment school project 21 (Learning for the 21st century) at the primary school emerged. The school project 21 includes three elements: 1. cross-class, age-mixed teaching to promote independent learning and team learning, 2. learning with the computer as a tool and 3. teaching in English (partly immersive approach, embedding). The experiment starts with the first class and takes six years.“

Source: Aeberli Christian. “Englisch ab der ersten Klasse: Das Zürcher Experiment.” In: Watts, Richard J., Murray Heather (Ed.). “Die fünfte Landessprache? Englisch in der Schweiz Zurich 2001

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