Language teaching: Avoiding unnecessary quarrels

Language teaching: Avoiding unnecessary quarrels

by Pierre-Gabriel Bieri

The HarmoS model includes the teaching of two foreign languages at primary school level. Some cantons question the model mainly for educational reasons. To see a threat to national cohesion in it is overstated. And the intervention of the Federal legislature – just to end the discussion – is certainly not the appropriate means to foster cohesion.

HarmoS: implemented, but controversial

Since the 1970s a second national language has been taught in Swiss primary schools. And it seemed logical that the students from western Switzerland were learning German and the German-Swiss students French. This federal reflex began to totter, when Zurich decided to teach English at primary school as well. Other cantons followed this decision, and the French and English languages competed with each other in German-speaking Switzerland. In 2006, a referendum paved the way for a unified “education area in Switzerland”. The new constitutional decision resulted in an intercantonal concordat of 15 cantons called “HarmoS”, implemented in 2009. In particular, HarmoS regulates the duration and objectives of the education levels as well as the language teaching. It is envisaged to teach the first foreign language “from the 3rd grade onwards (HarmoS 5) at the latest and the second foreign language from the 5th grade onwards (HarmoS 7) at the latest”. The Cantons of Grisons and Ticino may derogate from the provision, if in addition they provide a third obligatory national language.
 In practice, the HarmoS model is largely implemented or is well on track. However, refusing voices have come to be heard in those cantons already working with HarmoS. Several Swiss German cantons complain about the pupils’ difficulties learning two foreign languages almost at the same time. And some teachers are of the opinion that teaching for educational reasons the French language leads to better results only from secondary level on.

Criticism is perceived as attack

It bothered the Federal Council that the model is being criticised, questioned, or even rejected. For this reason, an amendment of the federal law on the national languages and the communication between the linguistic communities was sent into a legislative process by consultation in summer. The Federal Council provides clear guidelines for foreign language teaching during compulsory schooling in three variations. These range from the strict implementation of HarmoS to an “slight” variation (“Lessons in the second national language begin two years before the end of primary school at the latest”).
The Federal Council does not conceal the fact that it would prefer a solution that allows the cantons to agree freely on the language teaching. However, the intervention of the federal legislature is necessary as an ultima ratio in order to maintain the understanding between the linguistic communities and national cohesion.
However, the Federal Council’s solution is not convincing. One can be an advocate of the French language and national cohesion – which is not only dependent on language – but still denounce the intervention of the federal legislature in this area.

No reviving of the language conflict

In the present case, implementing an intercantonal concordat is not simply a lacking of good will. It is rather a question of whether to deviate from the agreement after having had bad experiences. For the cantons the shaping of language teaching is is not simply a minor matter, but a politically delicate question. The intervention of the federal legislature to stop the deserters and put an end to discussions does certainly not improve national cohesion in this context – and in any case certainly does not improve the sympathy for the French language!
In addition, it is important to note that questioning HarmoS is not necessarily an attack on the French language. The criticism results rather from the discussion about pedagogical sense and nonsense. Therefore, it seems an exaggeration to derive a threat from criticism to the language-community.
In all circumstances, it is necessary to prevent a reviving of the language conflict. The cantons each should be allowed to implement adapted maybe differing solutions, if necessary. Therefore, the submission of the Federal Council must be rejected. If need be the variant should be chosen, which has the least influence on the cantonal scope – and this can only work subsidiary.     •

Source: <link http:> Press and Information Service No. 2199 of 5 October 2016

(Translation Current Concerns)

For the cantons the shaping of language teaching is is not simply a minor matter, but a politically delicate question.

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