The resistible rise of simplicity

by Marco Polli*

“Our country is based on the principle of diversity in unity, and diversity is always better than simplicity”.

Brigitta Gadient

I was born in Geneva, the son of an Aargau and a Ticino native, who had settled there shortly before my birth. My mother’s mother tongue was German, my father’s Italian – more precisely: Aargau dialect and Ticino dialect. Both were trilingual. At home we spoke only French. In those post-war years, the Italian and German languages were frowned upon in Geneva, and we, my brother and I, resisted my mother’s attempts to initiate us into her mother tongue.
  Yet somehow I understood my father’s and my mother’s languages. The prejudice that languages were not a problem had taken root in me. For a long time it was not clear to me that by means of their knowledge, I held a treasure within me that connected me with my quadrilingual homeland. For me, Switzerland was an abstraction, a paper thing: Brusino-Arsizio is listed as my home town in my identity card. There is no trace of Dottikon.
  As a young intellectual I was floating in higher spheres. I was homeless, not anchored anywhere. It took me a long time to feel Swiss and dare consider myself lucky with this. This insight was not ideological, had nothing to do with nationalism, but with emotions, images and the sounds of my parents’ native languages from my childhood. Dottikon, Brusino-Arsizio and Les Eaux-Vives form a triangle that encircles my multilingual identity.
  When I was twelve I entered grammar school, the venerable Collège Calvin. I hardly saw my former playmates any more. They went to other schools and started working at an early age. Our paths diverged. It so happened that I became friends with a group of German students, learned their language in a flash and then spoke it fluently; and soon it took on the role of a second mother tongue, in which I learned to express my newly experienced feelings such as love.
  At Collège Calvin, I was a stranger, a kind of fare dodger, because of my origins. Much later I learned that my mother had experienced the same thing in Ingenbohl as a worker’s daughter among princesses in the making. But in the last two years at Collège Calvin I discovered – with enthusiasm – Goethe and Schiller and a wealth of contemporary Swiss and German authors. And also Camus and Diderot. At long last, there were teachers who recognised and encouraged my zeal. I wanted to study philosophy and decided to study German and French as my second and third subjects. And so I became a teacher of German, French and Philosophy.
  My interest in Swiss history was awakened by the debate about the teaching of foreign languages. As President of the Commission for Modern Languages of the Association of Swiss Grammar School Teachers, I followed the debates in the National Council on the creation of a language law, which were delayed for seven years from the turn of the millennium. Opinions increasingly diverged between supporters of the status quo, i.e. the primacy of the national languages, and advocates of English as an entry-level foreign language. Summing up, Brigitta Gadient from Graubünden briefly ironised the situation: “Our country is based on the principle of diversity in unity, and diversity is always better than simplicity”. On 21 June 2007, the declared battle of the manyfold against the simple was decided in favour of the manyfold, and the so-called Language Law1 was passed by 87 votes to 68. Its Article 15 gave priority to the second national language as the entry language. Three months later, the Federal Assembly took a different view. Two early languages (the first at the age of eight, the second at ten) were introduced as a “compromise solution”, with the cantons being free to choose the starting language: English or the second national language. Today, nearly all German-speaking Swiss cantons start with English. (Exception: the cantons of Basel-Stadt, Basel-Land and Solothurn)
  So this, then, was the kernel of the brute.
  Linguistic diversity is one of the cornerstones on which our identity and our culture are based, a great opportunity. But multilingualism cannot be taken for granted; it must be nurtured and encouraged. Switzerland’s quadrilingualism has a history and a status. In 1798, Napoleon granted legal equality to the three language communities of the time. It was abolished by the Restoration in 1814 – at a time quite similar to our epoch since 1989. In 1848 it was restored in the Federal Constitution. Finally, in 1938, a fourth Rhaeto-Romanic language with a special status was added.
  The cultural and linguistic diversity anchored in the Federal Constitution (Articles 2 and 69) is our best trump card. It has made Switzerland the most modern state in Europe and has ensured the unity and internal peace of our country for 168 years. The consequences of abolishing this status are indeed unforeseeable. •


1  Federal Act on the national languages and understanding between the linguistic communities (Languages Act)

Marco Polli, author, teacher, journalist and theatre-maker, resident in Geneva, em. Professor of German, French and Philosophy at the two renowned Collèges Voltaire and Collège Calvin (Geneva), has dealt intensively with cultural, linguistic and political issues and has published on them. Among other things, he was president of the living languages commission of the advisory commission of the association of Swiss grammar school teachers (https://www.vsg-sspes.ch) . As part of his language policy work, the author also presided over the preparatory commission of the above-mentioned relevant teachers’ association of Swiss grammar school teachers for the reformulation of the language article in the Swiss Federal Constitution, with the problematic new weighting of English at the expense of the other Swiss national languages.

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