English in Switzerland? – A story for reflection

by Eliane Perret

“Yes, we can” was written on the canvas cover of a lorry with a Swiss licence plate travelling in front of me on the motorway. Let’s hope so, I thought, after all it was a logistics company that obviously wanted to distinguish itself through “logical” advertising slogans connected to logistics. But why in English (and with Obama’s election promise to boot), since, at bottom, their route led through Switzerland? Well, it was an advertising slogan, and I was sure that in their case I could rely on it not being a cheap lie and that the company would do its job responsibly.
    Soon I noticed another transport company with its truck advertising its services with “We know the way”. Oh yes, knowing the way is important for such a company, I thought and was almost grateful for their sense of duty. I wondered why it was so advised by its advertising agency? Probably the truck was on its way to the Anglo-Saxon countries, I guessed, and there its offer had to be understood, hence the English language was used here, too.
    Or maybe this wasn’t the case at all, and one simply relied on the success of early English lessons for Swiss children, though the effectiveness of these has not been proven by any serious scientific study (in contrast to the decline in German language skills, which is lamented by all and empirically substantiated). But this reason would not fit in with transporting refrigerators, as children prefer sweets. For them was intended “the world of sweets”, an advertising slogan for sweets that I soon discovered on yet another truck. The variety of English advertising slogans on the vehicles was remarkable. Soon I spotted the words “Oil of Switzerland” on a big truck, which made me take a deep breath in view of the worries about high energy prices. But I wondered what “Energy for free” meant in the current context.
    After all these English translation tasks on my way to the next small town, I was glad not to find my bookshop there labelled a “library”. Nor did it have a “Sale” banner on its window, as many other shops in the same alley did. I was even pleased to have finally found an advertisement in one of our own four national languages, and as I had studied French extensively and successfully at school, I confidently translated “sale” to “dirty” – but did all these shops really sell dirty goods, or did the owners simply admit that their products had been produced at dirty wages in developing countries and were therefore so cheap? That, on the other hand, gave me pause.
    I was looking forward to reading the new book in my rucksack on the mechanisms of propaganda1, it would certainly make me understand better how the attempt worked to lead me around by the nose by means of these advertising slogans. Not on my watch! The book was in my rucksack, which made environmentally friendly packaging – “paper wrap” as it had been advertised on a delivery truck – unnecessary.
    Finally, on the way to my car, I passed a poster bearing the motto “Be the game changer”, urging me to buy a new car and thus give important impulses for trend-setting innovations. Oh no, not that – I was getting fed up ... Stale, staler, platitudes! So even the enticing ads on a poster pillar for a “Beauty week” and for “Fun TV” could now only annoy me. Perhaps the offered course “Smile and breathe” would be my sheet anchor? But I no longer felt like smiling or even laughing, and fortunately I was still breathing regularly.
    Then my “mobile” rang and a friend told me that she was now receiving messages from her Swiss university in English – my breath caught and I nearly threw a tantrum. At home I lay down on the sofa with my new book. Just as William Tell had fought the Föhn storm on Lake Lucerne and won his freedom, I was now fighting the storm of thoughts in my head in search of clarity: Where do we live anyway? What is the reason for this accumulation of English expressions in our everyday life? Isn’t this a form of “cultural appropriation” (or takeover), combined with the devaluation and neglect of our German language? Wasn’t it always the case that colonial powers imposed their own language on the countries occupied by them, be it English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, thus degrading and displacing indigenous languages and cultures? Or what about Sri Lanka, the pearl in the Indian Ocean, after the withdrawal of the English colonial masters, when discrimination against the Tamil population set in, with the government banning their mother tongue and the hitherto second official language - all this in combination with discrimination against this language group?
    Or more recently in Ukraine, when the Russian minority in the east of the country was no longer allowed to be taught in their mother tongue? Yes, economic-military imperialism has always come along with a language, this had already been the case with the Romans. And what does that mean for us? Why has the English language gained so much weight in our country in recent years? Not simply as an internationally recognised means of communication in science and business, but as part of a cultural change, spreading from the Anglo-American area: the American Way of Life. Yes, even in foreign language teaching in schools, English is preferred to a second national language, despite weighty objections. Isn’t this an “unfriendly takeover” of cultural dictates in music, literature and art, combined with a creeping process of disregard for one’s own cultural values and achievements in coexistence as “stuffy” and no longer “up to date”?
    I went to my bookcase. There I pulled out a book entitled “Die fünfte Landessprache? Englisch in der Schweiz”2 (The fifth national language? English in Switzerland). It had been published twenty years ago and had stated that the English language was of eminent importance as a means of communication in a global market economy (thus pointing to the background of this development), but at the same time it had called for discussion and added for consideration: “[...] does Switzerland, for this very reason, want to play one of its most important trump cards – its valuable experience with the coexistence of different cultures and their multilingualism? Yes, do we want to give up everything just to seemingly “be along for the ride”? But who in our country actually wants this and to what end? 


Bernays, Edward (2021). Propaganda: Die Kunst der Public Relations. (Propaganda: The Art of Public Relations). Berlin: orange-press; Propaganda, New York, 1928
Watts, Richard J./Murray, Heather (2001). Die fünfte Landessprache? Englisch in der Schweiz. (The fifth national language? English in Switzerland). Zurich: vdf (unfortunately out of print)

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