Swiss Go English---How 'Bout U.S.?

DOMESTIC disputes can look a lot more clear when viewed from overseas.

Take bilingual instruction – where immigrant parents, particularly Hispanics – are fighting the education establishment in California, Arizona and, recently, Colorado.

The establishment, with support from old-style Hispanic activists, believes in teaching students in their native language instead of immersing them in English. Critics – who increasingly include parents – say that the “bilingual” route condemns many children to a ghettoized existence.

After attending a weeklong conference sponsored by the American-Swiss Foundation, this columnist thinks Americans might be surprised at the lessons we can learn from the Swiss.

With just 7 million people compared to America’s 280 million-plus, Switzerland is still broken up into 26 cantons to our 50 states – and the cantons have far more control over such fundamental issues as health care and education.

Moreover, Switzerland is arguably more multicultural than the United States: For centuries, it’s had four “national” languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh, a Latin-based language distantly related to Italian) coexisting in peace.

Yet in Zurich, the largest city in the canton of the same name, the talk is of requiring every child to learn English.

The canton’s German-speaking students are now required to study one of the other three Swiss languages. But Ernst Buschor, head of education for Canton Zurich, suggests teaching them English instead. English, in Buschor’s view, is the international language. In fact, many Swiss have some English, and most professionals are fluent.

Buschor’s point: Why not make law what has become common practice in society? It is, he says, recognizing reality. Buschor’s idea has opposition, mainly from minority-language speakers, who fear that their tongues and cultures might die out. But it also has plenty of support.

Meanwhile, in New York, the city that’s home to Wall Street – Switzerland’s most obvious rival as a center for financial and corporate interests – teaching English to all schoolchildren still takes second place to preserving “bilingual” programs that don’t even get the job done.

Our city’s hodgepodge of biligual-ed programs generally take three years or more to “mainstream” their students – often leaving the kids too far behind their peers.

In other words, Switzerland – a nation with four different languages of its own – may soon be more serious about teaching English to every child than is New York.

The Swiss don’t want to leave their kids handicapped, unable to speak the dominant language of international commerce and culture.

What’s our excuse?

E-mail: [email protected]

Comments are closed.