Switzerland deals flexibly and pragmatically with plurilingualism. It does this successfully. Nevertheless, immigration and increasing international integration are posing new challenges to schools, economy and administration. If the potential of multilingualism can be tapped, it will be beneficial to the community.
While small in size, Switzerland is wealthy in languages. The constitution recognizes four national languages (German, French, Italian and Rhaeto Romanic), three of which are official languages (German, French and Italian) while many other languages such as Spanish, Albanian, English, Portuguese and Turkish are also spoken. How does the country deal with this diversity of language? Amazingly well, as several projects discovered, although the potential of plurilingualism is clearly not fully realised.
Many research projects were able to show that groups whose members speak different languages (e.g. football teams or military units) are flexible and pragmatic in the way they deal with multilingualism. If no formal language code is in place, they often find spontaneous solutions. Similarly, co-workers with different languages manage to cooperate successfully on a daily basis.
Above average knowledge of languages
The language skills of the Swiss are above average. They generally speak two foreign languages. Within Switzerland, the greatest linguistic efforts are expected from people of Italian and Rhaeto Romanic first language. Didactically innovative language courses that have the courage to aim for less than perfection create pragmatic new opportunities for learning Rhaeto Romanic and Italian.
The main responsibility of language acquisition is carried by the educational system. School children are not overwhelmed by the early acquisition of two foreign languages. Swiss Germans are able to use received language – referred to as High German – to a good standard and according to needs of the situation. In the same way, young Swiss French speakers are able to apply their received French and youth speak appropriately. The importance of English is often overestimated and it is does not play the role of a “lingua franca” for the Swiss.
The state should be communicating with the entire population
Some results of NRP 56 projects informed the Ordinance to the Federal Languages Act, others contributed to the guidelines on promoting multilingualism in the Federal Administration. Based on the new Languages Act, authorities are expected to take measures with regard to improving the linguistic abilities of their employees. One study recommends that laws, directives and information issued by the authorities should be written cooperatively by experts from the three official language areas.
One key task of linguistic legislation is supporting linguistic minorities. They should be able to satisfy the majority of their needs in their own language. The situation is more complex for new foreign-language groups whose language is not recognized by the constitution. While state and society protect the indigenous minority languages from being absorbed by the larger groups, they expect the opposite of immigrants who need to integrate into Swiss society. At the forefront of the state’s interests should be the aim to be able to communicate with all residents on its territory.
The benefit of multilingualism
Multilingualism costs time, energy and money. But it also brings cultural, intellectual and, not least, economic benefits. The languages spoken by immigrants make up part of Switzerland’s assets, a fact which is not fully appreciated by political and economic forces. These languages form a link between Switzerland and the immigrants’ countries of origin and other cultures, they are helpful in the tourist industry and in international companies as well as in the translation of literary and legal texts. The challenge of multilingualism is to recognize and make use of the potential that arises from this confluence of individuals who speak different languages. If the intention is to better advance people’s language skills, the place to start would be with their need to communicate: people are willing and able to speak to one another.