Switzerland—One nation, four languages

Switzerland—One nation, four languages

[INTERVIEW]

H.E. Mr. Urs Bucher
Swiss Ambassador to Japan


Traditions, culture, politics and language. These are the four defining elements of a nation’s identity: one common language shared by the people, giving them a sense of belonging. Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. For a monolingual country such as Japan, which struggles to encourage the acquisition of foreign languages—in particular the English langunage—the concept of multilingualism is hard to imagine. Accordingly, JAPAN and the WORLD did some research in order to find out more about the history of how multilingualism came to be in Switzerland. JAPAN and the WORLD also had the opportunity to ask H.E. Mr. Urs Bucher, Swiss Ambassador to Japan, some questions surrounding multilingualism in Switzerland.

To justify the existence of the Swiss Confederation and it’s uniqueness at that time, the concept of Willensnation (“nation of will”) was created by pointing out, amongst other things, the linguistic diversity to gain a sense of a national self.

The Old Confederation was founded in 1291 as a loose purpose alliance between three valley communities of what is now Central Switzerland. Their goal was to defend their autonomy rights against the emerging power-hungry Counts of Habsburg. The federal letter of 1291 is preserved to this day. The three original cantons were then gradually joined by others, also trying to escape the imperialism of the surrounding, much more powerful, states. At the core of the Swiss “myth” lies the quest of small nations trying to preserve their freedom. When it comes to the multilingualism of Switzerland, the process of nation building and the creation of the Swiss “myth” played a very important role. To justify the existence of the Swiss Confederation and it’s uniqueness at that time, the concept of Willensnation (“nation of will”) was created by pointing out, amongst other things, the linguistic diversity to gain a sense of a national self. This way of thinking also manifested itself in political actions in 1848 after a brief civil war between mostly catholic, rural cantons and the mostly protestant, urban cantons, which was won by the latter. To conciliate the former, it seemed important to the politicians to aknowledge the linguistical and cultural diversity of the country, therefore in the 1848 Constitution, the three national languages German, Italian and French where put on equal footings.

While Switzerland is a linguistically divided nation, many people are encouraged to learn to speak, or at least understand, a different language. A certain level of mastery of a second and third language is necessary for academic and professional success.

—How does Switzerland manage to create unity despite having four official languages?

The origins of Switzerland are older than the rise of the European nation state – in which the “nation” is based on a community that shares the same language, religion and culture. Switzerland nationhood is not based on a common language and religion, but on a common history and shared values. Made up of different communities, who chose to join forces, Switzerland uses the German term “Willensnation” to describe itself: a nation created by its own will.

While Switzerland is a linguistically divided nation, many people are encouraged to learn to speak, or at least understand, a different language. A certain level of mastery of a second and third language is necessary for academic and professional success. A multi-language culture is also enshrined in Swiss laws: The Federal Act on the National Languages states: “The status of the four official languages should be strengthened as a fundamental characteristic of Switzerland”.

—In regards to many exchange programs between Japanese and Swiss universities, such as the latest agreement of the University of Geneva and Keio University, is the promotion of the four official Swiss languages a part of the mission of the Swiss Embassy in Japan?

Switzerland’s four languages are always discussed and presented as an asset of Switzerland. Especially for the student exchanges, we are promoting Switzerland as an ideal place because of its multilingualism.

Switzerland’s four languages are always discussed and presented as an asset of Switzerland. Especially for the student exchanges, we are promoting Switzerland as an ideal place because of its multilingualism: studies are offered in 3 of its national languages (German, French and Italian, depending on the region) – additionally, from a Master’s degree and onwards, most courses are also offered in English. We actively promote this fact, next to the excellent ranking of the Swiss universities, their proximity to Swiss industry as well as the high standards of living Switzerland offers.

Swiss embassies sometimes support initiatives of the Goethe Institute, the Institut Français and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura to promote German, French and Italian language abroad.

—In the educational system, language skills are divided into different levels. But in reality, in a working environment as yours, in which complex topics are discussed everyday, how important is the complete mastery of a language?

The Federal Act on the National Languages requires us to treat French, German, and Italian equally by ensuring that all official business can be conducted in these languages. While most governmental documents are published in these three languages, it also means that each federal employee is entitled to use the official language he speaks best during meetings. We are therefore not required to “master” all the national languages, but rather expected to be able to understand others when they speak.

In addition, I would say that “international” English has become a global language and each person who can master it is at an advantage in an international environment like mine.

—Despite Japan’s efforts to boost English proficiency, comparing the results of Switzerland and Japan, Japan has a significantly lower score in English proficiency exams (TOEFL 2014). In your opinion, how could the significant difference in the overall score be explained? What could Japan learn from Switzerland when it comes to increasing language proficiency?

It is obviously much more difficult to learn English for a Japanese speaker than for a German, French or Italian speaker. It’s probably as difficult to learn English for Japanese, as it is for us to learn Japanese. There is also the fact that in Japan the opportunity to practice a foreign language is rare, unlike in Switzerland. The small number of foreigners–including English teachers–does therefore not help the fact that the English proficiency is lacking. Often English is still being taught using “Katakana” (Japanese phonetic alphabet) by non-native speakers. Furthermore, for Japanese university entrance examinations, students are not required to speak English, only to read and write. As the whole schooling system’s goal is to get into a good university, students are not very encouraged to learn how to speak the language proficiently.

It’s hard to compare Switzerland and Japan, as they are in very different situations in terms of exposure to other languages. In Switzerland, there are many opportunities to meet people with another mother tongue. To promote language skills, school children and teachers are sometimes exchanged between linguistic communities. Although they are taught in their local language at school, they learn at least one other Swiss national language as well as one other world language from a young age.

Language skills are also a prerequisite for a successful professional career in Switzerland. Many recruiting companies today prefer candidates who are proficient in at least another language.

The current university internationalization efforts are a good measure and many universities actively are now promoting study-abroad programs.

—How could the Japanese Government encourage or promote the study of foreign languages? Are the current measures of the Japanese government sufficient?

Adding an English-speaking test at university examinations would probably change the situation. The current university internationalization efforts are a good measure and many universities actively are now promoting study-abroad programs. More university courses taught by foreign professors in English might also further encourage students to learn foreign languages.

Learn More

Native speakers of German number about 4.6 million (64%); for French they number 1.5 million (20%); for Italian, 500,000 (6.5%); and for Romansch, 35,000 (0.5%). The immigrant language (9% in total) with the largest number of native speakers is Serbo-Croatian (1.5%), followed by Albanian, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Macedonian, Turkish and Kurdish.


Related posts

Leave a Reply