Locating the transformation: Two significant official documents

In my essay “Discourse theory and language planning” (2001), I deal explicitly with two important Swiss documents as realisations of two kinds of discourse pertaining to the spread of English in Switzerland. In chapter 1, I offered two definitions of “ideology”, one by Hodge and Kress (1993: 6) in which ideology is seen as “a systematic body of ideas, organized from a particular point of view” and the second by Seliger (1976: 14), who sees it as “sets of ideas by which men posit, explain and justify ends and means of social action, and specifically political action, irrespective of whether such action aims to preserve, amend, uproot or rebuild a given social order”. Both approaches to the study of ideology should be considered together here, particularly that which concerns the notion of “political action”. The construction of “a systematically organized presentation of reality” leads to a shared belief in that “reality”, within which explanation and justification of social and political action may be grounded.

The first of the two documents is a report submitted to the Swiss Bundesrat (Federal Council)[1] in 1989, titled Zustand und Zukunft der viersprachigen Schweiz (“The present state and the future of quadrilingual Switzerland”) by a work group under the chairmanship of the late Professor Peter Saladin of the University of Berne. In this first document alarm is expressed at the low degree to which Swiss citizens speaking different national languages are capable of interacting verbally with compatriots using one of the other national languages apart from their own. The foreword to the report covers 26 pages and constructs a vision of English (which is not indigenous to Switzerland) that runs throughout the rest of the document. English is presented as an ominous presence threatening the harmonious coexistence of the four national languages within Switzerland. It is presented as competing with French, German and Italian for a place in the educational systems of Switzerland as a second language. I shall call this document the “Saladin report”.

The second document is a report titled “ ‘Gesamtsprachenkonzept’: Welche Sprachen sollen die Schulerinnen und Schuler der Schweiz wahrend der obligatorischen Schulzeit lernen?” (“ ‘Overall concept for languages’: Which languages should schoolchildren in Switzerland learn during their obligatory period of schooling?”) published in 1998. It was commissioned by the Swiss Federal Committee of the Directors of Education and was prepared by a small group of experts under the chairmanship of Professor Georges Ludi of the University of Basle. I shall henceforth refer to this document as the “Ludi report”. The report recommends the obligatory introduction of English in all cantonal education systems and astutely leaves it up to each individual cantonal education system to decide which languages other than the first language should be introduced and in what order. The report was written and presented at a time when the director of education of the Canton of Zurich had already announced the intention of the cantonal government to carry out a school project called “Projekt 21” over a six-year period introducing the teaching of English in first grade through a didactic method known as embedding. The ultimate goal of the project was to assess the feasibility of introducing English before French as a first additional language throughout the whole canton as part of the primary school syllabus and to do this as early as possible in the curriculum. The “Ludi report” was written with this fact in mind and with the knowledge that during the 1990s intense pressure was exerted on the government of the Canton of Zurich, largely by industrialists, bankers and professional groups but also by parents, to promote the teaching of English above that of French. For this reason, the report has to be read with an eye to what is not said as much as to what is said.

Two important points can be made here concerning these two documents. First, it is significant that, within the space of only nine years, a discourse that promotes the multilingual nature of Switzerland through its four national languages and constructs the advance of English as a threat to the harmonious coexistence of those languages should be challenged by an alternative discourse promoting English in addition to the first language in preference to other national languages. Second, it is already implicit in the “Saladin report” that the driving force behind this movement lies in commerce and industry, and that the “Ludi report” only echoes the perceived need for English in an increasing globalisation of the economy. I will call these two discourses the “discourse of multilingual Switzerland” and the “discourse of global English”.

The debate has remained on the political and educational agenda since at least 1998 and the appearance of the “Ludi report”, and there is evidence that it had begun well before that date. It has been carried on through parliamentary petitions, political speeches, television debates and discussion programmes, lectures given on the occasion of annual book fairs such as the “Salon du livre” in Geneva, in articles on the pros and cons of early English and an earlier start to additional language learning, in newspapers as diverse as the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the Blick, the Bund, the Weltwoche, Le Matin, the Tribune de Geneve, in letters to the editor, and so on. Much of the discussion has tended to simplify the issues somewhat, and this has led to an almost unquestioning and dangerously naive belief in some of the ideologies represented in these competing discourses.

  • [1] The Bundesrat is the highest executive organ of government within the Swiss political system. It consists of seven federal councillors representing the numerically most powerful political parties in the country. Inthis respect it is somewhat different from a cabinet, whose members are chosen from among the political party(or parties) responsible for governing the country. Each year, the president and vice president of Switzerlandare chosen from among these seven federal councillors to serve for the period of one year.
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