Competing ideologies

What ideologies do the discourses instantiate, and is there another alternative discourse that can be identified in Switzerland involving the English language? To answer those questions we need to take a look at the discourse of multilingual Switzerland. Nyffenegger (2003) describes her search through all the letters to the editor printed in the NZZ, the Blick, the Tribune and the Matin from 1994 to 2003. She first asks how important the topic of English in Switzerland actually was to the readers of these newspapers during this time period, and the results are extremely sobering. Letters to the editor from 1994 to 2003 reveal that English in Switzerland was not a particularly burning issue. Only two of the four newspapers feature letters concerning English in more than 1 percent of the overall number of letters per year, the NZZ in 1997 (at the time when Projekt 21 was mooted) and in 2000, and the Tribune in 1994 and in 2000. Nyffenegger then assesses the overall percentage of letters to the editor in each of the newspapers with respect to whether the writer appears favourable to or against the spread of English in Switzerland or whether no overall attitude can be discerned. Over the whole time period, there was only one year in which favourable attitudes dominated, and that was 1997 at the promotion of Projekt 21 in Zurich. In 2003, the final year of the time period chosen, 20 letters voiced negative opinions, with only three in

favour of the spread of English and one noncommittal letter. Throughout the time period between 1994 and 2003 there was no overall movement towards a favourable opinion of English; if anything, there has been an increase in the number of negative opinions expressed.8

Nyffenegger also teases out the counterarguments against the spread of English and the arguments in favour of English. The arguments against English are listed in table 11.1. Out of a total of 229 negative opinions voiced overall, 81 are within the framework of the discourse of multilingual Switzerland in which English is seen as a threat to some imagined sense of “Swiss identity” involving the peaceful coexistence between the language areas and the presupposed but hardly realistic multilingual nature of the country. Fifteen represent political arguments against English and 13 raise explicitly educational issues.

The surprising thing about these statistics, however, is that 79 negative opinions are framed within another kind of discourse, this time driven by the pure language myth and a fear that linguistic standards will be lowered. 36 instantiate a variation of this language ideology which also imputes negative character traits to those who insist on using English and introducing supposed impurities. Cameron (1995) calls this solidly represented lay attitude towards

table 11.1. Arguments against English

English is a danger to Swiss identity

29

English makes German/French “impure”

27

English is a threat to German or French

24

English should be translated

19

Using English impedes comprehension

18

English prevents people from learning French/German “properly”

17

Using English is “stupid”/“bad behaviour”

15

Using English is a sign of Anglo-American dominance

15

English is not used correctly (is abused)

10

Using English terms is euphemistic

10

English is superfluous

7

English is ridiculous

7

Using English is a sign of “snobbery”

7

Using English terms displays lack of diversity

7

Teaching English too early is expecting too much of pupils

7

Teaching English is at the expense of teaching French/German

4

Teaching English is at the expense of teaching

4

other subjects

English is a difficult language

2

One has to bear in mind, however, that only a small percentage of letters sent to newspapers by the general public ever get published, the choice lying with the editor in charge. Letters are often chosen because they fit some current news topic, and they may thus reflect the editor’s predilections rather than an overall sense that the topic is of interest to the reading public at large. This is of course an eternal problem in investigating letters to the editor as a data source in the print media. Nevertheless, the low number of published letters dealing with this topic that do appear in print still indicates the low salience of the topic, regardless of the editorial influence.

language “verbal hygiene”, and it is based on the pure language myth. The discourse of verbal hygiene encompasses 115 of the total of 229 negative opinions overall, i.e. 50 percent, a fact that we should certainly not ignore, since English appears to have become the scapegoat to justify those lay beliefs.

Nyffenegger lists a total of only 104 arguments in favour of English in letters sent to the editor during the period between 1994 and 2003. The overall number of favourable arguments voiced is only 32 percent of all positive and negative arguments put together, and this is in need of some explanation. Even if the hypothesis that writers of letters to the editor are hardly representative of popular opinion is taken into consideration, it is still highly unlikely that positive opinions nationwide with respect to English will reach much more than 50 percent, if that.9 The pro-English arguments contained in the letters can be listed as in table 11.2.

Out of a total of 104 positive opinions voiced overall, 39 are connected in one way or another to the world of work and to the idea that English is important in the global economy. It is also implied and exclusively stated elsewhere in the discourse of global English that a knowledge of English is connected to higher salaries. Thirty-seven arguments in favour of English refer to its assumed status as a lingua franca across the world and even within Switzerland. Nine argue that English is an easy language to learn, four of these focusing on the early introduction of English. Fourteen arguments appear to be directed against the discourse of verbal hygiene, which indicates that the ideology underlying this discourse is more salient to the general population than has

table 11.2. Arguments for English

English can be used/is used as a lingua franca throughout the world

30

English is necessary for the development of the global economy

15

English is necessary in the world of work

10

The argument that English endangers the purity of German/French is grossly exaggerated

10

English can be used as a lingua franca in Switzerland

7

There is a demand for English

6

Certain documents are untranslatable

6

English is an easy language

5

English is easy to learn at an early age

4

English is a creative language

2

Using English saves translation costs

2

English does not exclude other languages

2

English is “cool”

2

Prescription of national languages serves those in power

1

English is an enrichment

1

English is an open system (?)

1

A number of other M.A. theses written at the end of the 1990s and throughout the 2000s, however, present findings very similar to those analysed by Nyffenegger, which strengthens the likelihood that we are faced with a relatively high degree of representativity (cf., e.g., Regli 2008; Grosse 2009).

hitherto been assumed. Finally, four arguments are based on a positive personal evaluation of the English language.

If we lump together the 39 arguments in favour of English at work and the 37 in favour of learning English because of its supposed lingua franca function on the grounds that they present slightly different aspects of the discourse of global English, we have a total of 76 arguments out of the overall total of 104. In addition, we still have 14 arguments countering the discourse of verbal hygiene. In Nyffenegger’s work, based, as it admittedly is, on a narrow database of letters to the editor over a period of 10 years, we have evidence to support the two dominant forms of language discourse pertaining to English in the 1990s and the early part of this decade that emerge from a close analysis of the Saladin report and the Ludi report. In addition, the 76 arguments in favour of English seem to support at least points 2 and 3 emerging from the quotation from Classen given in section 2.

The third point derived from Classen, that English is an easy language to learn, certainly occurs in Nyffenegger’s analysis but not nearly as frequently as might have been predicted. The belief itself, however, is definitely part of the overall discourse of English as the global language, since, if English is perceived to be an easy language to learn, this inevitably leads to the assumption that English is an easy language, thus fitting it to assume the role of the global second language. From a linguistic point of view this belief borders on the absurd. Whether or not a language is easy to learn is a purely subjective assessment on the part of every individual learner, and can in no way be attributed to some inherent quality of the language. Obviously, many learners of English do find it “easy”, but there are equally as many who find it “difficult”. In 1994, the writer of a letter to the editor in the Tribune de Geneve considers that English has [une] grammaire relativement simple (“a relatively simple grammar”), an assessment which is echoed six years later in 2000 by another writer to the same newspaper who considers that il s’agit d’une langue relativement simple (“we’re dealing here with a relatively simple language”). This kind of statement, however, turns out to refer to the morphological structure of verbs and noun phrases. A teaching focus on the written medium and on the production of grammatical correctness rather than on communicativity is bound to make English appear “easier”. Arguments that language A is simpler, more beautiful, manlier, more logical, and so on than language B are not linguistic, but belong to the discourses founded on language mythology. They are nevertheless important, and they link back to the conviction generally held that the “price” of English in Switzerland will be worth it.

 
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