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Language Research

3. Language issues: Where does one observe language to be a problem in the country?

There is no outstanding language problem. But neither is there an ideal situation.

Marginal interest in their national minorities by the Swiss and long-standing suspicion of the Swiss by the districts evidence the need to change collective awareness of other cultures, especially the minor ones. Many cultural regions in Switzerland are almost unknown, which is a paradox in these times of mass media and information provision.

The Romansh community is small, about 70,000 in Switzerland and 40,000 in Graubünden. This is too small a number to allow the use of the language in business etc.

More than 50% of the Italian-speaking population lives outside the Italian territories. The Italian language is not promoted outside them, however. Because the Swiss Confederation does not control education matters, both Italian and Romansh speaking people must learn German and French if they want to communicate with the other communities.

Pupils in the German and French part of Switzerland study Italian as a language in the Swiss confederation, but only at a basic level. Out of school, they rarely encounter Italian. Growing economic centralization, with its logical standardization tendencies, cannot be blamed entirely. Italian is disappearing from banking, trade, administration and the mail.

The balance amongst the (official) languages of the communities, which has been partially attained on their political and federal administration levels, has been lost. There is a real threat that Swiss minority cultures will be marginalized, in respect to their language.

There is an economic effect also, especially with regard to German. Cultural, political and economical differences as well as the language make communications between the French and German parts difficult. French speakers find the cantonal use of German awkward, because this is the Swiss German dialect and not the standard German taught in French canton schools. Speakers of German use one of approximately thirty Alemannic dialects of German, whose distance from standard German is quite considerable. Standard German is frequently perceived to be the “first foreign language”, a fact that has significant educational consequences.

Cantons are able to decide which language(s) shall be used within their territory. This unwritten principle is called the Territoriality Principle. In fact it conflicts with the right of the individual citizen to use his/her “mother tongue” in all spheres of life. This is particularly true in education and in courts of law, but it has been upheld a number of times by the Federal Court. This principle guarantees public education in the official language of the canton or community but prevents the individual from access to education in any other language beyond that which may be used in the foreign language-teaching classroom. An example of this sort of territorial problem is given in Appendix B.

With the respect to the migrant workers in Switzerland, there is no explicit federal language policy beyond the guarantee that speakers have the right to use their mother tongues in all beyond official situations. On the one hand, each child has the right to receive education in his/her mother tongue; where on the other hand, the Territoriality Principle constrains all children to receive public education in the declared official language of the community. Children may receive extra lessons in their own language to ensure that they acquire literacy in that language and to allow them to retain links with their home culture. However, such lessons are outside the normal school timetable, and children's spare time must be utilized.

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