English in the school system
Although Switzerland has four national languages most Swiss people have just one mother tongue. The language spoken depends largely on the canton: 63.7% live in German-speaking cantons, 20.4% in French-speaking cantons, 6.5% in Italian-speaking cantons, and 0.5% in Romansh-speaking communities.
Primary school starts for Swiss students at the age of 6 and lasts 6 years. According to a decision of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Education Departments (EDK) in 2004 all students must study two languages in primary school: one of the other national languages and English. Which foreign language (English or a national language) students learn first depends on the canton. The resolution also states that students will start learning their first foreign language in 3rd grade and the second in 5th grade. The goal of this strategy is for students to start learning two foreign languages early and have a similar knowledge of both by the time they finish school. Due to citizens’ initiatives the decision is not yet executed in all cantons.
The Swiss high school exit exam includes written and verbal tests in English in most cantons. Some schools even offer a bilingual high school exam in the national language and English. At university or other continuation schools most degrees do not include English courses. However, more and more Master’s degrees – especially in business – are being taught entirely in English.
Study abroad is the most popular way to learn languages outside school. In 2009, 62.4% of study abroad trips were to English speaking countries, most of them to England, the USA and Australia.
English at Work
Many Swiss companies are internationally active, most famously Swiss banks and insurance companies like UBS, but also large companies in other industries like Novartis and Nestlé. The influence of English in the workplace is growing and most companies require employees to be proficient in English. To fulfill these requirements an increasing number of Swiss employees are going abroad to improve their Business English skills. In 2009 the percentage of business language students amongst all language students abroad increased from 3.8% to 4.9% percent.
The growing influence of English at the workplace is visible in particular in academic environments, where the number of publications and dissertations written in English is constantly increasing. However, English is not the only foreign language required from Swiss companies. Employers also value proficiency in other national languages. Statistics show a clear correlation between language competence and salary in Switzerland.
Culture and Attitudes towards English
The influence of English in everyday life and people’s attitude towards the language vary greatly between the French, German and Italian parts of the country. English is a crucial language for international relations, business and travel and the Swiss are eager to speak it as well as possible. However, the prioritization of English against a second national language in school leads to heated political debates. Some argue that putting more emphasis on the development of English threatens the cohesion of Switzerland as a multilingual and multicultural country. French, Italian and Romansh speakers are particularly sensitive to this issue because their languages are minorities in Switzerland.
In the German part of Switzerland English is much more present in everyday life than in the French and Italian regions. Movie theaters in German-speaking Switzerland, for instance, tend to show the original version of English movies and provide subtitles in German and French (sometimes also Italian) whereas in other parts of the country most movies are dubbed. French and Italian songs also tend to be more popular in those parts of the country than German songs are in German-speaking Switzerland. Nevertheless a lot of the music throughout Switzerland, especially songs that are popular with the younger generation, is in English.
Communication in the public sector tends to be in one of the national languages while international communication is mostly carried out in English. However, some fear that with increasing fluency in English, that language will replace local languages in communication between the different regions of Switzerland.
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