Italian ‘ignored’ by Swiss schools in language wars

The minister of education in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino has said Switzerland often ‘forgets’ that Italian is its third national language.

Italian ‘ignored’ by Swiss schools in language wars
Photo: Kathleen Waters

Speaking to the Schwiez am Sonntag newspaper, Manuele Bertoli said “many people seem to forget” that Switzerland is not bilingual (meaning German and French), but that Italian is also a national language.

His comments come amid a row over what languages should be taught to children in primary school.

The long-running row centres around several cantons in the German-speaking part of the country who don’t want to teach French at primary school, preferring pupils to start learning English instead.

The move goes against a 2004 federal education strategy, approved by the cantons, which decreed that two languages should be taught at primary school, at least one of which should be a Swiss national language.

But citing lack of resources and time, some cantons including Thurgau are making plans to teach just one language, and say that one should be English.

Though education policy is generally set at cantonal level, the row was inflamed last week when the federal government said it would intervene if the cantons failed to prioritize national languages.  

In a statement, it said “multilingualism is an essential characteristic of Switzerland” that is  “clearly underlined” by the federal constitution which decrees the “safeguarding and promotion of national languages as well as the promotion of understanding between linguistic communities”.

The federal government will now lead a consultation period aiming to find an agreement with the cantons that prioritizes the teaching of national languages at primary school. If no agreement is found, it will look to impose its own solution, it said.

The government’s stance enraged commentators in the Sunday papers, with the media denouncing the “hysterical” and “unhelpful” reaction of the government on the issue.

In an opinion piece for Schweiz am Sonntag, editor Yannick Noak agreed that speaking a second language fosters a sense of community within the country, but that language didn’t have to be French.

“To prove my point, I continue in English” he wrote. “It may not be perfect but I am sure most readers in the German or the French speaking part are able to follow me effortlessly.

“I do not wish to offend anybody but I am not so sure this would still be the case in French. It would be agony, at least for me.”

“A genuine connection to another person is more easily made when both parties make one step towards the other, not insist on their own language,” he added.

Amid the furore, Ticino’s education minister is now insisting that Italian should also be taught in the French and German speaking regions.

If the government wants to promote national languages, then Italian should be offered in all schools, at least as an option, Bertoli is quoted as saying by Le Matin.

Agreeing with the minister, socialist party MP Mathias Reynard told Le Matin that “in general we don’t do enough for the country’s languages and we must not forget Italian”.

The row has bemused French-speaking cantons, which generally teach German first, followed by English, in keeping with the 2004 strategy.

Back in May a survey showed that some people in Switzerland never cross the linguistic Röstigraben between French and German speaking areas.

It also revealed the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino to be unpopular with French-speakers, with only half of those in Romandie having ever been there.

Switzerland does of course have a fourth national language, Romansh.

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From ‘natel’ to ‘ça joue’: The Swiss French words which help you sound like a local

From “schmolitz” to “panosse”, some words and phrases common in the French-speaking part of Switzerland are different from their equivalents used in France. Here is the vernacular you should master if you live in Suisse Romandie.

From 'natel' to 'ça joue': The Swiss French words which help you sound like a local
No, the chalet is not crazy. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Each of Switzerland’s main languages – German, French and Italian – are shared with a larger and more influential neighbour. 

These three languages – when added to the unique Romansh language – makes for a diverse linguistic spectrum. 

It might come as a relief to foreigners living in one of the French-speaking cantons that differences between the Swiss version of the language and the one spoken in France is much smaller than the difference between standard German and Schwyzerdütch.

Except for some specific words and expressions, people in France understand their counterparts in Romandie much easier than is the case between Germans and Swiss-Germans.

READ MORE: ‘Just so fun to say’: Are these the best Swiss-German words to learn?

The Local recently asked its readers what are the most important Swiss-French words to know.

Which parts of Switzerland speak French?

Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

From the answers we received, several respondents mentioned the numbers. 

As anyone who has tried to learn French will tell you, the numbering system is particularly difficult – especially when you get in the double figures. 

The Swiss French numbering system is different to that of original French, with Swiss French using the words septante (seventy), huitante (eighty) and nonante (ninety). 

The Romands decided to simplify these words from their original French versions: soixante-dix, quatre-vingt, and quatre-vingt-dix, which literally translate to ‘sixty-ten’, ‘four twenties’ and ‘four twenties-ten’. 

However, regional differences are also at play here: Geneva uses the French version of these numbers, possibly because of its close proximity to France.

Some readers also mentioned the expression “ça joue”. Literally translated it means “it plays”, but in the Suisse Romande it means “yes, it’s alright”.

Other words and expressions mentioned in the reader survey were: “carnotzet” (a small bar), “bonap” (Bon appétit – enjoy your meal), “si jamais”, (if ever), vélo (bicycle), “ouais” (slangy oui – yes), and “tout de bon” (all the best).

READ MORE: Have your say: What are the most important Swiss French words to know?

Suisse-Romande versus France

Aside from the numbers mentioned above, some words and phrases used in this part of Switzerland are uniquely “Romand” and if you use them in France, chances are you will be met with a quizzical look.

Natel: Mobile phone (“téléphone mobile”)

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Panosse: A wet broom (“serpillière in France)

Y a pas le feu au lac: Literally, this means “there’s no fire in the lake”. But what it actually means “there is no rush, no urgency.

Faire schmolitz : Wine drinking ritual in which two people decide to befriend each other by passing from the formal “vous” form to the more casual “tu”.

Schmoltz! Photo by Monstera from Pexel

Etre déçu en bien: Be pleasantly surprised (être agréablement surpris in France)

Ça va, le chalet?: Are you crazy ? (ça va pas la tête ?)

Tchô bonne: Have a good day /evening (bonne journée /soirée)

Lolette: a pacifier for babies (tétine in France)

Quart d’heure vaudois: This means a slight delay, not only in Vaud but in other Romand cantons as well (être en retard” in France). Please note that a similar expression doesn’t exist in the German-speaking cantons, and for a good reason: Swiss-Germans are rarely late.

‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

Tenir les pouces: Just like in Anglo countries, crossing fingers brings good luck in Suisse Romande. But in France, you’d have to “croiser les doigts”.

Tenir les pouces: universal sign of good luck. Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Lost in translation?

If you are not totally familiar with the intricacies of the French language, keep in mind that these expressions have a different meaning in French than in English. Or, they may not mean what you think they might:

Préservatifs: No, these are not artificial food additives (“conservateurs”), but condoms. The latter is commonly found in food, the former usually isn’t.

Hors-ligne: This is often seen on buses in the Suisse Romandie. This doesn’t mean the bus is transporting horses; it does mean it is not in service.

Voilà, there you have it: some typical expressions you are bound to hear in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Tchô bonne!