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.