Why Switzerland still lags behind on English skills

George Mills
George Mills - [email protected]
Why Switzerland still lags behind on English skills
File photo: Depositphotos"

Switzerland remains stuck in the second tier of countries when it comes to speaking English as a foreign language, a new study shows, but there are reasons for optimism, as the head of the English Teachers Association of Switzerland explained to The Local.


The 2018 edition of the annual English Proficiency Index, produced by English language teaching giant EF and based on the results of 1.3 million tests globally, has Switzerland in 15th spot among the 88 countries surveyed. Switzerland also came 12th among 32 countries in Europe.

With an overall score of 61.77 points, English speakers in Switzerland were classified as having “high proficiency” – a level allowing them to carry out tasks like making a presentation at work or reading a newspaper.

The result is solidly respectable rather than spectacular, putting Switzerland in the same bracket as countries including Poland (ranked 13th overall), the Philippines (14th) and Romania (16th).

There were also differences across the country. Foreign speakers of English in the German-speaking part of the country had "very high proficiency" (the top category), according to EF while they had only "moderate proficiency" in the Lake Geneva region and in Italian-speaking Switzerland.

Taken as a whole, the results mean Switzerland is still some way behind the Scandinavian countries that dominate the rankings of foreign speakers of English.

“There are whole range of cultural and social factors at play when it comes to why Switzerland did not rate as highly as, say Sweden (1st) and Denmark (5th),” Sue Wood, President of the English Teachers Association of Switzerland (ETAS) told The Local.

One of those is the fact Swiss school students live in a multilingual country.

There are four national languages here, and while English is the first foreign language taught in many cantons [in the German-speaking part of the country, at least], there is also a requirement for primary school children to learn another national language,” she explained.

Under the terms of a 2007 ‘harmonization agreement’ Swiss school children learn two foreign languages, with at least one of them being a national language, despite concerns among some that too much is being asked of young students.

The ETAS president also pointed out that people in English aren’t exposed to English to the same degree as Scandinavians. “In Scandinavia, television programs are not dubbed; they have subtitles. But Swiss students of English have to go out and find the language. It’s not there all the time in the same way it might be in Sweden or the Netherlands.”

Wood also pointed out that while people in Scandinavia appear to take a real pride in speaking English well, “Swiss people are perhaps not as comfortable switching to speaking English. Indeed, they may be more comfortable speaking to non-native speakers."

But the ETAS president sees reasons to be positive about the development of English speaking in Switzerland.

“Switzerland has invested a lot in English teaching in the last ten to 15 years. The newer teachers coming through now have had full in-depth teacher training and we are now waiting to see the results,” Wood said.

Read also: Foreigners in Switzerland speak more national languages than the Swiss


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