Laurence Nagy Beard reports on why politicians fear primary schools' move will jeopardise national unity.
A SURPRISE decision to teach children English two years before they start French in Zurich's schools has triggered a fierce political row.
From 2003, all of Zurich canton's primary pupils will start English from Year 2, and French only from Year 4. Ernst Buschor, the region's education minister, believes English will benefit children more in the job market.
But language is a sensitive issue in Switzerland. In a country with four national languages, French, German, Italian, and Romansch, schools have traditionally prioritised one of the country's other national languages as a first compulsory foreign language.
Some regional ministers fear for national cohesion after the Zurich decision, and claim smaller cantons will follow Zurich's lead.
"There is a risk in Switzerland, as there is throughout Europe, that English will establish itself as the international language of work, science and the media," said Georges Ludi, a linguist interviewed for the Geneva-based newspaper Le Temps.
"Our home languages will become domesticated, for use in the home, like Breton, or Irish."
The federal government has been asked to intervene by strengthenig the constitution. Currently the cantons do not have to impose any of the national languages ahead of English. The constitution recommends only "comprehension and exchange between linguistic communities".
In the country's French areas, education ministers insist that they have always tried to keep German as a first foreign language. However, a survey published last week by Le Matin, in Geneva, shows that its French-speaking readers support Zurich's decision and hope English will supplant German in their own schools.
What irks politicians in French-speaking Switzerland is that they have for some time been trying to boost German, to make the most of students' opportunities throughout the country. But this has had limited success.
In Lausanne the government had to cancel a bilingual curriculum because of lack of interest. And in Fribourg, parents launched a referendum against the local government's decision to introduce bilingual teaching (German-French) in all of the canton's primary schools.
Last month, a conference of regional education ministers concluded that most Swiss German schools were in favour of teaching English before French. However, they agreed to delay any final decision until after the conference's recommendations were published in November.