Court: Canton may reorder languages taught

Switzerland has four official languages, Romansh. This minority language has five idioms Keystone

Citizens of the canton of Graubünden will be able to vote on an initiative that would require only one foreign language to be taught in primary school. The Swiss Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the text was valid.

This content was published on May 4, 2017 - 11:56 with agencies, jh/ug

That decision allows voters to consider an initiative which, if accepted, would result in only German being taught as a foreign language in the Romansh and Italian-speaking regions of Graubünden.

Switzerland’s easternmost canton, which borders Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein, is the only place where the fourth Swiss national language – Romansh – is spoken. About 64% speak German, 13% speak Romansh and 11% speak Italian; the remaining 12% speak other regional languages, according to cantonal figures.

The initiative would also result in only English being taught as a foreign language in primary school in the canton’s German-speaking parts.

Language debate

Cantonal officials tried to block the initiative, saying it was unlawful and would cause discrimination based on language. In April 2015, the canton’s legislature declared it invalid.

In the ruling, a majority of the federal courtExternal link's judges said the “one foreign language at primary school” initiative does not cause violate laws against unequal treatment or discrimination.

But two judges voiced a minority opinion that “the initiative creates manifest discrimination”, a court statementExternal link said.

The Swiss constitution recognises the rights of various language groups to communicate in their own language. All laws and official documents must be available in German, French, and Italian because they are full official languages in Switzerland.

Romansh is a “partial” official language for the purpose of communication with Romansh speakers. The Swiss government, in accordance with the constitution, provides assistance to the cantons of Ticino and Graubünden in supporting Italian and Romansh.

Most Swiss speak one of the four national languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh – but the number using foreign tongues, particularly English, keeps rising. About two-thirds of the Swiss use more than one language at least once a week; after German, Swiss-German and French, English is the fourth most regularly used.

Federalism and direct democracy

The issue of foreign language teaching at Swiss schools has been the subject of a broad political debate over the past few years.

Votes have taken place in several cantons, mainly responsible for education, trying to overturn a decision in 2006 to coordinate school curriculums.

On May 21, voters in cantons Zurich and Solothurn will decide, and Thurgau is also likely to have a popular vote, following the cantonal parliament's deicison this week to scrap French classes in primary school.

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