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THE PRICE OF ENGLISH IN SWITZERLAND

The present section surveys the discursive construction of beliefs, through forms of written discourse, that aim to promote the teaching of English in Switzerland above the teaching of the other national languages. I argue that the question of whether to introduce English as an obligatory school subject in the cantonal school systems of Switzerland has become a political issue. I also wish to argue that sociolinguists and applied linguists in Switzerland need to focus on the variations of the English as the global language myth that have been created discursively in order to find ways of leading all the parties in the discussion back to a responsible form of debate. To begin with, however, readers need some basic information on Switzerland itself to be able to follow the argument.

Background information

Switzerland is composed of 26 cantons, each with its own educational system, although these systems are coordinated on the federal level by the so-called Schweizerische Konferenz der kantonalen Erziehungsdirektoren (Swiss Federal Committee of the Directors of Education). The Swiss constitution provides for four official languages, German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Rumantsch,[1] three of which are offered as second (or additional) languages in the state education systems of the country. Until recently English has also been an option as an additional language. Previous policy favoured French as the first obligatory additional language in the German- and Italian-speaking cantons, and German as the first obligatory additional language in the French-speaking cantons. In the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino and Italian-speaking areas of the Canton of Grisons, German was favoured as a second additional language. Since the mid-1990s, however, there has been a movement to instate English as an obligatory additional language throughout the country, which has generated a great deal of heated discussion, in particular because cantons in the eastern part of Switzerland have recently declared it to be the first obligatory additional language in the curriculum, thereby demoting the two official languages French and Italian.

The pressure to introduce English is based on a set of beliefs concerning language, language learning and the peculiar role that English has come to acquire not only in Switzerland but across the world. The insistence on English is driven by a discourse ideology based on the English as the global language myth . The English language is understood to be a commodity that can be bought at a price, but ultimately the price may be too high, even for Switzerland. If the acquirer of the commodity, in this case, knowledge of and ability to use the English language, values it highly, she will be prepared to pay a reward for it in some way, either in financial terms or in terms of some other appropriately high value or set of values, which may be sociocultural or political.

As we saw in figure 8.1, to function in Bourdieu’s material marketplace one needs forms of material capital. One needs a product to exchange for some other product or its symbolic monetary value; one needs finance, the means of production and a labour source. The sociocultural marketplace is determined by forms of sociocultural capital such as social connections, relational networks, forms of knowledge (including language), mental and physical skills, acquired competences, forms of identity, and so on. The types

of capital required in the symbolic marketplace are abstract qualities such as social status and prestige, power, influence and language abilities. All three kinds of marketplace are in operation concurrently in any social interaction, and most of the values paid and received in both the sociocultural and the material marketplaces are derived from forms of symbolic capital, language being one of the most central. So there is a constant flow from an underlying set of symbolic values which fuel interaction in the material and sociocultural marketplaces, and there is a constant give-and-take between sociocultural and material marketplaces. The price for acquiring the ability to use English will be economic, social and cultural, and the symbolic value of English in instances of social interaction will also be economic, social and cultural. Ultimately, this train of thought leads to the conclusion that the use of human language in social interaction, whatever “language” we are referring to, can never be valueless or “neutral”.

Ideologies are constructed and reproduced through forms of discourse, discourse being an institutionalised mode of thinking, instantiated in social interaction between individuals. Such interaction may be through the medium of written or oral language, but it may also make use of other systems of signifying (e.g. pictorial, gestural, etc.), thereby allowing us to talk in the singular of a discourse to refer to one institutionalised mode of thinking in contrast to others. A discourse is thus a set of communally shared beliefs representing “truth” for the community concerned, but not necessarily for another community. The shared beliefs themselves may then be referred to as an ideology. However we define ideologies, it is crucial to see them as sets of ideas that are shared by the members of a community.

  • [1] Rhaeto-Rumantsch is in effect a semiofficial language in which information concerning federal matters is published, but which is not used in parliamentary debates.
 
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