In Europe, Many Try to Protect Local Languages
THALWIL, Switzerland In the tall stucco schoolhouse here with
its big, airy classrooms and views of Lake Zurich, English has
become part of the daily routine.
Students as young as 7 are learning multiplication or discussing the
weather in English. In one classroom, lists of songs that the first
grade has already mastered include not only local German tunes
but "Old MacDonald" and "How Are You This Morning?"
Parents are delighted. "It is something that today you need," said
Beatrix Caforeo, whose son, Andrea, goes to the school here.
"Everywhere people are speaking English, not just abroad."
Throughout Europe, English is growing in use and acceptability.
Beyond the schoolhouse here, European universities, particularly in
Northern Europe, are giving courses in science, philosophy and
business in English. Even some companies, like the French
telecommunications giant Alcatel - state-owned until 1982 - now
use English as their internal language.
But the growing use of English is not going down easily
The English program here, for instance, has caused an uproar in
other parts of the country, where critics have questioned why
English should be taught before another one of Switzerland's four
national languages. In many places and in many ways, Europe is
debating the growing prominence of English. Some see it as a
language that might bind the Continent together. In one European
Union survey, 70 percent of those surveyed agreed with the
proposition that "everyone should speak English." But nearly as
many said their own language needed to be protected.
Capturing the right balance is a subject of debate. Where is the
use of English practical? Where does it threaten national identity?
"That we all speak English as a compromise, fine," said Bertrand
Menciassi of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages in
Europe. "But to what degree? Will contracts all be written in
English now? Will university papers be written in English? In the
Netherlands a few years ago, there was a proposal that all
university teaching be in English. "This could be very dangerous. If
you start to eliminate the intellectual community and the economic
community, you can eventually kill off a language."
In Switzerland, some politicians and editorial writers have attacked
the program in Thalwil with passion, asking why, in a country with
German, French, Italian and Romansch as national languages,
children are learning English as their first foreign language. The
argument is serious enough to have set off a movement for a
constitutional amendment to block the canton of Zurich from
expanding its new English program to all of its schools by 2003.
Although the move has serious hurdles to pass, including
referendums, it has managed to survive several early tests.
In one vitriolic editorial recently, the Geneva-based daily Le Matin
excoriated Zurich's education minister, Ernst Buschor, for
threatening to tear the fabric of Switzerland's linguistically diverse
state with his "mad Zurich arrogance." "He who has clearly learned
little from his history lessons," the newspaper said, "will go down in
the history books as the gravedigger of the Swiss identity."
Mr. Buschor says he is only being practical and fair. Rich parents
were already providing their children with English lessons, and a
society based on equality must provide the same opportunities for
children in public schools.
"This is not a question of national cohesion," Mr. Buschor said.
"That depends on our common values, like direct democracy, like
federalism, like neutrality. English taught as a first foreign language
is not at all a threat to our country."
Perhaps the fiercest defenders of their language have been the
French. Numerous laws have been enacted in France in the last
decade intended to protect the French language - and its industries
- including a law making the French language mandatory for
advertising, labeling and instruction manuals.
About 40 percent of the songs played on French radio must be in
French, and a similar formula exists for television programming.
To combat the creep of English, a commission on terminology
regularly turns out alternatives to the English computer and
business terms like "start-up," "think tank," "World Wide Web"
and even "CD-ROM." The government is obliged to use these
new terms, many of them clunky even to the French ear.
Everyone else is free to be amused. The suggested terms rarely
catch on, it seems.
But France and Switzerland are not alone in considering legal
action to protect national languages. Possible legal restrictions are
under debate in several other countries, including Poland, Romania
German today is awash with English expressions. It is a mishmash
that has been termed "Denglisch," (pronounced dinglish). "Flirt,"
"baby," "power," "clever," "administration," "underwear," "sex
appeal" and "happy ending" are now part of the everyday