English vs. French: what are our German-speaking neighbors learning?

French is fighting its decline in German-speaking Switzerland

Philippe Zweifel

Published today at 7:33 a.m.

Ms Probst, in the current hit comedy “Bon Schuur Ticino”, French becomes the main language of Switzerland, and the characters in the film react with horror. For what?

French is grammatically more difficult to master than English, so this probably plays a role. Perhaps also that teachers have not always been able to transmit to the youngest students the “sacred fire” for the French language. Still, thanks to early French, inhibitions about expressing oneself in a foreign language have diminished. It is in fact scientifically proven that at a young age we have pronunciation and oral comprehension skills. You can never start a foreign language early enough.

What knowledge of French should we have after compulsory school, that is to say after the tenth year of school at the secondary level?

Level A2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​(CEFR). That is, being able to communicate in simple and routine situations that involve an exchange of information on familiar subjects.

At least that’s the theory. What about in practice?

The level of French among students has declined considerably over the past few decades.

For what?

We all, and therefore also the students, write less. This of course has a connection with the evolution of audiovisual technology. Or maybe I should say: we no longer write with the required level of qualification. This does not only apply to French, we also hear it from German teachers.

So the official reference framework for languages, considered an asset on the CV, does not make sense?

Absolutely not. It makes it possible to compare language skills from one country to another and makes teaching content and qualifications more transparent. It is also essential for the development of school programs. But writing is still very heavily weighted, whereas today, for secondary II students, the emphasis is more on oral communication when learning a foreign language. In the past, you could conjugate all the verbs in all tenses, but you couldn’t buy a baguette at the bakery. Today, it’s the opposite.

The end of the miserable subjunctive!

I don’t hope so! You can make yourself understood without a subjunctive, but if you want to express something nuanced, it’s hard to avoid it.

Do students really express themselves better in French today than in the past?

Let’s say that they are more courageous, that they are less afraid of making mistakes and that they have also lost “federal French”.

The scribbled and poorly supported school French, as we know it from certain German-speaking Swiss politicians. Why did “federal French” disappear?

Because audio texts and dialogues constitute a large part of teaching today. And because future French teachers must spend a long stay in a French-speaking region. Now, the students’ French sounds much less like Swiss German. But unfortunately the vocabulary has become poorer, which of course has repercussions on oral expression. “It is in tune with the times!” We limit ourselves to less vocabulary, less grammar, but we communicate in a more effective and action-oriented way. In other words, we are more determined but less refined. But this also applies to other foreign languages ​​and even to our mother tongue.

That young people should not only learn by heart, but also take pleasure in learning a language. This is what we hear everywhere. But learning a language is simply hard work…

Yes, of course, but cramming can also be fun.

Let’s do some publicity for the mistreated French. How is this language beautiful?

French is the language of love and romance, and the pronunciation, even if it is sometimes not self-evident, remains enchanting for many. The so-called “lightness” of the French, their “savoir-vivre” are almost proverbial. France is also the country of “haute couture” and Paris the city of love. All this gives the language as much charm as ever.

However, the other day I heard a woman from Geneva speaking English with a man from Zurich. They would have spoken to each other in French ten years ago, right?

Or maybe they wouldn’t have spoken at all. English gives them a common denominator, which makes communication easier, because the language always gives a feeling of superiority to the one who speaks it best.

Is the level higher in Bern and Basel, that is to say in towns bordering French-speaking regions, than in Zurich and eastern Switzerland?

We do not notice a big difference during the exams, but it is clear that where we have more opportunities to speak French, we speak it best.

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Let’s return to English. Isn’t the trend frustrating for a French teacher?

Frustrating, no, but a shame for the students who might regret it later. Furthermore, just because the Swiss speak English does not mean they should ignore other national languages.

The motto “mother tongue plus English” is very common around the world and is probably gaining ground in Switzerland too. What do you say to these people?

First of all, this currency is damaging for the image of Switzerland as a multilingual country, but also for the cohesion of the regions and our economy oriented towards foreign trade. Luxembourg, for example, is doing better. People there are proud that German and French are both taught as mother tongues. Half of the subjects are taught in German, the other half in French.

Multilingualism as an element of identity: English could play this role. What is there really to lose with French?

No, only a national language can truly create an identity, because it is deeply rooted in the spirit and culture of a country. But there are also very practical reasons which plead in favor of French.


Depending on what you want to do professionally and where you want to live, French is essential. Think of the positions at the Confederation or, of course, those in French-speaking Switzerland. French helps in the job market. Anyone who can show on their CV that they also have a good command of French has an advantage over others, because English is now well mastered by the vast majority. Hence the enormous success of the Delf/Dalf diplomas in Switzerland. This trend towards a French diploma at the secondary II level is still increasing, whether in gymnasiums or in business schools. For professional maturity, for example, a Delf-B2 level diploma is now even compulsory in certain schools.

Are there people who learn French for the pleasure of the language, to read Molière for example?

There is, thank God. But these are exceptions. Most of the time, French is considered an essential compulsory subject or a career booster.

Compulsory French teaching is regularly the subject of discussions. Do you fear that French will one day become optional?

Let’s hope not! This would, in my opinion, be a serious mistake.


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