During the recent election for the Swiss Federal Council, the necessity of knowing English was hotly debated. In his interview to be one of the seven members of the Executive, Guy Parmelin said: “I can English understand but je préfère répondre en français pour être plus précis.” Although the quotation went viral on social media, he was easily elected and became the Minister of Defense, Civil Protection and Sports. Apparently being conversant in the language of Shakespeare is not a necessity to govern Switzerland.
And yet, the debate over the role of English as a necessity in an interdependent world has not been settled. Several Swiss German cantons have made English the first foreign language in their schools, fueling criticism from the French cantons which have obligatory German at an early age. Being able to speak with one’s countrymen in a common language is considered a bedrock of Swiss democracy.
Meetings in the capital of Bern are often held in English, a language many government officials are most fluent in, rather than going back and forth between French and German. The complexity for French speakers to understand Swiss-German, an oral dialect of German, would be even more challenging.
Is there a necessity for government officials to speak English in the international arena? We know that Jacques Chirac spoke perfect English, but he never spoke English before the microphones for fear of offending French citizens. I have often wondered what François Hollande and Angela Merkel speak when they are without translators. There is no question that Mrs. Merkel has an important advantage over other leaders in speaking with President Putin since he speaks fluent German. No translators needed.
At first glance having translators may be a burden to the free flow of conversation. It is intuitive to say that a direct, bilateral conversation is better than having people translate each sentence. Diplomats have told me, however, that having translators allows one to have time to reflect before responding. Otherwise, the spontaneity of conversation might lead to enthusiastic diplomatic errors.
English has become the predominant universal language. Following the spread of the British Empire, American hegemony – including music and films – has increased linguistic dominance. But what does that universality mean? Is it increasing people’s ability to communicate easily across borders or is it a form of intellectual and cultural colonialism? Is it reasonable to ask people across the globe to speak in their native language in their communities as well as English when they communicate around the world?
The fact that Guy Parmelin was elected to the Federal Council in spite of the fact that he does not speak English fluently is an important comment on Switzerland. A country with three official languages and four national languages does not prioritize English. As a domestic policy, that is understandable. As a foreign policy, one could argue, that would not be best, just as one could argue about the closing of World Radio Switzerland for the English speaking population. To be competitive today, English is a necessity. The answer is clearly in the high percentage of courses in English at the EPFL in Lausanne and the Graduate Institute in Geneva.
Will Guy Parmelin take English lessons now? Perhaps if he had been given the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he would have been obliged. As the Minister of Defense, Civil Protection and Sports it seems less important. Being fluent in French and German are more than sufficient for that job. But the question raised during the interview for the Federal Council was a good one. The debate within Switzerland about linguistic priorities is a healthy one.
The least I can do at this time of year is to say:
Joyeuses Fêtes et Bonne Année!