Higher Education and Research


Languages in business and enterprises:

Switzerland as a Case Study
Markus Andres
University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland

How can we reach manageable solutions to solve the paradox between the demand for a lingua franca, and the right of countries, regions or other linguistic minorities, to keep or intensify the use of their own traditional languages or language varieties?

English, the language nowadays most frequently used as lingua franca, would have been Latin not such a long time ago, or could have been French, if history had taken a different course. However, English is also often considered a threat to national, as well as regional and minority languages and identities in many parts of the world, Europe included. Adding to this that questions of linguistic, ethnic and cultural differences have been part of hundreds of wars and conflicts in the past centuries as well as up to our present days, clearly shows that questions of language and identity are of major importance for any society and cannot be neglected any longer.

This is one of the challenges Europe and its educational institutions face today, especially higher education as the key strategic institution for a future European elite.

Switzerland, like any other European country, is confronted on the one hand with multiple national languages and cultural identities, and the growing importance of English as the communication tool of world economy on the other. Formerly, language boundaries were natural borders for enterprises doing business successfully. In a globalised economy and in the age of internet new linguistic necessities appear.

In this respect it is surprising that valid data regarding the use of foreign languages in business and in companies do not exist. We do not know what enterprises and their employees think about foreign language policies in Europe or in their respective home countries.

These issues are presently discussed in Switzerland, but there are no valid data available that could lead to a well founded opinion. Until quite recently it was generally agreed that every Swiss citizen should have at least some knowledge of one of the other national languages. This consensus is changing. Today, for example, in particular the German speaking part of Switzerland openly favours English to be taught as the second language at school. This is of significant concern to the Italian and French speaking part of Switzerland. They fear that their native Italian or French language may be sacrificed for English at a national level.

With our recently completed research project we try to provide decision makers in higher education and in the world of business with the necessary data for a strategy regarding language barriers and foreign language use and acquisition in Switzerland.

Switzerland (a country of 7,4 million inhabitants, about 20 % of them foreigners) is one of the few countries in the world that recognizes four official languages in its particularly small territory (about 42 000 km2): German, French, Italian and Rumantsch (omitted in the following, as it is used only by about 80 000 speakers).
The fragility of the balance of the three major language areas (German, about 60 % of all inhabitants, French, about 32 %, Italian about 6 %) is reflected in the structures of political representation, administration, the media landscape etc. via a sophisticated framework of support and respect and finely tuned instruments of mutual understanding.
Consistent with minority laws each language area integrates, at a certain level and to a certain degree, the language(s) of the other areas of the country within its educational system, with a special emphasis in those cantons (i.e. provinces of the Swiss Confederation with a special degree of autonomy) already bilingual or adjacent to another linguistic area.

With the importance of English as global tool of communication, these checks and balances, evolved over a large period of time, are being questioned by more and more people, which present a challenge for all institutions of higher education, in multilingual Europe as well as in multilingual Switzerland.

In a research project at the University of Applied Sciences North-western Switzerland, we analyzed the importance of foreign languages for business purposes in enterprises of all sizes and fields of activity, we designed a questionnaire in all three major Swiss languages (German, French, Italian) and received answers from more than 2400 companies, i.e. the results are representative for Swiss enterprises with more than five employees.

A first set of questionnaires dealt with the opinions, needs and problems of the management regarding foreign language requirements in their enterprises, in comparison with available linguistic competences of their staff; a second set of questionnaires focused on the employees’ linguistic experiences concerning foreign languages in their daily work routines in contrast to the respective profits and frustrations of their own language education in Switzerland, with an emphasis on higher education.

The evaluation and analysis of these data yields most interesting insights into the fabric of a multilingual society and economy facing the challenges of globalization, and may to a certain extent be considered a blueprint for a European analysis of a similar kind.

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