Simplify French: Western Switzerland argues about language reform

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Is French getting easier soon? Romandy is arguing about a language reform – why is this also affecting German-speaking Switzerland?

The Western Switzerland Conference of Education Directors wants to teach a new, simplified spelling in schools from 2023. That met with resistance. Now the debate is entering the decisive phase.

“C’est compliqué”: French causes difficulties for many German-speaking Swiss students.

Symbolic picture: Philipp Schmidli

The dispute over the new French spelling is not about the sausage, but about the onion. More precisely, the question of whether this should be written as before with an i («oignon») or without («ognon»). The word stands for a total of 2,000 words whose spelling is to change as part of the «Orthographe rectifiée». Their goal is to make spelling more logical and therefore easier based on 14 principles.

A simplification of the French language, which is considered difficult, should open doors – one might think. But ever since the Western Switzerland Conference of Education Directors announced a year ago that they want to gradually make the new spelling the norm in schools from 2023, there has been a fire in the roof in French-speaking Switzerland.

Although the old spelling would still be tolerated, bourgeois politicians from various cantons have filed petitions to prevent the reform. In the Jura, one attempt has already failed. Now the Vaud cantonal parliament will decide on Tuesday, and soon the cantons of Geneva and Valais as well.

Important decisions are pending

FDP Councilor Jean Romain, who is behind the Geneva initiative, wants to defend the French language: “I am against changes in spelling being enforced in an authoritarian manner.” The language should develop through the use of the population, but not by decree, says Romain. He is also bothered by the justification that the reform should simplify learning. “When young people have difficulties, you have to give them the means to overcome the hurdles, not lower them.”

In contrast, Pascale Marro from the Western Switzerland Conference of Education Directors points out that the reform only affects 0.4 percent of all French words and that it is about removing “senseless” exceptions. In addition, the new orthography is already being taught in schools in France and Belgium.

Three examples of the new orthography

  • Basically no more “accent circonflexe” over i and u: diner instead of dîner (Eng. dinner)
  • A hyphen now applies to numbers: vingt-et-un instead of vingt et un (engl. twenty-one)
  • Words taken from other languages ​​are Frenchized: iglou instead of igloo (dt. igloo)

German-speaking Switzerland is following the discussion

According to Marro, the goal is to implement the reform uniformly in western Switzerland. Therefore, the educational directors’ conference is now waiting for the decisions from Geneva, Vaud and Valais in order to reconsider their position if necessary.

The discussions in French-speaking Switzerland are also being followed in the expert committee of language managers in the German-speaking Swiss cantons. This is confirmed by its managing director Claudia Liechti. She assumes that any decision by the French-speaking cantons would also be implemented in German-speaking Switzerland – by the teacher training colleges and the publishers of teaching materials.

Because the school materials for French as a foreign language are currently still written in the old spelling, as revealed by an inquiry from the largest publishers. Klett and Balmer want to reassess the situation if binding guidelines are developed by the Western Switzerland Conference of Education Directors. The publisher also states that most of the words affected by the reform would not even appear in its French teaching materials.

PH Zurich is pushing ahead

Universities of teacher education are now dealing differently with the “orthographe rectifiée”. While the PH Luzern is waiting in the face of resistance in French-speaking Switzerland and wants to avoid “rush shots”, the PH Zurich is already teaching its students according to the new orthography.

However, the two universities agree that the reform is unlikely to change much in terms of the motivation of Swiss-German learners to study French. “The present reform is relatively insignificant, so no impact on access to the French language is to be expected,” says Clément Zürn, subject coordinator for French at the PH Zurich. «It should also be noted that the popularity of a foreign language may have little to do with its spelling. Otherwise the popularity of English, which does not have a particularly simple spelling, could not be explained.»

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