Abstract Charles Beer
Geneva and multilingualism: The role of language policy: adhesive or illusion?

The world today is witnessing a paradigm shift. Between mondialisation and the emergence of the information society, the political stakes of contemporary society force us to consider the importance of education with redoubled intensity.

Questions such as the content and priorities of apprenticeships, the division of the school year, heterogeneity in mandatory schooling, and partnership with the private sector are objects of debate. The discussion takes place essentially along two axes: between integration and elitism on the one hand, and tradition and modernity on the other. Traditional lines of division are blurred, ceding place to new antagonisms no less hotly contested.

The introduction of the “Pisa” tests since the year 2000 to measure student competency in reading, mathematics and sciences at the conclusion of mandatory schooling amounts to the emergence of international competition between educational systems, which only serves regularly to underline what is at stake in education policy.

The position of language policy at the intersection of these questions, in particular as it is applied within mandatory schooling, becomes a focal point of the various debates surrounding the organization of educational systems. The teaching of modern languages within school curricula today derives its legitimacy from three forces, each different in nature.

In the first place there is the construction of a unified Europe, motivated by an ideal of peace. This ideal, born from the ruins of the Second World War, finds an element of concrete application in the school system in general, and in the teaching of languages in particular. The recommendations of the Council of Europe as of the European Union are to be seen in this light.

In addition, the forces of globalization, with its pronounced increase of exchange and the emergence of the information society, constitute a powerful lever acting on the development of language education. The corporate world, including companies whose activities concentrate on domestic markets, increasingly seeks additional language competencies in its prospective employees. Innovative research and higher education are subject to the same pressures.

Finally, in response to mondialisation and the migrational movements that it engenders, modern society is adapting to a new multicultural dimension.
The Swiss Confederation constitutes a sort of European Union in microcosm. Four (official) languages are spoken. The confederation functions in so far as a modicum of intercomprehension is assured, that is, the capacity to understand “the other” in his or her own language.

As a country of immigration featuring a number of urban centres pronouncedly multicultural in character, Switzerland and its cantons are engaged in the attempt to adapt their educational systems to the developments just mentioned. While not a member of the EU, it is nevertheless exposed to a painful mutation of its own through the increasing importance of English as the central language of mondialisation. This difficult transition is reflected in the Harmos accord of 2007 and in the federal law on languages that went into effect in the same year.

As if galvanized by a form of superstition for which the biblical story of the Tower of Babel might constitute the foundation, all opposition to the Harmos accord that still carries any force in the different cantons today essentially crystallizes around questions of language policy, producing an alliance between certain teachers’ organisations and populist political groups.

An analysis of the way the cantons are adapting to this situation, from elementary school to higher education, and of the way that Geneva in particular, a city-canton that incarnates in itself both mondialisation and multicultural diversity, confronts the same developments, will allow us to examine the local stakes involved in an evolution of which the parameters are determined on a global level.