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Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003

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In praise of multilingualism, bad French and the canoe instructor
Delivered at the Alliance Française de Singapour, 11 March 2003

By Daniel de Roulet

Let us begin by a story that involves none of us, a Belgian story:

It could not happen here,
But in Belgium
Back in the winter of 2001
A Belgian train running at full speed
Was suddenly blocked by an emergency signal
It risked a collision
With another train on the same track

The Flemish conductor who stopped
Phoned the other mechanic
Who replied in Walloon
The Flemish conductor thought he understood:
Go ahead.
While the other was telling him to halt.
Both trains resumed full speed.
When the two conductors
Found themselves face to face
There was no time to reach for a dictionary
Just before they died.
In our country, such a thing is impossible
In our country
Train conductors are true Swiss

So this could not happen, to either the Swiss or the French. In any case, in Switzerland, just to name the mountains, one must know several languages.

When on a clear day, perched on one of our two mountain ranges, the Jura, we admire the second mountain range, the Alps, they speak to us in different tongues.

To the right, our mountains speak French. Despite what a rough translation might let you presume, the Dents du Midi (3257 meters above sea level) are not the Mittagshorn (3892), the Diablerets (3210) not the Diavolezza (2973), the Dent Blanche (4357) not the Weisshorn (4505).

On our left, our mountains speak German. Translating their names, we understand what they try to hide. So the Mönch (4107) next to the Jungfrau (4158) is the Monk gazing at the Maiden. The Faulhorn (2681), is the Lazy One and Vrenelisgärtli (2904), is Vreneli’s Garden. In this particular case, Vreneli is not our 20-franc gold coin, but a naked young girl whose garden, a down-pointing black triangle, is no less than her sex.

Further to the right, the Pizza Naira (2870) is not the product of a pizzeria, but the equivalent of the Black Peak. In Ticinese dialect, the Cima del Cantun (3354) describes the highest mountain of the canton.

At the language barrier, certain mountains even treat themselves to more than one name. So, above Zermatt, one finds the Matterhorn (4477) that, seen from Italy, rises above Cervinia. Latins call it il Cervino, or le Cervin.

Should one of these languages disappear, the mountains would remain, but they no longer would speak to us. The Switzerland I am talking about is a country where mountains have several names. However, what would happen if the system no longer worked?


In my small country, one tends to believe that a generous agreement has been made. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that language, just as religion, color or nationality cannot become a pretext for discrimination among individuals.

I like to think that one way of applying this rule might be:

"Language may not become a pretext for discrimination among individuals, neither in their work, nor in their relations with the State nor in their loves."

At first glance, such a declaration sounds like one more article in the long list of a generous charter, which former foes might have signed at the end of a war of languages. One cannot imagine anyone refuting it.

However, if I observe not the general and generous declarations but the day-by-day reality of a country that considers itself multilingual, I cannot but see a less optimistic situation.

My country officially pretends to recognize four languages. For those who only know of Switzerland through its dangerous red knives banned in planes and its mountains, I would like to point out one particularity: 4/5 of its inhabitants speak German, 1/5 speak a Latin language (French, Italian, Romantsch) and a little more than 1/5 of its inhabitants are foreigners. If you add it up, you come to 6/5. That is because in the total, we usually neglect to count the 21% of foreigners with no political rights who live in Switzerland, greater in number than the 18% Francophones. This is our federal mathematics.

Talking about my country, I will limit myself to three sectors: our professional relations, political relations and private relations. Three P’s to explore: profession, politics, private life.

In professional life, this usually begins in the upper echelon. Some day, under the influence of a boss who believes he is world-minded and who, because of this, happens to speak English himself, all internal communications are decreed to be carried on in English. Then all meetings. Looking at this more closely, one must realize that for someone who speaks German, English is closer to his native language than for someone who speaks French. So those who have studied in an American University keep and consolidate their linguistic advantage. Once this process is set up, it cannot be reversed. Technical documents of the firm are from now on in English, the scientific communications also and Human Resources begin to recruit personnel with job interviews partly conducted in English. This is what happened to me as early as 1981, when I presented myself for a position of computer scientist attached to the University of Geneva. Ever since, this trend has taken over. Because in the schools, the apprenticeship of national languages has been sadly neglected, it has become quite impossible to impose an alternative to English.

Conclusion: in business relations, in a country that advocates understanding between national languages but does not give its inhabitants the means to master them, a foreign language (English), could allow discrimination to be reinforced against a minority.

In politics and in the administration, is there similar discrimination? Not openly, at least. On the contrary, to highlight a vaunted policy of openness in the more ideological rather than the economic sectors, one often sees the Latin language minority over represented. This is notably the case in the Federal Council where, from long tradition, two out of the seven members are Latin. In the same manner, in the cultural delegations that represent our country as many Latins as German-speaking Swiss are willingly sent abroad. But, as soon as economics is in the offing, these subtle calculations of quotas give way to power plays. Right now, on the Federal level, decision-makers are still bilingual. It is, in fact, quite astounding to see how bilingual speakers are dominant among the political personnel of the State. This tends to prolong the old dream of a country where the linguistic communities understand each other’s language. However, already in professional groups, be they chimney sweeps, football players or café-and-restaurant owners, the top associations are often run by steering committees that can no longer hold a meeting without the help of an interpreter. The case of writers - more and more closed to bilingualism - is highly symbolic. They too, in their national committee, will have to decide whether to communicate in English.

Switzerland has recently given up a principle, the willingness to learn the other’s language. French no longer will be the first language taught to German-speaking children in Zurich. So-called “precocious” English taught in the early grades has replaced it. In time, the inhabitants of German-speaking Switzerland will no longer understand what the French-speaking Swiss are talking about. The long-term scenario is that political power could belong more and more to those who speak the majority language. They will monopolize the posts of the entire national administration. In addition, for the few Latin-language speakers of the remaining minority, all exchanges will be carried on in English.

Conclusion: in a country that politically pretends not to have a single national language in order to cling to multilingualism but no longer encourages mutually learning the other’s language, political power could in the end belong only to those who speak the language of the majority. The linguistic majority will use a foreign language to communicate with the linguistic minority.

What are left are private relations. No one should be discriminated in his loves because of language. Uttered this way, this claim seems ridiculous. However, imagine a child who speaks a different language than his grandparents. They will never be able to speak together. I myself brought up a son whose grandmother speaks Italian. At the table, she just smiles at her grandson who smiles back at her. Language problems do not seem to bother them. There is far worse than the loving silence of a grandmother from Ticino. But to carry this private example further, my son, who is now twenty and for ten years was taught another national language, German, in school found himself quite unable to speak it when he met a girl in Zurich. Together, they spoke English. Recently, they broke up, explaining that to build a love story one must be able to share a common language. Despite the ease of moving between the different linguistic parts of the country, mutual lack of understanding is on the rise. Private reasons to live together are disappearing. My father, who was born in Geneva 85 years ago, married my mother who came from Zurich. For 60 years, not a day has passed that one of them has not spoken a few sentences in the language of the other. This kind of model no longer exists and their grandson is a sad illustration of this failure. The school system has failed. Has the will to live together become weaker? What happens in Switzerland reminds us of Czechoslovakia, Canada, and Belgium. Spare us a comparison with Yugoslavia.

Conclusion: in the private sector, a country that no longer cares to teach its children the language of the other prepares for its people conditions that could lead first to a winding down of linguistic communication, and in time to a breakup.

My three conclusions in the professional, political and private sectors seem pessimistic. When summed up, they contradict the generous principles of my imaginary rules against language discrimination. I am pessimistic about our linguistic model, but not about our national will to live together. In addition, I could give many examples.

To end this section of that describes the situation in my beloved country, here is another true story:

Last summer, just after the 1st of August
Our National Holiday,
A specialist of our rivers
Canoe instructor besides
Left Lucern
For his vacation in Ticino
As each year for fifteen years
He took along his canoe to challenge
A mighty alpine torrent
The evening before he phoned
The keeper of the dam
As each year for fifteen years
He phoned
To ask if there was any danger:
Also morgen gibt’s keine Gefahr? Sicher?
(So tomorrow, there is no danger? Sure?)
The dam keeper replied:
Bondi Siur. Cosa vuole ? Non capisco
(Good day, Sir. What do you want? I do not understand)
The canoe instructor:
Verstanden. Keine Gefahr
(Understood. No danger)
The dam keeper:
Ma ditte esatamente cosa vuolete.
(Tell me exactly what you want)
The canoe instructor
As each year for fifteen years
Das nächste Jahr werde ich Italienisch lernen
(Next year I will learn some Italian)
The next morning the canoe instructor
Launched his boat
However, the keeper opened the dam
One was surprised to die
The other just said:
Questi qui non sanno niente dei nostri fiumi.
(Those guys don’t understand a thing about our rivers)

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003


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  Other Essay in this Issue

Letter From Hong Kong: The Life of Mask-Wearers
By Wendy Gan.

Related Links

Daniel de Roulet bio
External link to the Prague Writers' Festival.

Daniel de Roulet bio
External link, in French.

Swiss Government
External link.

Etymology of names in the Swiss Alps
External link.

Académie Française
External link, in French.

C.F. Ramuz
External link, in French.


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