Intercultural communication or parallel cultures?

The Swiss example with special regard to the Rhaeto-Romance situation

Ingmar Söhrman
Dept of Romance Languages, Göteborg University

Abstract

Politically correct terminology often fails to describe actual reality. Switzerland is commonly held up as an example of accomplished multiculturalism and multilingualism. Although appealing, this image is also fairly erroneous as the German majority and French "dominant" minority seem to live separate lives. Likewise, Italian and Rhaeto-Romance are generally marginalized and rarely either spoken or understood by the French- and German-speaking Swiss – creating the so-called "2 and ½-lingualism".

This article does not pretend either to "prove" or "reject" Switzerland as a good example to follow. The domestic intricacies of each and every country demand home-grown solutions, and those solutions may or may not incorporate outside experience and practice. The intention is to discuss the difference between political will (and prejudice) and pragmatic arrangements in an attempt to identify what promotes multilingualism (and multiculturalism) in some places and what leads to coexisting languages and cultures that follow separate and parallel paths in others. The central hypothesis is that while a country may be multilingual politically, having embedded this intention in law and having organized the local community according to these laws in order to facilitate the usage and utility of the different cultures and linguistic varieties, this political arrangement may have little reflection in more complicated practice, with linguistic and cultural populations choosing to follow parallel and separate paths instead. The central issue is whether intercultural communication actually does exist, to what extent it exists, and what promotes it in a world that is turning its back on other national cultures and languages.

Keywords: Sociolinguistics, multilingualism, parallel languages, multiculturalism, geolinguistics, Rhaeto-Romance, Switzerland.


Politically correct terminology often fails to describe actual reality. Switzerland, for instance, is commonly held up as an example of accomplished multiculturalism and multilingualism. Although appealing, this image is also fairly erroneous as the German majority and French "dominant" minority seem to live separate lives. The French-speaking Swiss especially have difficulty in understanding Swiss German, which, until recently, was and is not taught at their schools or elsewhere. However, there have been courses on Swiss TV introducing at least the Zurich variety of German. Likewise, Italian and Rhaeto-Romance are generally marginalized and rarely either spoken or understood by the French- and German-speaking Swiss – creating the so-called "2 and ½-lingualism".

The French-speaking region tends to look toward France, and these close contacts have led to a "takeover" of standard French while the Franco-Provençal varieties spoken in most of the valleys of West Switzerland only two generations ago are now disappearing. Although there are Swiss mass-media using French the impact of French culture is strong. The Italian Swiss also focus on the mother country of their tongue as they live in the canton Ticino and in the southern parts of the Grisons in the southeast of Switzerland, and their language is no longer particularly different from that spoken on the other side of the border in northern Italy.

The German case is somewhat different for two reasons. First of all its speakers constitute the vast majority of the country’s population, and secondly, they have a long tradition of being self-sufficient in their Swiss-German culture using their Alemannic dialects that are difficult for Germans and other speakers of High (and Low) German to understand. They proudly focus on their own homeland and do not look upon Germany as a cultural resource as do the French and Italian Swiss in regard to their cultural and linguistic "support" countries. The Romansh Swiss lack both this cultural back-up and the strength of German, and therein lies part of the problem.

Multilingualism and multiculturalism

Switzerland is a reasonably small country with certain geophysical complications due to its mountainous character. A very decentralized state, it also has one of the world’s highest living standards. It has four official languages, even if there are some special limitations to the usage of Romansh which has been a "partly official language" (lingua ufficiala parziala) only since 1996. When the communist regimes fell en masse in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 1990s the new governments there had to deal with their own multilingual situations in a more democratic and humane manner and could no longer use force to compel order among divergent ethnic and linguistic aspirations and pretensions. Switzerland (along with Spain) was often employed as a good example of how to turn possibly explosive multiculturalism (cf. ex-Yugoslavia as the worst case scenario) into a forward-looking pluralistic welfare state. But was (or is) Switzerland truly the country of multiculturalism and bi- or trilingualism that could provide such an example for emulation?

In this article I do not pretend either to "prove" or "reject" Switzerland as a good example to follow. The domestic intricacies of each and every country demand home-grown solutions, and those solutions may or may not incorporate outside experience and practice. I do intend to discuss the difference between political will (and prejudice) and pragmatic arrangements in an attempt to identify what promotes multilingualism (and multiculturalism) in some places and what leads to coexisting languages and cultures that follow separate and parallel paths in others. My central hypothesis is that while a country may be multilingual politically, having embedded this intention in law and having organized the local community according to these laws in order to facilitate the usage and utility of the different cultures and linguistic varieties, this political arrangement may have little reflection in more complicated practice, with linguistic and cultural populations choosing to follow parallel and separate paths instead. Although not a very risky hypothesis – examples for it abound in the contemporary world – it still deserves more attention and discussion for it raises the question of whether such inefficiencies in fulfilling political good intentions are to be accepted as unavoidable or whether the search to find another way to remedy these difficulties could (and should) be pursued.

The idea of multiculturalism is quite complex. The concept indicates the coexistence of various cultures. I do not intend to go into what culture means, but let us just use the notion for the sharing of basic values, traditions, artifacts and behavior. Culture is often linked to a certain language and religion.

Before going deeper into the Swiss example some conceptual matters must be clarified. Every linguistic variety enjoys some degree of cultural and political prestige, and the relative degree of prestige is what in reality decides whether a particular variety is considered a language or merely a dialect. It has to be borne in mind that the qualification language is almost entirely political rather than linguistic. Of course, in the final analysis it is a decision that has to be taken by the speakers themselves more or less consciously, and this decision will be dependent on the socio-cultural context. Prestige consists of official recognition such as its use as a teaching language, its use in mass media and in contacts with authorities, as well as its use in writing and as a literary expression. Swiss German varieties are hardly intelligible for a German, but they are still one language and the written German language is fairly unified, whether it is written in Germany, Switzerland, or Austria. English and Spanish are surprisingly unified for languages spoken across such vast territories, and the same holds true for Russian. Norwegian and Swedish are considered two different languages and have established different literary traditions and official usages although from an entirely linguistic standpoint they originally could have easily and with good reason been considered one language, and they still have more resemblances between them than certain of their dialects have with the standard varieties.

Political divisions that promote separate developments provide another major complication. Because it is written with the same characters Chinese is a unified language, although now the Min variety of Chinese, spoken on Taiwan and the close mainland regions, is gaining its own prestige and status as a language in Taiwan because it has become the national variety of the country (regardless of the complex legal situation of Taiwan).

Religion is also an important factor. The Arabic-speaking world is full of very different linguistic traditions, but they are held together by the classical Arabic that keeps the varieties linked. Maltese constitutes the significant exception which, because it is spoken by Catholics, has received the status of a language all its own. The same applies for the Romansh that is spoken mostly by Calvinists in the southeast and by Catholics in the northwest of Grisons. This religious division contributed for many centuries to the unwillingness of one Romansh-speaking group to understand other Romansh varieties. The same is partly true for the Võru-Estonians who speak a different variety of Estonian and are mainly Orthodox. The usage and the relativity of the notions of language and dialect is worth bearing in mind since they are so often employed to defend or denigrate particular linguistic varieties even though the vagueness of the line between them by no means justifies the insistence with which they are argued.

Majority and Minority

Likewise, the apparently obvious concepts of minority and majority languages are far more controversial and unclear than one might think. First of all, both concepts are relative. Majority normally refers to the most spoken language in the country and the one that has official recognition. The minority can still be in the majority in one or more regions or "just" the majority in certain towns or villages, but the minority language might also be in a minority situation everywhere, which in itself indicates a poor survival perspective for that language. Also important for the survival of the minority language is whether it is spoken in the local capital or spoken by a leading group in the region or town. This is the case in Catalonia, where half of the population speaks Catalan and half Spanish. Still, the predominant bourgeoisie uses Catalan and has always done so. Here, Catalan is promoted to a degree that seems to have lowered the Spanish competence of the younger generation, causing upset in at least some influential circles in Spain.

When a majority feels threatened in some way the issue becomes more critical, provoking exaggerated nationalistic statements on both sides. In the Swiss case, the minority languages are by no means a threat to the two largest languages (German and French.) On the contrary, Romansh is the only Swiss language that is spoken only in Switzerland, lending it an emblematic status if only on a superficial level. I have personally been accused of "stealing" the language just because I was learning it. Interestingly enough, such accusations were made by a non-Romansh Swiss, never by Romansh-speakers who consistently expressed their satisfaction that foreigners were interested in their language. This encouragement was often expressed with an aside that it would be even better if the German (and French) speaking Swiss would make such an effort. The favourable regard of Romansh as part of the Swiss identity by no means implies that the German-speaking majority is tempted to learn the language, not even in Grisons. Only 1/5 of Grisons’ population actually speaks Romansh.

In countries and regions with two official languages both are sometimes taught at school as in Quebec, Catalonia, and (formerly) in Finland (Finnish-Swedish). The obligatory exam in both languages has now been revoked in Finland and the vast Finnish-speaking majority will no longer have to learn Swedish. Likewise, with the obligation removed the regional Swedish-speaking majority on the Åland Islands have much less incentive to learn Finish. The outcome of this recent legal change is still to be seen since the decision was taken only in May 2004.

Bilingualism

This leads us to the concept of bilingualism, which is harder to define than one might think. One could, as is usually the case, view it as a phenomenon that occurs on the individual level. This is often the situation when it comes to describing immigrants or speakers of a minority language and children with parents who have different first languages (mother tongues), but bilingualism is also used metaphorically and on a territorial level indicating something completely different, with the coexistence of two languages in one region often and incorrectly interpreted as a sign of individual bilingualism.

At the level of the individual the fundamental question arises as to when a person can be considered bilingual. Traditionally, when someone manages two languages at a more or less equal level and has learnt both before the age of 12-13 then /s/he is considered bilingual. However, linguists such as Einar Haugen extend this concept to include also advanced language learning later in life such that many Scandinavians could be regarded as bilingual (Danish/Norwegian/Swedish - English). Others restrict the concept to only those persons who have in fact learnt two languages before reaching adolescence. There are, of course, many levels of individual command of two or more languages learnt at different ages than are found in these two more "extreme" standpoints. For the following discussion, however, it is very important to distinguish these two kinds of bilingualism since one does not imply the existence of the other. T. Skutnabb-Kangas argues that four criteria establish whether a person is bilingual or not:

  1. origin – if the person has grown up with two languages from the beginning;
  2. competence – if the person is equally competent in the two languages /s/he is bilingual but since this is rarely the case and the languages are used in different situations it is harder to prove;
  3. function – if the person is capable of using both languages in most situations in society;
  4. attitude – how one regards oneself and if others regard the person as bilingual. Bilingualism is thus both a quantitative and a qualitative concept, used for very different purposes and often without defining which criterion or criteria are being employed.

On a territorial level, the mere existence of two languages within one territory tends to give the presumption that the population is bilingual, which is not at all the case. First of all, in most cases only the speakers of what is the minority language (and one of the languages is almost always considered a minority language in relation to the official language of the country or region, although these can be different as in Catalonia or in Slovakia until its independence.) are generally bilingual. A more or less total bilingualism in the long run often leads to the loss of the minority language given that its usage is always more restricted. On the other hand, Romansh stands a good chance of surviving according to Fishman’s eight-degree scale where 8 is the bottom and 1 indicates the survivor. Romansh ends up between 2 and 3 and, with its new official status, also enters one criterion at 1.

Another assumption that is often made in these cases is that the minority language is composed of only one variety, and there is often an official demand to unify the local varieties of a minority language or to allow them to disappear on their own. This was basically the case in the creation of the unified Romansh-Rumantsch Grischun. This amalgamated version of Romansh was supposed to be used for administrative purposes only, and was to be taught alongside one of the local varieties (Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter and Vallader). An immediate consequence of this unified language was that information in Romansh increased some 20 times in a few years and, since Romansh was promoted to a ‘partly official language’ in 1996 its official usage continues to increase. Is this a general development? Possibly. However, Sardinia represents a fairly similar and neighboring case where there is no real willingness to give up the more local linguistic usages in order to maintain the language space as a whole by trying to unite the so-called dialects. In contrast, in northern Italy the Ladin varieties have recently established a unified standard – Ladin Dolomitan.

There are, for different reasons, very different ideas concerning which variety of the minority language is really authentic and therefore which variety is to be taught in school. We have discussed the Romansh situation in Switzerland. Swiss-German also has many varieties in the spoken versions of the language, while the written language is more or less High German. French-speaking Swiss complain that they are taught to speak High German but they do not understand their co-nationals speaking the Swiss varieties. Therefore, they see little point in studying German if such study does not enable them to understand their compatriots. In Alsace there is a German-speaking regional minority but their variety is substantially different from High German and, of course, the question arises as to whether the children should be taught High German or the local variety of Alsatian at school. One possibility being discussed is to have two kinds of bilingualism: French-German at a school level and French-Alsatian on the home level. Is this a good thing or does it mean the destruction of Alsatian and the introduction of just another foreign language (German)? What will be the outcome of the new standardized languages like Rumantsch Grischun, and Ladin Dolomitan or Euskara Batua (unified Basque)? Will they be entirely accepted and used (and then in what situations)? Does the introduction of these varieties lead to the disappearance of the more traditional varieties? There is a big difference between official and actual recognition of a language, and both are needed if the language is to continue being used as a spoken variety.

A similar but different situation occurred in Albania, where the language was standardized following a long process of linguistic reform at the beginning of the 1970s. However, its status as the language of a country gave it the much longed for official support that regional languages rarely get. Albanian-speakers in Kosovo and Italy have accepted this new standard even though the varieties spoken in these regions are closer to the northern Albanian varieties that represent the "losing" side in this unifying process. We could summarize this discussion in the concept of attitudes toward a particular linguistic variety both on behalf of the authorities (regional and national) and on behalf of the speakers and their neighbors. Do these groups in general and/or by force of legislation and usage promote, accept or discriminate against the minority language?

The Swiss case

Swiss culture is mainly focused on the canton and the villages within it. This gives it a very democratic perspective and decentralized organization, but it also tends to exclude knowledge about and understanding of the other languages and cultures of the country, and a local majority can radically change the local official attitude and linguistic politics. Regardless of the fact that Switzerland now has four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh) only four of the sixteen cantons are bilingual, and only one trilingual. All the others are "monopolized" by one language. If another language is learnt at school it is often English and not another of the four official languages spoken in the country. We have also seen the problems concerning which variety is to be taught, and how French-speaking Swiss find it hard to use their German since what they learn differs so much from the Swiss linguistic reality. This has led to the production of TV-courses in Swiss German, and there are other language courses distributed by television but, so far, no Romansh course.

All of Switzerland’s languages with the exception of Romansh are spoken by a majority in one (Italian) or more (German and French) cantons and are furthermore official languages in the neighboring countries. It goes without saying that this grants these three languages an enormous advantage both politically and culturally – particularly in terms of access to all of the television programs, films, books and newspapers just to mention the predominant linguistic manifestations that promote the usage of a certain language. For obvious reasons this is not at all the case when it comes to Romansh. Nevertheless the Swiss government economically supports the two smallest linguistic groups, i.e., Italian and Romansh. The growing German influence on Swiss culture can be seen as the catalyst of a "counter action" that has created the new concept of Latin Switzerland rather than "Romance Switzerland", probably due to the fact that French Switzerland is called la Suisse romande and the existence of Romansh. Thus the word latin appears less confusing. This, however, is not to imply a split between the German-speaking and Romance-speaking populations. In Switzerland the traditional explanation for the unity of the country, which actually took place during the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century, is that the community is based on a common will (to stay together) which corresponds to the country as a whole and to the four communities based on the four constituent ethno-linguistic groups. What is often overlooked in this explanation is the fact that more than one fifth of the Swiss population consists of immigrants and their children. Although this complicates and broadens the perspective, the initial question remains. In a country such as Switzerland, with several official languages, is intercultural communication and bilingualism the norm or is the reality less happy, with parallel cultures sharing only the administrative unity of a single country.

The focus on local society combined with the handy availability of French and Italian cultures gives the impression of a culturally divided country that to a great extent seem to lack a countrywide Swiss culture. The Swiss Germans and the Romansh speakers could possibly be seen as representatives of Swiss culture but it is not one single culture but several. Some say that apart from the common will to stay together there is no Swiss identity. It is also evident although Swiss Germans do not like to admit it that the surrounding German and Austrian cultures contributes and strengthens the cultural life in German in Switzerland.

Already in 1937 R.F. Ramuz provoked his fellow countrymen by declaring that there did not exist such a thing as Switzerland. This is of course wrong from a legal point of view but does there exist a Swiss identity. Some question this and for good reasons. There are several local identities. In an insightful book the Swiss journalist F.-R, Allemand discusses the different cultures and traditions in the cantons and concludes that they co-exist but in different regions. This means that there is no real multiculturalism at an individual basis just as there is not very much of a multilingualism at this level. People do not really watch TV in the other languages or read books. The prefix multi- seems to be more adequate if we consider the Anglo-Saxon influence on the different Swiss cultures and languages. The local perspective means that although there are four languages spoken these do not necessarily imply the existence four cultures. Even within each linguistic region traditions and foci differ considerably. This has been pointed out by A. Pichard who denies the existence of la Suisse romande (the French-speaking Switzerland) as a unifying concept. There seems to be much more of parallel local cultures than a nation-wide identity except for certain legal values. However, this is not unique, but Switzerland is one of the most decentralized countries in the world, and this is the consequence of historic realities to oppose conquering powers more than a will to create a nation. This could be summarized as an idea of staying together so that everyone can mind his/her own business. Of course, this simplifies reality too much as we have and will see in this article.

Linguistic threats and possibilities

When a country has a considerable proportion of the population originating from other countries and languages, the conservation of these languages at a family level may create some minor local complications but does not threaten the unity of the state. This explains why the rapid growth of Spanish in the USA is so controversial, even if it does not endanger the state. Such growth has already changed the linguistic reality in the southern states on a societal level, which means that it has expanded beyond the private, family level and now affects society, schooling, advertising, mass media, and daily life. The USA is probably the first example where a "safe and sure" majority is threatened by what it feels to be a forced change of the society’s linguistic reality. There are already suburbs and sections of some European cities where the language of the majority (or rather the official but locally minority language) coexists with other languages, and there are quite a few examples of creolization – i.e. the creation and spread of new hybrid linguistic varieties that have taken vocabulary and grammar from several languages that are spoken in the neighborhood, although they are often not at all related. In most, if not all, of these cases intercultural communication does exist on a local level, but this is totally parallel with the rest of society as only people from that very part of the town understand and use this creolized variety (often only used by young people with different first languages), while in all other respects they live a linguistic reality that might be totally separate from the rest of society.

Switzerland is used as an example only to discuss the reality behind the idea of intercultural communication in a multilingual state. As noted, theory and practice collide. Intercultural communication and the bilingual society exist only to a certain and much more restricted degree, and then not always as the founding fathers (and mothers) and state-builders intended.

The EU intends to give every citizen the right to learn two foreign languages at school. This can be viewed as the European variant of the American idea of English+ since it is highly probable that English will become the most studied language in most, if not all, of the EU countries. In order to broaden the students’ knowledge, any other language must be an addition rather than a (suicidal) rival to English. This EU intention is still only a desideratum, albeit Europe is so very much multilingual. Ever since the French revolution and the romantic ideas of the beginning of the 19th century this multilingual reality in almost all countries (with the exception of Iceland and possibly Portugal) has been under attack since, ideologically, a nation consists of a population that speaks one language. "Old fashioned" minorities were viewed as reactionary and something to be fought. This attitude has changed only recently and only in part.

Today, the truth is that English is gaining ground everywhere, especially in eastern Europe where long years of obligatory Russian provoked many good students to show their patriotism and opposition to dictatorship by being extremely poor students in that particular subject. This is an understandable attitude, but deplorable nonetheless. Once again, it is the attitude and the question of what a language represents that matters when it comes to people’s willingness to learn it. The utility of English goes without saying, and the spread of English has resulted in a useful means of intercultural communication. It might well be so that this intercultural communication will take place in the future mostly through English and by increasing competence in neighboring languages. Hopefully, the idea of having a functional competence in two foreign languages will contribute to linguistic and cultural richness.

The Swiss reality is that English is becoming the second language of many Swiss students to the detriment of other Swiss languages. Regarding the role of English in modern society, Switzerland is, strangely enough, possibly more vulnerable than most countries simply because it has been and still is the preferred site for the international headquarters of many global and multinational organizations such as the UN and the Swiss-originated Red Cross. The international, and thus English, presence in the country also promotes the international character and importance of English to most young Swiss. Interest in the other Swiss languages appears to be diminishing and the old interest in at least one of the neighboring languages is being lost. In the airports, for instance, signs are normally in four languages with English supplanting Romansh for good touristic reasons. Nevertheless, this is felt as something of an insult by the Romansh-speaking population. In some countries, like Spain, the majority language is often crossed out on bilingual signs. In others, as in northern Scandinavia, the opposite situation exists and the population seems reluctant to accept the Sami or the Finnish languages as varieties with equal rights to Norwegian and Swedish.

Swiss decentralization has also had an impact on the present situation. Local authorities decide to a large extent how local schools are organized and how local information is spread, and in which language/s/. Mass media seems to have become more and more local, further limiting the knowledge of other parts of the country and of the other three cultures to the passive reader.

Final remarks

People tend to react in very pragmatic terms. "What do I need and why" forms the basis for the search of more languages. In this regard, at least among Swiss adults there is a linguistic competence in French and German, but much less in Italian and Romansh because its speakers also speak – or can make themselves understood – in one or both of the two major languages. The current tendency is for the different populations to live in separate worlds disregarding the other Swiss realities. In contrast, the Romansh culture that was formerly divided into five separate groups has now reached a greater intercultural communication than the previous generation. The French Swiss appear to culturally integrate themselves more with France, as the Italian Swiss do with Italy, while the German Swiss have their own society in which Romansh is steadily absorbed because of the strong German impact, despite all of the efforts made to ensure its survival. Whether this is just a step in a long-term development that will later turn in other directions, or simply one leading to the creation of parallel societies remains to be seen. In any case, it seems unlikely that there will be only one single tendency. History is replete with the oscillation of thesis and antithesis and this may very well be the future of these two tendencies. The central issue is whether intercultural communication actually does exist, to what extent it exists, and what promotes it in a world that is turning its back on other national cultures and languages.

To sum up this discussion there are three factors that condition the existence of intercultural communication on different levels and in various ways:

Switzerland is in many respects a fascinating and informative example, and studying the linguistic situation there gives us much material regarding the diverging tendencies at play. My intention has been to present the unequal linguistic situation in a country where the economic situation and violent repressive tendencies could be dropped from the equation in order to isolate the sociolinguistic reality and focus on it in order to distill a study case which could show us at least the basic outline of how these two opposite linguistic and cultural tendencies – integration and parallelism – not only counteract but interact, and how intention and reality interfere and often oppose each other.

 

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Journal of Intercultural Communication, ISSN 1404-1634, 2004, issue 7.
Editor: Prof. Jens Allwood
URL: http://www.immi.se/intercultural/.