Teaching French to Swiss adults can lead to enlightening discussions, as we discover.
Teaching French to adults in Switzerland is an endless source of frustration, puzzlement… and laughter.
Frustrating, because it can be tricky to get Swiss people to debate in class about any subject, especially a political one. Of course, I am their teacher, and they probably prefer to share their opinion at home or with friends. From what I have experienced though, they tend to be neutral, at least on the surface, and seem to rather keep their views to themselves.
There is so much to talk about though! Almost every month, the Swiss have to vote, that is they have to say “yes” or “no” to a particular question that can go from whether the city should build the newest modern art public toilet (I’m not joking) to joining the EU or not.
The Swiss attitude to rules and regulations
Yesterday, I had to debate with my class about the rules and the laws in general. We began with a discussion about the prohibition of smoking in public places such as restaurants and bars. Switzerland started the prohibition quite late compared to most European countries and the US.
To my surprise, three of my students, even though non smokers, were very agitated about it. They declared they weren’t ”a big fan of rules or laws in general”. I thought I didn’t understand what they were trying to say, I mean, what? Three Swiss against regulation? That seemed strange.
You have to understand something about the Swiss: they respect the rules – cars stop on the crosswalks, and they park only where they are allowed to. if you happen to ride your bike on the sidewalk, people will shout at you that it is absolutely forbidden. Everybody recycles, and arranges their paper and cardboard neatly together before they leave them in front of their house, once a month, only when it is permitted. The streets are free from dog poo, and everything is so clean that whenever I go back to France, I feel like I’m in a kind of landfill. Punctuality is extremely important, and if you happen not to pay for your train or tram ticket, you’ll feel ashamed for the rest of your life. All of which can be annoying at times, but overall it just makes life much easier.
So I had the feeling that the Swiss quite like their little rules.
Actually, they then further explained that they didn’t like the idea of an intruding government that could regulate their life. They qualify that kind of governing as “socialism”, and when they say the word, they look disgusted. For them, France is a country with an intruding government that regulates every details in a French person’s life. By that point, I wasn’t stifling my smile anymore: most of the French, including myself, laugh at the rules. We steal chocolate in the supermarket if we are hungry, pay for our train ticket when we feel like it, and park anywhere we need to: we are too late to find a proper parking spot anyway.
I was confused, but we moved on to the next question: “Is there a law that you would like your country to change?”. They stayed quiet. They couldn’t think of anything. I could:
Swiss gun laws
A week or so ago, there was yet another vote about the detention of guns by 18- to 34-year-old male citizens
who have to attend the military militia for a week every year. The Swiss militia system asks the soldiers to keep their own personal equipment, including all personal weapons, at home. According to a French article from the Figaro, about a third of Swiss households possess a gun. Even though the munitions are supposed to stay at the arsenal, lots of drama has already happened. The most famous one was in Zug in 2001 when a disturbed citizen killed 13 people and injured 18 others. I though that kind of stuff could only be true in the USA! Furthermore, wives get randomly shot by their husband’s service gun while the suicide rates are at the highest in Europe: 19,1 for 100 000, 30% of which were perpetrated with a gun.
So I was very surprised when I saw the result of the popular vote. A majority of 56% decided that the law should remain the same, causing one local newspaper to nickname Switzerland “the Texas of Europe”.
The influence of money on Swiss legislation
I brought it up in class then, causing my students to appear uncomfortable, nervously looking at each other, as if they weren’t sure what they should say. One of them finally said that one of the main reason why the Swiss refused to change the law was… money. See, it was going to cost millions to change the system, and nobody wanted to pay for it. Hm, I decided it was time for a break. I was ready to hear arguments about fundamental freedoms, the historical value of the tradition to be able to carry a gun, whatever, anything but “change is too expensive”.
Of course, this particular group of students represents only a portion of the Swiss and how they think. After all, 44% voted for a change in the law. Moreover, I am half Swiss, and I appreciate living in Zürich for all it has to offer, lots of which having to do with everything working well. What I can hear from time to time in my classes or with friends just puzzles me sometimes.
Anyway, if you think about it, what they said last night made sense. They want freedom, money, and to be left alone. Because they are reasonable people anyway, they don’t need too many rules to tell them what to do, they’ll probably act wisely anyway. Hopefully.