Switzerland: National Languages and Understanding between Language Communities (Draft Bill - Translated from French)







The draft bill on National Languages and Understanding between Language Communities was presented in March 2001. It is also known by its short form: Federal Language Act. This draft bill is the result of hard, exacting work that relied in particular on cooperation between the Confederation and its cantons and their institutions. The result is a series of measures submitted "for examination" by the joint working group for the preparation of language legislation, involving both the Confederation and its cantons. The emphasis is placed on various measures designed to promote competency in the national languages, to encourage student and teacher exchanges at all levels, and to support measures proposed by third parties to promote understanding. The languages bill also provides for the creation of an institute to promote multilingualism. It contains measures to promote Rumansh and Italian in the cantons of Grisons and Tessin and to make it possible for the Confederation to help multilingual cantons.

However, the Federal Council decided at its meeting of April 28, 2004 not to table in Parliament the federal bill on national languages and understanding between language communities. Some political parties argued that it was too expensive (17 million SwF) and doomed to failure. The federal government, which is short of money, decided to abandon the bill and avoid confrontation in Parliament, and to be content with the legislation currently in place to promote and protect language minorities; i.e., the Federal Act Respecting Financial Assistance for the Safeguard and Promotion of the Rumansh and Italian Languages and Cultures, dating from October 6, 1995.

However, opposition to this move has been mounting, and canton directors of public education have protested the Federal Council's decision. The draft bill offered little in the way of concrete measures. Members of Parliament have pointed out the absence of "any reference to the role of English" in the bill, even though this the "main language issue in Switzerland today." To avoid upsetting the cantons, which jealously guard their public education responsibilities, the bill completely avoided the subject. Nonetheless, the cantons are unanimous that establishing a legislative foundation for national languages is essential.

The State Council, which agrees fully with the cantons of Suisse Romande and Tessin, is calling for the bill to be revised to be more ambitious and more clear and to address the key question of teaching national languages. Some federal politicians hope to use the bill as a lever to impose the choice of a national language of instruction on the cantons. The next step is to have the bill reworked in cooperation with national organizations to address the concerns expressed by cantons and political parties.

Note that the Swiss Federal Parliament is not as "sovereign" as in Canada. It is bound by the principle of "popular vote" to seek public consultation. All legislation must begin in consultation with cantons, political parties and relevant associations, as well as other interested groups. All involved are invited to formulate a position and to propose changes. The process takes a minimum of 12 months, and in extreme cases may take a decade or longer. This may well prove to be the fate of the Federal Language Act.

Note that the text of the proposed bill was presented in the Confederation's four official languages: French, German, Italian and Rumansh.



Complete Text of Draft Bill


Federal Language Act
(Draft Bill)

The Federal Assembly of Switzerland,

considering s. 4 and 70 of the Constitution,

considering the message of the Federal Council of ....1,


Section 1 General Provisions

Section 1

This law shall govern:

a. the use of the official languages by federal authorities and in relations with them;
b. the promotion of understanding and discussions between linguistic communities;
c. the support given to multilingual cantons in the performance of their particular duties;
d. the support given to the cantons of Grisons and Tessin with respect to the measures they are taking to promote Rumansh and Italian.

Section 2

The purpose of this Act is to:

a. strengthen quadrilingualism as an essential element of Switzerland;
b. consolidate national cohesion;
c. encourage individual and institutional multilingualism in the speaking of the national languages;
d. safeguard and promote Rumansh and Italian.

Section 3
Principles governing language and comprehension policies

In performing its duties, the Confederation shall comply with the following principles, among others:

a. it shall treat the four national languages identically;
b. it shall guarantee freedom of language in all areas of activity of the State and see that it is enforced;
c. it shall take account of the traditional territorial distribution of languages;
d. it shall promote understanding between linguistic communities;
e. it shall cooperate closely with the cantons.

Section 2 Official Languages of the Confederation

Section 4

1) This section applies to the federal authorities and to third parties, to the extent that they perform federal duties (the authorities). The Confederation may make exceptions for third parties.

2) The authorities may link the awarding of concessions or contracts as well as the allocation of financial assistance to the requirement to comply with certain provisions of this Act.

Section 5
Official languages

1) The official languages of the Confederation are German, French and Italian. Rumansh is also an official language for relations with persons of that language.

2) The authorities shall use the official languages in their standard form.

Section 6
Choice of language

1) Anyone addressing the authorities may do so in the official language of their choice.

2) The authorities shall respond in the official language used by their interlocutor. They may answer in another official language with the consent of such person.

3) Persons of the Rumansh language may address the Confederation in idioms or in Rumansh Grishun. The Confederation shall respond to them in Rumansh Grishun.

4) The Federal Council may limit the choice of official language in relations with authorities whose activity is limited to part of the Swiss territory.

5) The Federal Council may provide that acts or other documents which are not drafted in an official language be presented without being translated.

6) In relations with persons who do not speak any of the official languages, the authorities shall, to the extent possible, use a language understood by them.

7) The particular provisions of federal procedure shall remain reserved.

Section 7

1) Authorities shall use language which is adequate, clear and comprehensible. They shall ensure that non-sexist wording is used.

2) The Federal Council shall take the necessary steps; in particular, it shall oversee the basic training and continuing education of personnel and provide them with the necessary tools.

Section 8
Federal Chambers

1) The representatives shall express themselves in the official language of their choice during deliberations of the parliamentary commissions and Councils.

2) Messages, reports, draft legislation and proposals shall generally be available in German, French and Italian for the work of the parliamentary commissions and Councils.

Section 9
Federal Council and federal administration

1) Members of the Federal Council and employees of the Confederation shall work in the official language of their choice.

2) Employers of the Confederation shall provide the necessary tools.

Section 10

1) The authorities shall publish simultaneously in German, French and Italian, texts:

a. the publication of which is prescribed by federal law;
b. which are of national importance or of significant political importance.

2) They may exceptionally refrain from publishing them simultaneously if the interest of them appearing immediately so dictates.

3) They may exceptionally refrain from publishing them in the three official languages if their publication is possible in the form of a sending, in accordance with s. 4 and 14 of the federal statute of March 21, 1986, respecting official publications.

4) Documentation on voting and federal elections, as well as texts with specific political scope or which directly affect the Rumansh-language population shall also be published in Rumansh.

Section 11
Notice to the public, official registrations, identification cards

1) The authorities shall draft notices to the public and official registrations in the official languages of the public in question.

2) More specifically, the following shall be in the four official languages:

a. personal identification cards;
b. letterhead and envelopes;
c. markings appearing on buildings housing the departments of the Confederation and Web sites of the Confederation.

3) Forms intended for the public shall be available in the four official languages. The authorities may provide exceptions for those which are intended for a limited circle of persons.

Section 12
International agreements

1) The official version of bilateral agreements, the publication of which is mandatory, shall be available in at least one official language of the Confederation.

2) The official version of multilateral agreements, the publication of which is mandatory, shall be drawn up in at least one official language.

3) Derogations are possible for technical schedules.

Section 3 Promotion of Understanding and Exchanges Between Linguistic Communities

Section 13

The Confederation and the cantons shall promote exchanges between the linguistic communities of students and teachers at all levels of education. The Confederation may grant financial assistance to such effect to the cantons and to organizations which promote exchanges at the national level.

Section 14

1) Within their jurisdictions, the Confederation and the cantons shall promote multilingualism in teaching.

2) In regulating the recognition of graduation diplomas, they shall create conditions which promote the multilingualism of elementary and high school students.

3) They shall ensure that the language of instruction is in its standard form at all levels of education.

4) The Confederation may grant the cantons financial assistance for, among other things:

a. the development of teaching and learning methods of the appropriate national languages;
b. basic training and continuing education of teachers;
c. teaching in another national language of non-linguistic disciplines;
d. teaching of a third national language given in compulsory schooling.

Section 15
Scientific works

1) The Confederation shall promote the linguistic skills of its personnel in the national languages.

2) The Confederation shall ensure that the linguistic communities are fairly represented in the federal authorities and extra-parliamentary commissions; it shall promote multilingualism in the army.

3) The Confederation may grant financial assistance to the cantons and communes for them to provide personnel with basic training and continuing education in the national languages.

4) The Confederation and the cantons shall provide free access to their terminology data bases.

Section 17
National languages and mobility

The Confederation may grant financial assistance to the cantons to:

a. promote, for the speakers of a national language domiciled in a linguistic region other than their own, the development of their knowledge of such language;
b. encourage persons who do not know another national language to learn one;
c. organize, for persons whose mother tongue is not a national language, courses on the language and culture of their country given in their language.

Section 18
Adult training

The Confederation may grant financial assistance to cantons which encourage adults to speak other national languages.

Section 19
Financial assistance granted to organizations

The Confederation may grant financial assistance:

a. to national news agencies which broadcast information on the four linguistic areas of the country;
b. to national, non-profit organizations or institutions which, through the activities they carry out in at least one linguistic area, promote the understanding of or provide basic work which promotes individual multilingualism, and publish the results of the work.

Section 20
Visually impaired and hearing impaired persons

1) In relations with the public, the authorities shall take into consideration the particular needs of visually impaired and hearing impaired persons.

2) In addition to disability insurance benefits, the Confederation may:

a. support steps taken by the cantons to promote the use of sign language and sound-based language in schooling and professional training of hearing impaired persons and to promote the linguistic knowledge of the hearing impaired;
b. support national, non-profit organizations and institutions involved in language and comprehension problems encountered by the visually impaired and hearing impaired

Section 21
Institution to promote multilingualism

1) The Confederation and the cantons shall jointly manage a scientific institution which promotes multilingualism.

2) Such institution shall carry out the following duties:

a. it shall conduct applied research on multilingualism;
b. it shall develop and follow new forms of multilingual education and training and evaluate them;
c. it shall manage an information and documentation centre;
d. it shall help coordinate research on multilingualism;
e. it shall make the public aware of the multilingualism issue.

3) The Confederation and the cantons shall set up an advisory board.

Section 4 Support of Multilingual Cantons

Section 22

1) The Confederation, within the allocated budget, shall grant financial assistance to multilingual cantons to allow them to carry out their particular duties.

2) The cantons of Berne, Fribourg, Grisons and Valais are multilingual.

3) Particular duties means:

a. the creation of conditions and adequate means allowing the political, legal and administrative authorities to perform their multilingual work;
b. the management of multilingual teaching at all levels of education in the official languages of the canton.

Section 5 Safeguard and Promotion of the Italian and Rumansh Languages and Cultures

Section 23

1) The Confederation, within the allocated budget, shall grant financial assistance to the cantons of Grisons and Tessin for them to support:

a. measures intended to safeguard and promote the Italian and Rumansh languages and cultures;
b. organizations or institutions which take on supra-regional tasks intended to safeguard and promote the Italian and Rumansh languages and cultures;
c. publishing in Italian- and Rumansh-language areas.

2) To safeguard and promote the Rumansh language, the Confederation may take steps to promote Rumansh-language media.

3) The financial assistance of the Confederation shall not exceed 75% of the total costs.

Section 6 Implementation and Evaluation

Section 24
Granting of financial assistance

1) The Confederation shall grant its financial assistance upon request. Requests shall state the proposed steps and shall be accompanied by a financing plan.

2) The Confederation shall grant financial assistance in the form of a contribution agreement or a decision. Contribution agreements shall be entered into, as much as possible, for several years.

3) Decisions to grant financial assistance may be the subject of an action before a legal body of the Confederation.

Section 25
Exclusion of multiple financial assistance

Multiple financial assistance is excluded.

Section 26
Report and evaluation

1) The cantons, organizations and institutions shall periodically inform the Confederation about the allocation of financial assistance.

2) The Confederation shall at regular intervals verify the adequacy of the financial assistance and assess its impact.

Section 7 Final Provisions

Section 27
Repeal and amendment of current law

The repeal and amendment of the current law are set out in the schedule hereto.

Section 28
Referendum and coming into force

1) This Act is subject to a referendum.

2) The Federal Council shall set the date on which it comes into force.


Repeal and amendment of current law

1) The Federal Act of October 6, 1995, respecting financial assistance to safeguard and promote the Rumansh and Italian languages and cultures is repealed.

2) The Federal Act of March 21, 1986, respecting official publications is amended as follows:

Title preceding s. 8

Section 3 final text

S. 8

S. 14, al. 3 et 5
S. 9 is applicable by analogy.
3). Federal Act dated December 4, 1974, respecting civil procedure

S. 4
The judge and the parties shall use one of the official languages of the Confederation.
4) Federal Act dated June 15, 1934, respecting penal procedure

S. 97, subs. 2
2) Before the federal Criminal Court, attorneys shall have the right to speak in German, French or Italian.
3) RS 441.3
4) RS 170.512
5) RS 273
6) RS 312

Back to top