GENEVA — The English language may be a uniting factor in Europe but is proving a divisive issue in Switzerland, already the Continent's most linguistically diverse country.
Switzerland's largest German-speaking canton, Zurich, caused a furor recently when it decided to make English compulsory for grade-school children. Nearby French-speaking cantons complained that the move would erode the importance of their language nationwide and undermine political unity.
"It is a flagrant attack on the confederation's bonds," declared French-speaking parliament member Jean-Jacques Schwaab, referring to the country's organization of its cantons, akin to US states.
Switzerland has long prided itself on being a paradise of plurilingualism: The country has four official languages - German (spoken by two-thirds of Swiss), French, Italian, and Romansh.
Three years ago, the Swiss voted overwhelmingly to make Romansh an official language even though it is spoken by only a few thousand people tucked away in Alpine valleys.
But English, which has seeped into Swiss culture through films, music, business, and the Internet, is another matter altogether. French enthusiasts fear it may become the country's principal vehicle for written and verbal exchanges.
"In Switzerland, English is beginning to become the language linking German and French speakers," warned former French Culture Minister Jack Lang in a recent op-ed piece in a Swiss paper. He urged his readers to "reject linguistic McDonaldization."
But this outlook is losing ground in the face of public opinion. A poll last year found that the majority of Swiss wanted their children to learn English as a second language, after whatever language is spoken in their canton.
The canton of Lugano, on the Italian border, followed Zurich's example, and a commission of education experts recommended last summer that English should be compulsory in primary schools.
Studies have shown that 15 percent of Swiss use English in their work. Many American companies base their European headquarters in Switzerland, and Zurich is one of the world's major banking centers.
"English is absolutely necessary," insists Georges Ludi, president of the expert commission. His ambitious program would have students beginning a second language in second grade, a third language in fifth grade, and an optional fourth language in seventh grade.
But since individual cantons set education policy, he recommended that local authorities decide the order in which languages are introduced in their schools.
This has not reassured French speakers, who fear that in German-speaking cantons, demand for French and Italian will wither in the face of English, and that a foreign language might become this country's lingua franca.