The Swiss, the US, and language unity

I am frequently asked about Switzerland. Is it not true that this small nation in the heart of Europe has three ''official'' languages and one ''national'' one? And is it not also true that the country is prosperous and peaceful? So who says that multilingual societies get torn apart by language differences? And why can't the pluralistic United States be more like Switzerland?

I have been asked these questions by all sorts of people. But I remember particularly the pained tone in which they were asked recently by a successful Cuban-American politician in south Florida. He was telling me about his heartfelt gratitude to the US - he was a refugee from Castro's Cuba, hesitant in English, a wealthy businessman, and now an honored elected official in his community. Only in America could an immigrant have such opportunities!

Yet there was something about Americans he could not understand. Why are they so stubborn, so antagonistic to the logical notion of a bilingual south Florida? There are so many Cubans and South Americans here. Would it not make more sense to stop resenting the advances of Spanish, to make peace with the new bilingual character of the area, and to use it positively to attract Latin American tourists and investors? Why, he wondered, can't we be like Switzerland and prosper together, in whatever language is comfortable for each of us?

It came as a surprise to him, as it does to so many others, that the average Swiss is not fluent in three or four languages, and does not lead a multilingual existence. Street signs in Geneva are in French, period. Voting ballots in Zurich are in German, period. The Ticino native who moves to Basel does not expect his children to be educated in Italian - they'll be taught in German, like everyone else in the canton.

True, all students are taught one of the country's other languages beginning in the early grades, and most will certainly learn enough of it in school for simple communication. Well-to-do parents, however, don't take chances; since full command of another official language enhances opportunities, many pay the price to send their offspring to private boarding school in another canton, to ensure the youngster's proficiency in the other language.

Switzerland occupies land about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut, which is shared by 6 million people. The population is white and Christian, and the country is not open to immigration. Schools teach a common history that pays homage to a pantheon of shared national heroes. Language differences are played down, and commonalities stressed.

National values are transmitted not only through the schools, but also through a citizen Army in which all able-bodied Swiss men are expected to serve in their youth, and into which they are recalled periodically until age 50. Every Swiss family is known to the cantonal authorities, which maintain records on every member. There is no confusion about who is, and who is not, a bona fide member of Swiss society.

The US, of course, is a nation of nearly 240 million inhabitants, settled by people of every ancestry, every race, every religion, culture, and language. We move about freely, and no local registry keeps tabs on us. There is no telling who is an American and who is not. We reject involuntary military duty - let alone a lifetime as citizen-soldiers. Conformity is denigrated, and ''doing one's own thing'' is recognized as a legitimate pursuit.

By custom, we have but one ''official'' language, and those who try to push rival ones upon us are finding that we care deeply about preserving our unity of language. For we know that the strong tie of a language shared by all citizens allows us to loosen those other ties traditionally associated with nationhood. And from this freedom spring the interactions of a multitude of diverse elements that make us the most dynamic, the most exciting, the most vibrant society in the world today.

And that is something few would ever say about multilingual Switzerland.

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