Swiss Seek More Unity In Triple-Tongued TV

Imagine, it's Thursday night. You flop on the couch, zap on the television, and settle in for 30 minutes of laughs with "Seinfeld" and his three pals. Only Jerry is speaking French.

A bit of fantasy for the United States perhaps, but here in Switzerland - a country with four official regions, each with its own language - television viewers may soon be able to watch shows from any region in their native language. That at least is the plan of Armin Walpen, director-general of Bern-based Socit Suisse Radiodiffusion. SSR is the parent, state-owned organization of Switzerland's regional television and radio stations.

Through operation Ide Suisse, this former minister of justice and police hopes to use entertainment and education programs to bridge the language and culture gap between the country's French, German, and Italian speakers.

Only a small percentage of television shows will be translated into Romansch, a Latin-based language spoken in the eastern part of the country by just two percent of the population.

"SSR can't save Switzerland," says Mr. Walpen speaking at a press conference in Bern, the capital, late last month. "But it can lay the first stone toward building a foundation of integration."

French-German rivalry

Despite Switzerland's small size, its 7 million citizens are not only often separated by mountains and lakes, but sometimes in mind-set as well; particularly between the French and German speakers.

Programming in the regions have often reflected this separateness, with shows in the French area about how the Swiss Germans dominate positions of power, leaving the Swiss French behind, or how the Swiss French are more open-minded. The Swiss-German regions on the other hand play to the idea that the French region is content to complain but not to do anything to change its situation.

As of now, most TV shows here are aired regionally through the three main stations. Since Romansch speakers live in the German-speaking part of the country, they get their programming from Swiss-German stations. Rarely does a show get broadcast nationally.

If all goes according to plan, Ide Suisse will take off next fall, and viewers will be able to tune into national series dubbed into the three official languages. The plan will cost an estimated 22 million Swiss francs ($14.9 million).

Swiss Germans comprise the majority of the population here, but SSR hopes to ensure no one region dominates the broadcasts.

A "Dallas"-style soap opera is among the first programs slated for broadcast. Each 25-minute episode will bring together characters from Switzerland's regions and will be dubbed into Swiss, German, Italian, and French.

Already on Suisse 4, Switzerland's public television channel, French speakers can turn on to a course in Schwyzerdutsch, or Swiss German. Italian language lessons are also in the works.

For those who want fondue feasts, SSR is planning "Switzerland at the table," a series to highlight regional dishes, from the barley soup of the Grisons - the area where the ski resort St. Moritz is located - to filet de perche from the Lake Geneva region.

And while every program might not please every region, that isn't the goal of this operation, says Guillaume Chenevire, director of the French regional station.

Walpen adds: "Our country is rich in differences, with all that that brings, good or bad. So for us, integration isn't synonymous with assimilation. It doesn't mean destroying differences, but rather creating a better understanding and appreciation of them."

Bridging gaps on the go

And Switzerland isn't the only European country to wrestle with more than one language group.

In Belgium, a country with three official languages (French, Flemish, and German) one project helps bridge the gaps - even while its students are on the move. Dubbed "language locomotives" the project has special railroad cars set aside for language classes. Teachers travel with commuters to teach either Flemish or French.

As in Switzerland, the language, economic, and cultural rivalry has given Belgium problems. While much remains to be done to mend the groups' rivalries, programs such as the language trains, or Ide Suisse are small steps to bridging the gaps.

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