By Chad Clem

On Writing and Language Instruction in the Swiss and U.S. Educational Systems: A Few Observations from the 2017 Global Perspectives Program

One of the aspects that attracted me most to the 2017 Global Perspectives Program to Switzerland was how multi-lingual and multi-national Swiss culture is. As a student of composition and rhetoric, Switzerland’s linguistic diversity—featuring four national languages— struck me as an intriguing obstacle to navigate in academia. It left me with a deep curiosity about how students—particularly those engaged in the writing—could prepare themselves for study in their chosen discipline having to have so many languages in their head.

Let me begin by confessing that I am not multi-lingual; my language acquisition skills tend to be minimal at best and seem to have been exhausted shortly after elementary school. Whenever I work with international students, particularly those who are learning English as a second language (ESL), I am always struck by their ability to translate their thoughts and my feedback, often in real time, often in the middle of a conversation, and somehow maintain some coherent focus for their own work. It’s a brilliant sight to witness.

Therefore, it seemed necessary for me to pursue this theme as I traveled abroad to Swiss universities, having the opportunity to engage with students who attended them, and presumably conformed to the language of instruction mandated by their institutions. I wanted to explore some of these issues—namely, what are the conditions for students who have to attend a university which operates under a language of instruction that may not be the student’s native language? Do Swiss universities offer programs or courses that help prepare students for the language of instruction at their universities? I was also interested in how writing instruction was handled—particularly regarding thesis work and published work in specific disciplines—in a multi-lingual culture. And finally, I wanted to see how language and writing instruction in a multi-lingual culture could be a means of promoting higher education as a public good—especially in terms of accessibility of information to the public (how can the public overcome obstacles like language barriers when trying to learn more about a specific discipline, provided that such a discipline publishes in a language that is inaccessible to a specific portion of the public?). I want to begin with a brief, general overview of language and writing instruction in the U.S.


There is quite a bit of scholarship on the ties between language and culture. One of the most staggering pieces of information on this topic finds that it can take a minimum of two full years of complete immersion in a culture to attain fluency in that culture’s language (in some cases it take as much as six or more) (Eaton 1). In perhaps no other discipline does language and culture play so significant a role as in the writing classroom, a context in which language is literally the order of the day. Language creates an obstacle in a composition classroom that is difficult enough to battle on its own when everyone is speaking the same language, let alone when multiple languages are thrown into the mix. Composition instructors in the U.S. have to take into consideration the previous conditions of all students, including English-learners, in order to create an environment conducive to learning for all. This is something that composition as a discipline has wrestled with for quite some time.

In their Fall 1974 publication, the Conference on College Composition and Communication issued a lengthy statement titled “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” in which they detailed the exigence of instructors to welcome diversity not only of color, creed, and thought, but also of language. In it they write:

“We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of

language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they

find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that

the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that

any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group

to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for

speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of

its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its

heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the

experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and

uphold the right of students to their own language” (1).

This does not merely pertain to foreign languages, or languages spoken outside of their region of origin, but also of domestic vernaculars endemic to cultures as wide-ranging as Appalachia, the deep South, inner cities, etc. This resolution eschewed academic trends and debates set forth for decades attempting to articulate a “proper language” that tended to privilege Eurocentric and neoliberal values. By re-centering the power of one’s language back to the speaker, the CCCC is promoting a more democratic approach to language and self-expression that was unprecedented in any academic venue. Putting the onus back on teachers is especially important, because as Canagarajah writes “The classroom is a powerful site of policy negotiation. The pedagogies practiced and the texts produced in the classroom can reconstruct policies from the ground up. In fact, the classroom is already a policy site; every time teachers insist on a uniform variety of language or discourse, we are helping reproduce monolinguistic ideologies and linguistic hierarchies” (587).

This resolution seems to agree with the work of Pablo Freire (whom I read as part of my preparation for the Global Perspectives Program), whose groundbreaking work Pedagogy of the Oppressed offers many of the same assertions about education in general as it is situated in a post-colonial world and characterizes the importance of freedom of expression in education as a necessity for the existence of a free society. Freedom of expression requires a space in which all languages and cultures are welcome to the table. Freire talks about the importance of dialogue in education, between both instructor and student, writing: “Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialogues is the logical consequence. It would be a contradiction in terms if dialogue—loving, humble, and full of faith—did not produce this climate of mutual trust, which leads the dialoguers into ever closer partnership in the naming of the world” (91). Freire promotes a relinquishing of power by the instructor (and by extension the academic administration) in order to bridge the gap between instructor and student, to, in essence, create a dialogue under the conditions of mutual respect, and fostering an environment in which students of all walks of life are rewarded with the same opportunities for learning as everyone else.

Matsuda ties this thinking back to language and the composition classroom, in an article titled “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity in U.S. College Composition.” He explores the history of American institutions containment of English language learners to remedial or isolated class which would be used as a buffer intended to help assimilate non-English speakers to the culture of American academia. A byproduct of that containment resulted in a lack of immersion in the culture and a sort of isolationism of second language speakers due to unreasonable expectations placed on such students to attain a sort of ideal mastery of English to be deemed qualified to continue their studies, which, in turn, caused further alienation among English language learners in the university. “[T]he policy of unidirectional monolingualism,” Matsuda writes, “was enacted not so much through pedagogical practices in the mainstream composition course as through delegation of students to remedial or parallel courses that were designed to keep language differences from entering the composition course in the first place” (648).

This is a trend that unfortunately continues throughout college campuses across the country, and as someone who plans to pursue a career in writing instruction, it is a trend that I hope to continue to eschew going forward. Part of the solution of democratizing my own classroom is to gain perspective from other cultures, to see how it is on the other side, to travel and reside in an unfamiliar territory, however temporarily, and come back seeing things differently. With this knowledge, I hope to continue to make my classroom a space in which any student can attend and comfortably learn without the hassles of feeling singled out simply because their language and culture is different.


As we can see, much of the research done in the field of language and pedagogy as applied to U.S. classrooms has been to attempt to both homogenize language so that all students have the same opportunity to learn, while also attempting to de-homogenize language and writing instruction in such a way as to avoid “unidirectional monolingualism” or to privilege one “type” of English over another. In other words, instructors must facilitate a classroom of students in a consistent and coherent way, while also not over-correcting the minutiae of language and writing (by promoting a “proper” English) so as to lose the individual student’s identity in his or her work.

However, due to its multi-lingualism, the Swiss system doesn’t strive for homogeneity in the same way that the U.S. does, largely due to its multi-lingualism. According to Kruse et al., “Many students feel uneasy when writing Standard German although both primary and secondary education use Standard German as the language of instruction. Some universities of applied sciences still offer compulsory German lessons for their students, which requires the teaching of writing” (228). The four languages of the Swiss, largely separated by region, are German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romansh which “is spoken as a first language by roughly 50,000 inhabitants (0.6% of the population)” and “[a]part from the university of teacher education of the canton of Grisons, it is not used as a language of instruction beyond secondary education” (228). English is taught as a second language at the primary and secondary levels, however, due to its increased importance globally, many Swiss universities expect their students to conduct research in English. As a result, many universities have incorporated English writing instruction into their curricula, as well as course taught in English, and have even given permission for students to conduct their thesis work in English (Kruse et al. 229).

During our travels to Switzerland with GPP, I was able to piece together a larger understanding of how language functions through presentations, interviews, and personal correspondence from individuals—instructors, students, and administrators—at the various institutions on our itinerary. My focus in these correspondences was primarily how issues related to language and writing instruction were handled in the context of higher education (graduate level and above). Therefore, while an exploration of language and writing instruction at the primary, secondary, gymnasium and even vocational levels would be intriguing, it is not the focus of this particular piece of research. I found, while parsing through the research, that using first-hand testimonies to illustrate the conditions in European institutions is effective both for the sake of authenticity as well as a teaching tool. I have chosen not to identify these individuals except to designate their position (student, administrator, instructor) and their institution. Where necessary, I have quoted their statements exactly as they were phrased at the time of our correspondence.

First, let’s address the language of instruction question. Based on a correspondence with an instructor/administrator at University of Basel sociology department, I was able to learn quite a bit about the intricacies of how a language of instruction dictates students’ expectations. “ For those who enrol in doctoral schools,” he wrote, “the language mix of the schools depend on the discipline—e.g. in humanities and social sciences, or law, most courses would probably be thought in the local language (German / French), whereas in the ‘hard’ and life sciences English would probably be the standard.” A student from University of Zurich explained that the language of instruction in her PhD. program was English (which she appreciated, since she felt considerably less confident in her ability to speak German and all of her studying to this point had been done in English). “[A]ll of the programs here [use English], since it is an international graduate school,” she wrote. “But just fyi (sic)—the bachelor and masters programs are not. But when I have to teach students and say I don’t speak German they are almost always fine with English.”

In terms of addressing the issue of writing (language) instruction, Kruse et al. write that, with the trend of seminar course in some institutions, the onus of student writing development has been largely transferred from the individual student to the instructor. Swiss institutions have adopted first-year writing courses that are design to provide students with the necessary background to competently write not only in English, but in their field. There has also been and establishment of writing center pedagogy, where students work with writing tutors to help strengthen student composition. One instructor from the University of Basel noted that English skills vary depending on where the student is from. “As far as the English language skills of graduate students are concerned,” he wrote, “one needs to distinguish between international (incoming) vs. Swiss (educated) PhD students. The former — 50% of all PhD students at Swiss HEIs (higher education institutions) are currently international students —usually have a good command of English, whereas the latter might have to further develop their skills during their undergraduate or doctoral studies (especially if they do not have any international mobility experience).” One student shared her experience with several writing instruction options and she agreed that “more training would help definitely!” She explained: “My Boss is English and likes perfect scientific English! He often tells me to keep my Indian poeticism off the essays and reports! In that regard, more training would definitely help! Also, scientific writing is so much different than poetry that it’s a different form of language anyway!” She also talked about a short course she took on dissertation writing, where the core instruction was basic structure and thesis-building tips such as how to incorporate primary and secondary sources, how to write an adequate introduction and conclusion, etc. “That was helpful!” she commented, “But students here do take classes for scientific writing, etc. Uni Basel has a lot of courses, my colleagues have taken those courses. Writing instruction is still in demand in all fields.”

Language instruction is largely left up to the departments, since they tend to vary by discipline. For example, as another instructor illustrated, in the graduate level the sciences tend to use English as the language of instruction, whereas the humanities often use the native language of the region. He explained: “It’s probably mostly by the necessity of reading international research literature at the undergraduate level, but less so by English-speaking instructors, that Swiss-educated students apply and further develop their language skills. In Basel, they can also benefit from the above-mentioned language course offers, but it’s up to them to do so. This being said, the Universities are going towards the direction of offering international master study programs in order to attract international students.”

What about other duties for graduate and doctoral students, such as teaching or conducting research? One instructor briefly commented on how it worked at his institution:

“I would say that learning techniques and policies of higher education didactics are negotiated, if at all, on the departmental levels. Especially PhD students who are involved in teaching do usually not get a proper training, but they would start teaching on a ‘trial and error’ basis. In the best case, they benefit from optional HE didactics courses universities have on offer in some places… Again, the preparedness is probably a disciplinary issue. I can only speak of the situation in the Social Sciences. So far, I have supervised five PhD students from scratch (as their first supervisor) and about a dozen more as a second supervisor. The preparedness to conduct research very much depends on one’s own recruitment criteria. At least at my department, PhD students would be hired to work on third-party funded research projects, and I would screen job applicants’ CV and previous work at the master level for hints that they are well prepared to cope with conducting research etc. Another model / opportunity to enroll as a PhD students is to be hired as a (teaching) assistants by a chair. Fellowships for doctoral schools are rather at least in my discipline (however they seem to boom now in Germany). In Basel and in my discipline, students can choose the language the write their thesis (mainly in German or English, one of my PhD-students wrote his in French).”

And finally, we come to the issue of how this all plays into higher education as a public good. It seems that one thing that one aspect that the U.S. and the Swiss differ when it comes to language and writing instruction, is that there seems to be a trend toward accommodations toward what works best both for the student in the former and what is common practice in the field of study that each student is entering in the latter. Yet, we are seeing many ways that the tide is shifting for the Swiss higher education institutions to be more learner-centered, what with changes in pedagogical practices such as writing center tutoring, additional writing instruction courses, as well as some leniency in regard to the language of preference that the student uses to complete his/her thesis. All of this is done, however, with the patterns, conventions, and practices of the discipline in mind. And while the U.S. tends to trend toward a more individualized system of language and writing instruction, balking at consolidation of one “true” English, student could also benefit from keeping a more realistic notion of what the disciplinary expectations are of them as they prepare to enter their respective fields. What we find by comparing these two systems is that they have each found a unique solution to produce better equipped, competitive students who will be able to make the world a better place—in other words to ensure that the “good” in public good is the best it can possibly be.


Works Cited


Eaton, Sarah Elaine. “How Long Does It Take to Learn a New Language?” Literacy Languages                 and Leadership. March 27, 2011. Accessed on December 9, 2016.

Exploring European Writing Cultures: Country Reports on Genres, Writing Practices and Languages Used in European Higher Education. Eds. Otto Kruse, Madalina Chitez,                     Brittany Rodriguez, Montserrat Castelló. Zurich Universities of Applied Arts and                                    Sciences. Zurich. 2016.


Freire, Pablo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition. Trans. Myra Bergman                     Ramos. Continuum, London. 2005.


Matsuda, Paul Kei. “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity in U.S. College Composition.”                                    College English, Vol. 68, No. 6, pp. 637-651.


“Students’ Right to Their Own Language.” Conference on College Composition and                                  Communication. 1974, Vol. XXV.