Plea for Multilingualism

Antonia Schmidlin, HISTORIA | Photo: Daniel Steiner
Antonia Schmidlin, HISTORIA | Photo: Daniel Steiner

For the first time in the Swiss history competition, works in five different languages were submitted in the current competition on the topic "Youth on the Move". In addition to submissions in one of Switzerland's four national languages - German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romanic – this time there was also an entry in English. Reason enough for Antonia Schmidlin of the management team to present her perspective on linguistic diversity at the award ceremony on 18 May 2019 in Zurich. She delivered her speech successively in German, French and Italian. Here is a summary of her key messages.

Dear guests, dear award winners,

I had the privilege to represent our Swiss competition at the end of March 2019 at the EUSTORY Annual Network Meeting in Tallinn, Estonia. When I think back to this meeting of organisers of history competitions from more than 20 countries, the word that comes to my mind is that of a family. In the encounter with other representatives from the EUSTORY member countries, I immediately felt an intimacy. History unites. In the EUSTORY network we are not only professionally connected, as historians; we also felt that it is history itself that unites us. All major themes in human history are universal: migration, hunger, war, the struggle for democracy - these themes do not stop at national borders, not even at EU borders. Throughout its history, Switzerland has been closely linked to the world: women and men, ideas and goods have always crossed the Alps on trade routes and left their mark.

A constant topic of conversation in Tallinn was multilingualism. Every country is multilingual and there are linguistic minorities everywhere. But how do the respective societies deal with it? Do they link language to the right to vote, as in the Baltic states, for example, where Russian-speaking people - the descendants of the Soviet occupiers - do not automatically have the same political rights? Are there special curricula in History, e.g. for the Sami, the ethnic and linguistic minority in Norway? And more specifically in the case of history competitions: Can entries be submitted in minority languages or do these works have to be translated? What I realised is this: The fact that we experience multilingualism primarily as an enrichment and not exclusively as a problem is rather exceptional. But that's how it is. We invest a lot in the language skills of our pupils. Multilingualism is part of everyday life in Switzerland and part of our national consciousness. The fact that the members of our jury were able to evaluate the competition entries from all four language regions in their original versions is an important commitment to the multilingualism of our country.

During the talks between our European colleagues, we were able to identify many similarities in historical education in our countries. One such similarity in many countries, for instance, is the dwindling importance of history teaching in the school system. This is a worrying trend because the less young people know about history - their own and that of others - the more likely they are to become the plaything of political forces. It is here that history competitions have an important role to play. They strengthen history as a school subject and awaken the critical spirit which young people need to face future challenges. Allow me to look beyond the example of Switzerland and say this: Let us continue to invest in young people’s foreign language skills - they too can be a guarantee for more peaceful coexistence and more understanding in Europe.

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