Language debate reveals expat generation gap

Access to financial services in Switzerland remains an issue for the Swiss abroad community Keystone

The possible introduction of English as additional language of the Swiss expatriate community was one of the highlights of Saturday’s session of the Swiss Abroad Council.

This content was published on March 25, 2017 minutes

The assembly, which met in the Swiss capital Bern for its biennial meetings, voted against a proposal by a delegate from Toronto, Canada, but the issue is unlikely to go away.

Ernst Notz argued the younger generation of Swiss expatriates could be encouraged to take an active interest in the home country of their ancestors if documents and discussions of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA)External link, including the 140-member council, were translated into English.

“We have to go with the times and prepare for the future,” said Notz. “Sooner or later we will use English in council meetings,” he is convinced.

He was supported by several other delegates, notably from Canada, the United States and Malta.

They warned that the language could become an insurmountable barrier for second- or third-generation Swiss expats who do no longer speak any of the official Swiss languages, German, French; Italian or Romansh.

Wrong signal

Opponents argued that the OSA would send the wrong signal, if English were given a higher status than for instance Italian.

They said it was important for the cohesion of the country as well as the Swiss abroad community to continue to insist on the use of an official Swiss language.

“We should not choose the easy way out,” as a delegate commented. Others said the biggest Swiss expat communities were living in neighbouring France and Germany making the introduction of English not a priority.

“If you want to participate in votes and elections in Switzerland you have to be able to read and understand a national language,” said Jean-Pierre Stern from France.

For his part, OSA President Remo Gysin admitted he was torn between the two sides. He said it was crucial to involve the young generation.

In consultative vote, 42 delegates threw out the proposal, 14 came out in favour and eight abstained.


Once again, the policy of Swiss banks towards Swiss expatriates featured on the agenda of the council.

Delegates rejected a resolution to sue the state-run PostFinanceExternal link company for charging Swiss expat account holders “excessive” fees and for refusing to issue credit cards.

The proponent, John McGough from Hungary, argued the Swiss abroad were treated like “second class Swiss citizens” by PostFinance.

However, a majority of the delegates, in line with the leading council committee and a legal expert, opted for a political solution. They called on the OSA to make its voice heard in parliament, launching a bid for legal changes.

“It is crucial for many Swiss who leave the country to live abroad temporarily to maintain a bank account in Switzerland,” the OSA said in a statement.

External Content

Public service media

In a key-note address to the assembly, the director general of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, Gilles Marchand, stressed the common interests of the public service media and the Swiss abroad community.

He said both were in an ideal position to explain to world what makes Switzerland tick. Marchand gave a short overview of the international media offer, including as well as television channels and a public archive.

He also pointed out the importance of access to information about Switzerland for the expat community in the world, to enable them to take part in the country’s system of direct democracy with its regular votes and elections.

In another development, the council continued debating a reform of its voting system, aimed at broadening the electorate. It called on a working group to refine its proposals in the wake of trials with e-voting in Australia and Mexico.

Discussions are expected to continue in August when the council meets ahead of this year’s Congress of the Swiss Abroad in Basel.

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