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Zurich’s Herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht (HSU): a well-functioning model of heritage language edu

April 30, 2022


Interview with Markus Truniger, former Head of the Department for Intercultural Education at the Compulsory School Office of the Canton of Zurich and Sabrina Marruncheddu Krause at the Center IPE (International Projects in Education) at PHZH (Zurich University of Teacher Education)



In the Canton of Zurich, more than 10,000 children attend 400 heritage language courses in 27 languages. The Canton maintains a directory of the language programs available and provides training to the teachers. The lessons are politically and denominationally neutral and recognized by the Ministry of Education of the Canton of Zurich. The HSU courses are designed to support multilingual students with language, identity formation, and integration. The performance of the students in the language course is graded by the heritage language teachers, and the grades are included in the certificates from the primary and secondary school. How did the Canton of Zurich come to recognize and integrate heritage language education in this way? We reached out to Sabrina Marruncheddu Krause at the Center IPE (International Projects in Education) at PHZH (Zurich University of Teacher Education). She explained to us how heritage language education works in Zurich. Ms. Krause also arranged for us to speak with Mr. Markus Truniger, an integration expert who was responsible for intercultural pedagogy at the Canton’s ministry of education until four years ago. In 2016, Mr. Truniger was awarded the education prize of the PHZH and the Pestalozzianum Foundation: “Markus Truniger recognized the issue of promoting and integrating children and young people with a migration background at an early stage and made a significant contribution to putting it on the agenda of institutions and anchoring it throughout Switzerland." Mr. Truniger came out of retirement to talk to us about how heritage language education came to be valued by the public over his forty years working in education.


What is the purpose of the heritage language lessons in Zurich? Sabrina: The HSU lessons are meant to promote the heritage language and give knowledge to children about the regions where their language is spoken. What does HSU stand for? Sabrina: Herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht (HSU), which literally means “origin language lessons.” You will also find the term HSK (Heimatliche Sprache und Kultur), which means “homeland language and culture.” We prefer HSU because it is more politically neutral. How are the lessons organized? Sabrina: The HSU lessons are supplementary to regular schooling. The public schools do not organize the lessons; rather, the language groups must themselves provide their own teachers. A language course is only approved as an HSU course after the teaching material has been deemed acceptable, and some other conditions must be met. Every January, the mainstream school teacher distributes an information flyer about HSU lessons to parents, who can in turn register their child. The parents are invited to an information evening by the HSU teacher once or twice a year. Lessons can be attended starting as early as Kindergarten. Does the Canton of Zurich finance the HSU lessons? Sabrina: No, the HSU lessons are organized and financed either by the embassies and consulates of the respective countries or by the parents or private sponsors. But the language courses recognized by the Canton can use the classrooms in public schools for free. How often do the students follow HSU lessons? Sabrina: The students attend HSU lessons for two to four lessons per week. The lessons usually take place after school or on Saturdays. If the lessons take place during school time, the students can skip a maximum of two lessons from their regular schooling. What was the situation at first regarding heritage language education when Mr. Truniger got started versus what the situation is now? Markus: In 1975, I was a secondary school teacher in the city of Zurich. Regular teachers did not know anything about heritage language teaching. There might have been a student who told me that he was attending an Italian course, but mostly the teachers did not know that these other courses existed. Now today it is a well-known issue and there are 10,000 students that profit from the courses. And now multilingualism is viewed positively by the public. How did you get involved with the education of multilingual students? Markus: As a teacher I was an activist in the teachers’ union. As an activist we had projects in cooperation with migrant organizations. We fought for better cooperation with migrant parents in schools. The demand from parents often concerned heritage language courses and the integration of these courses into mainstream schooling. I learned from the migrant organizations what the problems were and shared the demands of these organizations. Because I was known as an engaged teacher involved in this activism, the ministry of education asked me to work for them. So, I began to work in the administration together with a team for Intercultural Pedagogy that was responsible for issues concerning migrant children in the schools. This had not only to do with heritage languages, but also German courses, refugees’ issues, and religion.



It was a long, long process to get to the point of today.

You have referred to the HSU system in Zurich as a “well-functioning model of supplementary lessons in the native language and culture.” How did Zurich come to achieve this? How did you instigate significant change? Markus: It was a long, long process to get to the point of today. It started with the demands from the language communities, especially the Italian community. The Italians were running courses and they wanted them to be officially integrated into the schools of Zurich. In order to convince the Ministry of Education of the Canton of Zurich to run a test phase with Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Turkish classes, our team had to build alliances between parents’ associations, teachers, and the local school authorities. We had a series of consultations until a majority of the educational players accepted the proposal, and then the Canton agreed to a test phase for some regulations. During a test phase of eight years, there was a regulation that said that the heritage language courses could take place inside of the school buildings. Schools had to provide rooms and even some time during the lesson timetables. The grades earned in the heritage language classes were also allowed to be included in the primary school certificate. The first reactions were skeptical and not very welcoming. There was a big resistance against the regulation. But after eight years of the test phase, the resistance ended. In 1992 the regulations could be made permanent. The duties and rights were regulated, but only within the decisions made by the Ministry of Education. It was not until 2005 that there was a total revision of the law for compulsory schools, and within that project we could include these regulations at the level of the hard law of the Canton – which is the best anchorage for these regulations. The law concerns compulsory schooling of Kindergarten, primary school, and three years of secondary. Is there any federal law regulating heritage language education? Markus: No. But at the federal level there is the EDK (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education), which made recommendations about how to regulate heritage language education courses in 1991. It was the people in Zurich and Basel who were the pioneers who fought hard to have these recommendations made by the EDK. Other Cantons were able to follow and copy what had been done in Zurich. What is necessary to be recognized by the Zurich government as an official HSU class? Markus: The heritage language program must fulfill some conditions and complete a process for recognition. There is the condition of neutrality (both political and religious) as well as the condition that the teachers are qualified and speak German at the B1 level. Another condition is that the teaching follows the Cantonal curricular framework for heritage languages. It is not always easy. The condition of neutrality can often be a problem. We had to discuss with some groups about how much religion could play a role. It is acceptable to give information about religion, but not to practice religion. There have also been discussions about political neutrality. And it can be a problem if there are teachers who do not have enough German language knowledge to meet the B1 requirement. The Canton sometimes gives HSU recognition of a language course if it can be shown that the teachers have the intention to learn German. This means that some heritage language courses operate outside of the Canton’s HSU system? Do you keep track of these? Markus: There can be long discussions with language groups before recognition, and after. Of course, there are some groups that do not want that. They decide to remain in the private arena. Small groups or religious groups that know they would never qualify can go on praying in their courses – in Switzerland it is legal to have private lessons. We do not keep track of the private programs. If we have information about a program, we can offer consulting or dialogue, but we do not actively go to look actively for such programs.


It is difficult for the language groups to find the funding necessary to keep their programs running.

Do language groups running HSU courses face challenges with finding funding for the courses? Sabrina: It is difficult for the language groups to find the funding necessary to keep their programs running. I support some groups with applying for a small stipend (for example, for teaching material) from the federal government (from the Federal Office of Culture). It is a lot of paperwork and some language groups do not have the time or competencies to complete it. The official discourse is that we should give these children good support in their heritage languages because it is good for their school career, but in the end, the programs are not provided with sufficient funding to survive. The language communities have to fulfil a lot of requirements, with the level of German and the teachers needing certification, but they need to arrange this all on their own. Markus: I believe that there is still a lot of progress that could be made in the system. The courses should be supported by taxes. There was a debate in Canton parliament about eight years ago about the possibility of giving money to pay the HSU teachers. They decided: “It’s OK like it is. It’s a good thing, but we don’t want to do more. We don’t want to give more money. That shall remain the part of the parents.” The Canton does not pay the HSU teachers, but what support is it able to provide? Markus: The Canton is currently able to manage the coordination and curriculum of the HSU courses. Funding is also available for the Canton to provide teacher training. It is important to support the teachers through training. It is a big job to work on the quality of teaching, which has been an ongoing task since the 80s. The PHZH has professionalized the training in a good way. There are regular series of teaching workshops and training conferences, including modules that introduce them to the educational system of Switzerland. Teacher training and consulting support is actually open for all heritage language teachers, not only those from a recognized HSU course. A teacher must have an intermediate level of German in order to follow the training. (Some of the language communities have carried out their own training using our materials, but in their own languages, for instance the Albanian, Portuguese, and Turkish communities.) Could the training materials that you have created be used in other countries? Markus: Materials for Heritage Language Teaching produced by the PHZH is openly available on the Internet in various languages. The materials can be used worldwide, but we do not know how widely they are being used outside of Switzerland. Within Switzerland they are being shared, but every Canton does its own thing. The French and Italian parts of Switzerland are open to using the existing materials, but there needs to be time and money to implement it. Does the Canton of Zurich have any international partners regarding HSU education? Markus: In the 80s and 90s we were in contact with Hamburg, Hessen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, and Baden-Württemberg in Germany where there were some good examples of curricula. And, of course, with the experts in Sweden. Sweden was always the ideal model. The largest international collaboration was the production of the Materials for Heritage Language Teaching, under the direction of PHZH. For that we worked with Austria, Germany, Sweden, and England. Switzerland was the driving force. Otherwise, the biggest exchange is actually inside Switzerland and among the different Cantons. There are regular meetings between experts from all of the Cantons, where there is much discussion about support and structure for heritage language education. There is less international exchange. Can you tell us more about the series “Materials for Heritage Language Teaching” that you developed? Sabrina: The materials are freely available for download from our website. They offer an introduction to the heritage language teaching methods currently used in Western and North European schools. The different volumes not only provide theoretical background information, but also numerous practical suggestions for daily teaching. Markus: They are good and practical materials and they are used when training teachers. The PHZH developed a course on the basis of these materials so the teachers could get to know them and how to work with them.


Without the commitment of organized language communities, we would not have anything.

Do you have advice for other countries whose education systems do not yet support heritage language education? Sabrina: Keep in mind that a law on paper is one thing and the willingness to implement it is another. For locals it is understandably not the most pressing problem to help children with a different background. And usually, newcomers are busy integrating and learning the majority language. But heritage language education is important! Markus: It is important to trust the language communities. The force and pressure come from these groups, these organizations. Without the commitment of organized language communities, we would not have anything. Professionals in the schools and in administrations should hear these communities and can profit by collaborating with these communities. In my view it is crucial to get together, to collaborate. With teachers, local authorities. Also with the scientific community, like research universities and universities of applied science. It’s a joint effort. You have to look for a political majority and that can be a result of good working networks. Without alliances, you can do nothing.