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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Here’s what you need to know about languages in Switzerland

What percentage of people in Switzerland can speak three national languages fluently? How many native English speakers are there in the country? And what exactly is Romansh? Here is what you need to know about languages in Switzerland.

Here's what you need to know about languages in Switzerland
File photo: Depositphotos

Switzerland has four main languages.

Switzerland has four so-called national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, which is spoken by an estimated 60,000 people, mainly in the south-eastern canton of Graubünden. More on that below.

All official Swiss documents must appear in German, French and Italian while the Swiss government also uses Romansh when it is communicating with Romansh speakers.

German is the country’s main language.

German is the chief language for around 63 percent of the Swiss population, down from 66 percent in 1970. It is the main language spoken in large cities including Zurich, Bern and Basel.

A copy of the classic tale The Little Prince in the Swiss German dialect of Bern. Photo: AFP

But it is important to realise that while Swiss people use standard (or ‘high’) German in written communications, they actually speak one of large number of dialects collectively known as Swiss German. 

READ ALSO: Swiss German tips and quirks – your introduction to ‘Dialekt’

These dialects can vary markedly from region to region although they are generally mutually intelligible so that someone from the canton of Valais in the southwest can still understand someone from St Gallen in the northeast despite some different vocabulary and different pronunciation.

There is no official written form of Swiss German, although you will sometimes see dialects written down, as with the version of the classic tale The Little Prince in the photo above.

French is on the rise.

French is the second most widely spoken language in Switzerland with just under one in four people (22.7 percent) using this language. It is the main language spoken in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura and is also on the rise. In 1970, only 18 percent of the Swiss population had French as their number one language.

READ ALSO: Eight reasons Swiss-French is better than French-French

There is little difference in the French of Switzerland and that of France, although there are some vocabulary differences and Swiss French sounds slower because of its longer vowels.

There are around 350,000 Italian speakers.

A further 8.1 percent of the Swiss population speaks Italian (down from 11 percent back in 1970). That’s around 350,000 people, chiefly in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and in Graubünden. Swiss Italian is influenced by German and French and there are differences that might throw people who have studied standard Italian. More on that here.

Switzerland also has a fourth language – Romansh.

Romansh is a Romance language of the Rhaetian people, who are thought to have arrived in the Alps around 500BC. Some 60,000 people are thought to speak the language. 

READ ALSO: 18 interesting facts about Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh

In 1982, the ‘standard’ language of Romansh Grishun was unveiled. Invented by a Zurich linguist, Romansh Grishun is the Romansh you will see on Swiss bank notes or in official texts, but it is actually a composite language based on five regional written Romansh dialects. The composite language remains controversial with critics saying it is artificial.

A petrol station sign in Romansh. Photo: AFP

Very few people are bilingual in Swiss national languages.

A 2014 study revealed that just 2 percent of the Swiss population are fully bilingual French and German speakers – although this figure climbs to 7.5 percent if you include people who use both languages on the street and at work.

For Italian and German bilingual speakers, the figure is 1.8 percent. 

And the number of people who trilingual speakers of German, French and Italian in Switzerland? This is just 0.2 percent, according to the 2014 study. But the study also found 1.8 percent of people use all three languages in their job or daily life.

There are four bilingual or multilingual cantons.

A number of Swiss cantons have two official languages. These are Bern (German and French), Fribourg (German and French), Valais (French and German) and Graubünden (German, Romansh and Italian).

There are also two bilingual German/French cities: Biel/Bienne and Fribourg (German and French).

Foreign languages have a large presence in Switzerland.

Just under one in four people in Switzerland do not have a Swiss national language as their native language. The most commonly foreign native language is English (5.4 percent of people in 2019), followed by Portuguese (3.7 percent) and Albanian (3.2 percent). English is therefore the fourth most common language in Switzerland.

READ ALSO: Nine German words that strike fear into foreigners in Switzerland

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SWITZERLAND AND FRANCE

‘Annoying… unbearable’: How the Swiss see their French neighbours — and vice versa

Switzerland and France are neighbours and the relations between the two countries have been (mostly) amicable. But how much do the people really like each other?

‘Annoying... unbearable': How the Swiss see their French neighbours — and vice versa

While you can sometimes hear people in Switzerland — mostly those living in the French-speaking cantons — grumble about their neighbours from across the border, it seems that the French are not totally enthused about the Swiss either.

This became obvious when the French TV station M6 dedicated its “Enquête exclusive” programme on September 16th to Switzerland.

Titled “Our amazing Swiss neighbours”, the programme noted that the Swiss “live a few kilometres from us, often speak the same language and yet are so different”.

‘Swiss particularities’

The word ‘amazing’, as used in the French programme, is not necessarily intended as a compliment — at least not totally. In this particular context, it means “bewildering” or “perplexing”.

The show did not focus on the typical stereotypes that many foreigners usually bring up when describing Switzerland: cheese, chocolate, and yodelling.

Instead, it pointed out other aspects of “Swissness”: the people’s love of firearms. It featured one ‘typical’ Swiss family, the Gobets, where everyone — including the kids — shoots and their cupboards are full of assault rifles.

Yet, as the programme accurately noted, despite the abundance of firearms, gun violence is very rare in this country.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

If you did not watch this show, this is how the Swiss media described it:

“It is impossible not to laugh, on this side of the border, watching the broadcast …bunkers, militia soldiers lurking in the mountains and ready to repel the enemy, customs officers who are masters in the art of flushing out meat bought in France, municipal employees in ambush to flush out the person guilty of placing his waste in the wrong bin”.

All this may be somewhat exaggerated, but there is much truth in it.

‘They get on our nerves’

The Swiss did not take what they consider to be unflattering and limited portrayal of their country sitting down; instead, the media conducted a survey of their own, focusing on the perceptions people in Switzerland have of their neighbour.

Several themes come out of the survey:

  • The majority of respondents (68 percent) think France is no longer ‘a great country’. This observation, pollsters note, evokes “secret satisfaction” among the Swiss.
  • 57 percent  think that France has more negative than positive aspects.
  • 60 percent of survey participants say they have no inferiority complex vis-à-vis their much bigger neighbour, while a fifth go even further, stating they feel superior to the French.
  • 36 percent of respondents say the French ‘get on their nerves’, with some finding them ‘annoying’ or even ‘unbearable’. 
  • Nearly half — 48 percent — say the French have ‘big mouth’.
  • A minority (11 percent) say the French are ‘ridiculous’ and pretend to be more important that they are.

Though they could be considered as unkind by some, these reactions are far milder than comments gathered several years ago by a Swiss paper, Le Matin Dimanche.

Swiss employers interviewed by the newspaper deemed their French workers as “lazy” and “arrogant” employees, who “complain all the time”, and have have “a penchant for ringing in sick on Mondays and Fridays”.

However, this is only a small part of the full picture.

The vast majority of Swiss companies that employ French cross-border workers appreciate their input.

This was especially the case during the Covid pandemic, when cross-border employees from France kept Geneva and Vaud’s healthcare system from collapsing.

“Without cross-border workers, our hospitals would not be functioning”, Bertrand Vuilleumier, head of the hospital association in Vaud said at the time.

Have there ever been any real problems between Switzerland and France?

The Swiss weren’t thrilled to see Napoleon’s army cross the Alps into Switzerland in 1798.

And they are not amicably disposed toward them either when France’s national football team plays against Switzerland.

READ MORE: ‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

But apart from that, things have been mostly cordial — except for a few minor spats.

Several years ago, there was a story about Switzerland’s military flying their helicopters over to France to “steal” water from a French lake in order to quench the thirst of some 20,000 Swiss cows suffering from dehydration during an especially hot summer.

There was apparently not enough water in Swiss lakes to meet the demand.

The incident spurred a bit of an outrage in France, where a newspaper claimed that “to save its cows, Switzerland steals water from France”.

However, in the end, the Swiss apologised, and all ended well.

A more recent incident happened in July, when Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset  flew a small, single-engine plane into France, approaching a prohibited zone.

Despite being ordered by ground control to vacate the no-fly area, Berset continued on his course, requiring an intervention by France’s Air Force — a military jet reportedly positioned itself near Berset’s, forcing him to land.

Once on the ground, Berset explained that he misunderstood the order to land, though the minister, originally from canton Fribourg, is of French mother tongue.

Once on the tarmac, an identity check was carried out and Berset was able to leave.

So that ended peacefully as well.

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