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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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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Myth-busters: Five things about Switzerland you should not believe

From dodgy bankers to cuckoo clocks, William Tell to Swiss soldiers, Switzerland is a country where myths and stereotypes abound. We separate the facts from the fiction.

Myth-busters: Five things about Switzerland you should not believe

When you think of Switzerland, you probably conjure up images of cheese, chocolate, Alps, cows, and watches. Add to this image the yodelling and Alphorn playing, and this somewhat idealised (but nevertheless true) picture of Switzerland is complete.

But at the same time, some common beliefs related to Switzerland are as full of holes as… Emmental cheese.

William Tell

Many people firmly believe that this folk hero and expert crossbow marksman who shot an apple off his son’s head, was a real figure who lived in Uri in the early 1500s.

Though he embodies the struggle for freedom and independence — principles that the Swiss hold dear to this day — there is no evidence that Tell actually existed.

Historians investigating the Tell legend didn’t find any evidence that such a person ever lived, or proof that anyone shot an apple off a boy’s head.

Among the arguments against Tell’s existence is that crossbows were not commonly used in the 14th century.

According to one history fact-checking site, “it seems that the origin of the story was in a myth that was popular in Europe, and which was adopted by the people of the Alpine Valleys. It later was used as a foundation myth, by successive Swiss governments, to explain the development of the Swiss Federation”.

Neutrality

Some people take it for granted that Switzerland has been a neutral nation, which didn’t get involved in other countries’ armed conflicts, since its official creation on August 1st, 1291.

However, in the Middle Ages, the country was a military power and its soldiers could be hired for money, fighting on the side of those who paid them the most.

That was long before the Swiss army knife was invented, and the soldiers went to the battlefields with a pike — a long thrusting spear that could inflict a lot of damage on the enemy. 

It wasn’t until 1815 that Switzerland’s “perpetual neutrality” was declared. Great powers of Europe decided that Switzerland would provide a convenient geographical buffer between quarrelling France and Austria, and its neutrality would be a stabilising  factor in an unstable region.

Just over 200 years later, in 1920, the newly created — appropriately enough, in Geneva — League of Nations, officially recognised Swiss neutrality.

READ MORE : Swiss history: When Switzerland was a nation of warriors

Wealth

A common belief is that Switzerland has always been a rich and prosperous country it is today.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In centuries past, Switzerland was a pauper nation, where a large portion of the population in this landlocked, mountainous country with no natural resources, struggled to survive. Some people even ended up emigrating to South and North America to escape a life of poverty.

Many of those who did not go abroad moved from rural areas to the cities, where they continued to live in precarious conditions.

According to an official government document, “anyone who was not a citizen of a commune was homeless and lived on the margins of the community or was left to wander the country as a vagrant”.

Not exactly the image we have of Switzerland today.

READ MORE: Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive

Banks

In many people’s minds, Switzerland’s financial institutions are synonymous with dirty money and illicit dealings.

As The Local previously reported, “such images are often perpetuated by Hollywood films,  in which shady characters invariably have a banker in Zurich — an equally shady individual with a thin moustache and a dark suit — who quietly stashes illegally begotten money in secret accounts”.

In reality, Swiss banks don’t quite live up to this notoriety. For instance,  there is no such thing these days as ‘anonymous’ accounts.

To open an account, you must have a valid ID like a passport, verification of your address, and a document to prove the money you are depositing comes from legitimate (i.e. non-criminal) sources.

In terms of banking secrecy, there is some truth to it:  in principle the banks can’t reveal your financial information to a third party.

However, there are some exceptions, as in order to prevent tax evasion, Switzerland has signed agreements with a number of countries to cooperate in exchange of financial information of their respective citizens.

So if you are a foreign national, the government of your country can request Switzerland to release your account(s) information and banks must comply.

READ MORE : Gold, secrecy and wealth: Six Swiss bank myths that need to be busted

Cuckoo clocks and lederhosen

A number of foreign tourists in Switzerland are looking to buy ‘Swiss’ cuckoo clocks, not realising that these clocks originally came from the Black Forest in Germany.

Now, however, many are manufactured in Asia; either way, very few, if any, are hatched in Switzerland.

By the same token, many foreigners associate lederhosen — short or knee-length leather breeches — with Switzerland.

Wrong again.

Maybe it’s because they confuse Switzerland with Austria and Germany (the three countries do look alike, especially in the dark), but whatever the reason, lederhosen is not a Swiss garb.

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