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How did Switzerland become a country with four languages?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
How did Switzerland become a country with four languages?
A yodel group sings during the first day of the Federal Alpine Wrestling Festival on August 27, 2016 in Payerne, western Switzerland. - The Federal Alpine Wrestling Festival, taking place every three years, brings more than 200,000 spectators to view top Switzerland's wrestlers take part in traditionnal wrestling matches in a ring of sawdust, Unspunnen stone throws and the Hornuss competition. (Photo by VALERIANO DI DOMENICO / AFP)

Switzerland has four official languages — German, French, Italian, and Romansh. But why has such a tiny country become a multilingual nation?


If you have ever travelled to America, it is likely that people there asked you “Do you speak Swiss”?

And if you speak at least one of the official languages, you can answer “yes” and leave it at that. 

Though people in other countries may not know this, there’s no such thing as a “Swiss” language. In Switzerland, 63 percent of the population speak Swiss-German, 23 percent French, 8 percent Italian, less than 1 percent Romansh, and a number of people don’t say anything at all.

Image by Federal Statistical Office.

“Multilingualism is an essential part of Switzerland's identity”, the government says on its website.


How has Switzerland developed into a nation with four languages?

Switzerland has never been an ethnically homogeneous nation, with various Germanic, Franc, Burgundian, and Lombardian tribes living here throughout the history.

All along, Swiss cantons have enjoyed freedom under a decentralised government, making it possible for all the regions to preserve their own language.

The languages spoken in each canton depend largely on the geographical boundaries of Switzerland and the influence of the countries nearest to them.  

As different regions of Switzerland and neighbour countries became annexed and blended together throughout the centuries, linguistic identities were forged as well.

Ticino, closest to Italy, is Italian-speaking, cantons bordering or lying in the vicinity of Germany and Austria speak (Swiss) German, and those in the west adjacent to France speak French.

Some cantons, like Fribourg, Valais, and Bern are bi-lingual German / French.

Swiss linguistic region. Image by Federal Statistics Office

As Switzerland is so compact, you can drive from one linguistic region to another in less than half an hour. The only way you will know you reached another language area is by signs on the road.


Why hasn’t Switzerland adopted just one national language?

We could say it’s because having 8.7 million people speaking just one language would be too simple.

But the real answer may be that nobody in Switzerland is bothered by having four linguistic regions. If they were, they would have launched a referendum to have this changed but that has not happened to date.

A few Swiss speak at least three national languages, and good number are fluent in two. English, though not official, is widely spoken as well, along with other languages which became more widespread with the influx of immigrants.

Isn’t multilinguism confusing?

Perhaps to the foreigners, but not to the people born and raised here.

It’s just part of their everyday lives.

For those not accustomed to Swiss ways, however, having to juggle four languages is a major headache, especially when all must be used in certain situations — for official communications, for instance, or on money.

Also, products sold in Switzerland typically are labeled in German, French, and Italian.

And yet, despite being “cluttered” with so many languages, different linguistic regions co-exist with each other more or less peacefully (except for telling jokes about each other).

This only goes to prove that at the end of the day, nothing between the Swiss Germans, Swiss French and Swiss Italians is lost in translation.

READ MORE: Why does Switzerland use ‘CH’ and what does it mean?






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