Living in Switzerland For Members

Why Switzerland ranks well below Austria and Germany for English proficiency

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Why Switzerland ranks well below Austria and Germany for English proficiency
How well do Germans speak English in 2023? Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Switzerland has more official languages than any other country in Europe, but when it comes to English, the Swiss lag behind other nations, including its close German-speaking neighbours.


As a matter of fact, the level of English within Switzerland’s population continues to decline, according to the annual study by Education First (EF), an international language training company.

For the fourth consecutive year, Switzerland has fallen in the ranking, sliding from the 29th to the 30th place in 2023.

Though the Swiss have a tendency to look down on their neighbours, when it comes to mastery of English, Austria and Germany outperform Switzerland by much, ranked in the third and 10th place, respectively.

On the other hand, Italy and France are even lower in the ranking — falling respectively into the 35th and 43rd position.

Within Switzerland, the Swiss-German part performs better than French and Italian regions, with Basel-City, Zug, and Zurich in the top three positions.

Why are the Swiss not better in English?

The study doesn’t explain why that is so — neither for Switzerland or other countries surveyed.

One way to explain, at least partly, this phenomenon, is Switzerland’s multi-linguism.

While English is the first foreign language taught in many cantons, in the German-speaking part of the country, at least, there is also a requirement for primary school children to learn another national language, which means their attention is split between English and French in German-speaking regions, and English and German in the French-speaking cantons.

However, don’t take the results of this survey to mean that few people in Switzerland actually speak English — that is not the case.

Especially in big cities, you will have no problem finding people whose level of English ranges from poor to excellent.


‘I can English understand’

The problem emerges when public figures like elected officials display their lack of English for the whole world to see, which could be embarrassing, to say the least.

For instance, Guy Parmelin, who has been a member of the Federal Council for the past eight years, was the president of Switzerland in 2022, and now heads the Department of Economic Affairs, is one such well-documented example.

When asked about his English abilities in 2015, Parmelin, from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, initially tried to answer in English but soon reverted to French. “I can English understand but [continuing in French] I prefer to speak French for clarity,” he said. 

Another former president, Ueli Maurer, also showcased his lack of English when he visited Donald Trump in Washington in 2018, and was interviewed on CNN through an interpreter, in a moment which the Swiss media called “unintentionally funny.”

READ ALSO: Can you get by in Switzerland with just English? 


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