The Language Situation in Switzerland


The language situation in Switzerland is, indeed, very different from the entire Europe: it is the only country in Europe, save Spain, that has four official languages. However, there is a significant difference between the state languages of Spain and Switzerland. Whereas Galician, Catalonian, and Basque languages are the languages of minorities in Spain and are spoken mostly in those three regions (Galicia, Catalonia, and Basque Country), Switzerland has three official languages of its neighbors: German, French, and Italian. Romansh, which is spoken by 0.5% of the Swiss population, is considered to be a native language of the Swiss. Even though even that statement is disputed, since Romansh is spoken in Northern regions of Italy as well.

According to the statistics, 64.9% of the Swiss people speak German, whereas 22.6% and 8.3% of the population speak French and Italian respectively. Whereas there are only slight differences in the Swiss Italian dialect from, actually, the Italian language, the Swiss French is spoken without any differences from the language spoken in France (though in some regions, the old Swiss French dialect has been preserved, but it can be found vary rarely). On the other hand, the Swiss version of the German language is very different even from the Bayern or Swabian (Southern regions of Germany) dialects of German, which makes it hard to learn the Swiss German for a person who does not speak German at all. Also, the Swiss German language features a large number of words borrowed from French (like Velo) or English (Computer/Compi).

languages in Switzerland

The languages spoken by the Swiss people

Even though many people imagine that such a language situation in Switzerland prompts or forces the Swiss citizens to know all 4 (or at least 3) languages, it is far from the truth. Each language is spoken by the majority of people in a certain region (canton) and so they might not know another language than the one they speak.

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This kind of a language situation in Switzerland prompts the regional authorities to develop effective educational and language policies. For example, a canton with a German-speaking population may introduce French as a second language at the age of 9 and Italian as a third language at the age of 14 or 15, and vice versa is usually done in the French- or Italian-speaking regions. However, this should not be considered as something similar to a rule, since there are always exceptions. For example, there are discussions about abandoning the learning of French and Italian in the canton of Zurich, where German is widely spoken, in favour of English, which is more important for such a cosmopolitan and economically developed city.

Another peculiarity of the language situation in Switzerland is that so-called “language borders” (shown on the map) do usually overlap and many of the country’s towns and cities are multilingual. You can notice it even thanks to the following names of the cities: Bern/Berne, Freiburg/Fribourg, and Basel/Bale. The region of Graubünden is trilingual at all (German, Italian, and Romansh).

However, there is no written version of the Swiss German language, something similar to Dutch. The problem is that all German-speaking regions have different variations of the Swiss German and no single region wants to abandon its dialect for the sake of “language standardization.”


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