“Four scoops of language on a mountain cone, please!”

Diving into Switzerland’s Linguistic Tapestry: Unveiling the Multilingual Magic of Swiss German, French, Italian, and Romansh

The answer to the question “What is the official language in your country?” is simple in many parts of the world. However, for a Swiss person, the answer to that question is a bit more complicated. The country has no fewer than four official languages. You heard correctly—not one or two, but four! The secret of Switzerland’s success is therefore in its diversity. In this blog, my colleague Noëlle and I visited Switzerland to learn more about languages and their uses. We reveal the Swiss secret in this blog!

An abundance in languages

In Switzerland, they speak Swiss German (a dialect of German), French, Italian and Romansh. These four national languages are spoken in the four different language areas and multilingual regions or communities. In the municipality of Biel, for example, you can hear French and Swiss German, while in the canton of Graubünden, Swiss German, Romansh and Italian are spoken. 

This multilingualism is also evident in everyday life in Switzerland. We noticed, for example, street signs written in three languages: Italian, French and German. When you enter a supermarket, you will notice that most products have product descriptions in all four national languages.

Swiss chameleons

The majority of the Swiss population speaks Swiss German or Standard German. A quarter of residents speak French on a daily basis, while only about 0.6 per cent of the population speaks Romansh. Italian is mainly spoken in the canton of Ticino and in Graubünden.

When you first arrive in Switzerland, you may think you will find it difficult to understand the locals. But there is no need to worry, because the people here are true chameleons! As soon as they realise that you do not understand them, they switch from one of their languages to Standard German, although with bits of Swiss German here and there. This makes it easier for you as a guest to quickly adapt to the country’s culture and language.After a few months it shouldn’t be a problem to follow a conversation in Swiss German, as you quickly get used to the dialect.

Key features per language 

Let us have a closer look at the four national languages, one by one. What are the main hallmarks and how has each language been implemented in Switzerland? 

  • German: 

Close to 60% of the country’s population speaks German, which is the country’s official language. But take note that in Switzerland they speak Swiss German, which is a dialect of Standard German. Swiss-Germans understand and speak Standard German perfectly, but they also speak their own dialect. It does not work the other way around, however, as many of the German tourists in Switzerland do not understand Swiss German.

  • French: 

French is less widely spoken in Switzerland than German, but is still considered the second main language by the population. Roughly 20% of the country’s population speaks French as their first language.

Unlike the German spoken in Switzerland, French in Switzerland is almost identical to the classical French from France. There is a difference in the way they communicate with it and the speed at which they talk, though. The French, for example, use the word ‘soixante-dix’ to refer to the number seventy, while the Swiss simply say ‘septante’.

  • Italian: 

Italian is spoken by about 8% of the population in southern Switzerland. It is the third most widely spoken language in the country. Italian in Switzerland is not much different from Italian in Italy, but it does include some unusual translations from German and French. 

  • Romansh:

The Romansh language has been used in Switzerland for centuries. The origins of this language can be traced back to Roman times. When the Romans conquered the Recio region (known as ‘Graubünden’ today), they brought their language with them. Although it is only spoken by a small part of the population today, Romansh has been an official language since 1996. 

“Merci für die gelato!”

It may seem difficult to believe, but only a few years ago, hardly anyone spoke a word of English in Switzerland! The Swiss were indifferent to English, but today command of English is a requirement for most jobs. English is also highly prevalent in Swiss media, with the result that more and more Swiss people have a reasonable command of English.

As we stopped to order an ice cream on the way through Switzerland, I noticed that the lady at the ice cream truck could understand me when I spoke French, German and English. I caught myself committing some embarrassing slipshod phrases, such as “Yes, merci für die ice cream”, but I still managed to get what I wanted to order. It seems very appropriate to eat ice cream in the country, as you can see mountain peaks with ice at the top in the distance from almost anywhere. It is a breath-taking view that never ceases to surprise. During a train ride back to our campsite, we chatted with ease first in German and then easily switched to English with a group of Swiss. They explained to us that there are not many people in French-speaking regions who are fluent in English, which means that it can be difficult to fill some positions. English is growing enormously in popularity, however, so there is a high probability that English will eventually become Switzerland’s fifth language.

Once back at our campsite we were ready to warm something up over a gas fire and then crawl into our sleeping bags. Did you enjoy this blog? One thing is for sure: the languages spoken in Switzerland will no longer hold any secrets from you! You now know that Switzerland is not only an attractive destination for its ski resorts, delicious Swiss chocolate and raclette, but that its languages are also particularly fascinating.

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