Switzerland is definitely one of the more unique countries in the world, and its scenic display of mountains isn’t the only thing attracting people. From their chocolate to their diversity, Swiss people have their own way of going about their lives, and it seems to be distinct in everything.
While Switzerland is known for its cuisine and punctuality, the number of their national languages often finds its way in conversations. And for good reason. Switzerland is home to four languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.
When you walk the Swiss streets or ride their trains, you will mostly hear German and French murmuring, and to get by there, people usually have to know at least one of their national languages. Swiss people aren’t really big on the English language idea, and they prefer to stick to theirs.
Even Swiss universities are divided with their language of instruction depending on the canton they’re based in. Although they have a number of schools with English programs, so international students don’t feel left out, if studying in Switzerland has been on your agenda, it would be best to opt for enriching your portfolio with their national languages.
German is the most widely spoken language in Switzerland. Around 60% of the population speak Swiss-German referred to as Schwiizertütsch. This version of German is a result of a combination of various dialects that used to be spoken in Germany and Austria.
Swiss-German is mostly spoken in the eastern and central parts of Switzerland, and it is not to be confused with the "German" language. The two differ so much, that if you attempted to speak Swiss-German to an actual German, chances are they wouldn’t understand a word of it.
On the other hand, Swiss people do understand German because in schools they learn Standard German. This happens because of the missing written version of Swiss-German dialects that are used throughout the country, and it comes in handy when speaking to their neighbor countries like Germany and Austria.
French is one of the more romantic languages to find its way in Switzerland. While Swiss-German is miles away from German, the French spoken there is pretty similar to the standard one. It does, however, have a more old-fashioned vibe to it.
French-speaking Swiss people make up about 20% of the population, mostly concentrated in the western part of Switzerland. And, if you’re planning on paying a visit to Geneva or Lausanne, make sure to pack a phrasebook, because even if English is widely spoken in Switzerland, this part of Switzerland relies solely on French.
It is worth noting that non-French speakers seem to favor the Swiss version of it, and especially when it comes to the numbers. France is known for the play with the numbers, such as saying ‘four-twenties-ten’ when speaking for the number ninety (90). In Swiss-French, however, it is referred to it as nonante.
Italian seems to have found its way to the southern borders of Switzerland, closely clinging to Italy. Italian-speaking people in Switzerland account for around 8% of the whole population, making it the third most-spoken language in the country.
Similar to French, there is no great division between the language spoken in Italy and the Swiss version of it. The most significant differences come from the literal translation—which in Switzerland are called calques—of a French expression into Italian. This can sound weird to Italians, as they mostly have simpler phrases that refer to the same thing.
Although there are some dialects circling in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the version taught in schools is standard Italian.
Romansh is one of the less spread languages in Switzerland and one that only recently gained its official recognition in 1996. Despite gaining recognition so late, Romansh has been spoken for centuries in the south-eastern part of the country.
However small the number of Romansh-speaking people may be, this language has five distinct dialects with spoken and written versions. Although there are five dialects, Switzerland developed a unified version of it to preserve the language, but it wasn’t met with positivity from a lot of Romansh-speakers.
This language is believed to have originated when the Romans conquered Rhaetia (now known as Graubünden) centuries ago. It is a hybrid language made up from the Vulgar Latin used by soldiers and colonists, and the native language called Rhaetian. Nowadays, it is referred to as a Romance language, with most of its syntax and vocabulary being borrowed from German.
In schools the Swiss tend to learn three languages from an early age—with one being another native language and the other being a foreign one—this doesn’t hold up much in their later years. Most of the Swiss people resort to their cantonal language in their day-to-day life.
This is not to say that they don’t know more than one, it is just more likely to hear them speak the official language of the canton they live in. But, they tend to be multilingual with their signs, advertisement, and announcements, as not to make anyone feel left out.
It’s worth noting that cantons in Switzerland can be bilingual or monolingual, and only one—the Romansh-speaking Graubünden—being a trilingual canton. However, most of them have only one of the four languages as their official one. But, when visiting areas that speak only one language, you will feel as if you embarked on the country of origin itself. There are small Italian, French, and German places hiding around every corner.
Switzerland is one of a few countries to truly embrace its multilingualism and diversity. Not only that, but this is one of the things they take the most pride in, and rightfully so. They even have language quirks to each one of them, with some—like Swiss-German—deviating from the original language completely.
Swiss people take their multilingualism seriously, and it can be seen in the way 90% of the population voted on preserving and making Romansh an official language, even though only about 0.5% of the population actually speaks it. This goes to show just how much they respect diversity and others’ identities.
About the Author: Arta Mekuli is a young student, eager to write about what’s important, interesting, and all the things in between. With a hunger for knowledge and distributing it to others, she now writes for Studying in Switzerland, which is a blog dedicated to giving you all the information you’ll need for life in Switzerland.