SWISS ODDITY : THE MULTILINGUALISM

Updated: Apr 21

There’s one Swiss peculiarity which always confuses my Norwegian friends : in Switzerland we have four official languages. It’s so natural for me it’s quite difficult to explain that despite our differences, our community works pretty well.


But it’s true, so many languages for a small country it’s a bit odd, Switzerland has an 8,570,146 population for 41,285 km2 area while Norway is 9 times bigger with 385,207 km2 for 5,367,580 inhabitants. I understand my Norwegian friends’ confusion, so here is an article with all the facts about our Swiss multilingualism.


"Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno"

(Latin, "One for all, all for one", traditional Swiss motto)


Switzerland is divided into four distinct language regions: German, French, Italian and Romansh. However, many people speak several languages.

Multilingualism is an integral part of Switzerland's national identity.


Street signs in French and German in the bilingual town Biel/Bienne. © FDFA, Presence Switzerland

German, French and Italian are the official languages of the Confederation. Romansh, although a national language, is used by the federal authorities only when communicating with Romansh speakers. All official federal documents (legislation, reports, websites, brochures and building signage) must appear in German, French and Italian.


Six out of ten adults in Switzerland regularly use more than one language.

Four of Switzerland's 26 cantons are officially multilingual: Bern (German-French), Fribourg (French-German), Valais (French-German) and Graubünden (German-Romansh-Italian). The cities of Biel and Fribourg are bilingual (German and French).



Making content clear in all the national languages. A Federal Chancellery terminologist at work, June 2016

The Federal Administration serves a multilingual public, and must therefore provide publications in German, French and Italian. Some texts are published in Romansh and English. The language specialists at the Federal Chancellery ensure that all laws and other official texts are clear and legally correct in the given language. This requires very careful attention as the French, German and Italian language versions of all laws are equal and legally binding.

The Federal Office of Culture has chief responsibility for promoting multilingualism. The Federal Languages Act governs the use of the official languages of the Confederation, the promotion of multilingualism within the administration, support for multilingual cantons and the promotion of Romansh and Italian languages and cultures.


Newspapers in different languages at a kiosk. © Christoph Baldinger



The four official languages


Swiss German


Zurich, city in the Swiss German part of Switzerland

Swiss German is the most widely spoken language in Switzerland. However, Swiss German is not a single language but a collection of distinct Alemmanic dialects. Most people living in German-speaking Switzerland speak a Swiss-German dialect. Swiss German is the default language of everyday life and is spoken by all, regardless of their social class.


Dialects vary considerably from one region to the next; for example, the Swiss German spoken in Basel is not the same as the Swiss German spoken in Zurich or Bern. There are also variations in the dialect spoken within a large language region. Generally, though, they are not so different as to be incomprehensible to other Swiss-German speakers.


Certain dialects are renowned for their highly specific regional character or particular accent, such as the Swiss German spoken in the remote valleys of Upper Valais, or Seislertütsch, the dialect spoken in the German-speaking part of the canton of Fribourg.


Swiss German is not a written language, although it is used sometimes in personal correspondence. Standard German is used for all formal, written communication.


Speaking Swiss German is a challenge for many non-​Swiss people. So now the machines are trying :




French


French is the official language of French-speaking Switzerland also called Romandy. Every region has its own idiosyncrasies and accents, but the French that is spoken and written in Switzerland is largely the same as standard French.


A summer night at the Montreux Jazz Festival, a famous festival in the French-speaking Swiss riviera.


Franco-Provençal dialects (patois) were still widely spoken right up until the mid-20th century, but they have all but died out today. Nonetheless, patois is still spoken - mostly by members of the older generation - in some parts of Valais, the Jura and the canton of Fribourg.


"Romandy" is not an official territorial division of Switzerland any more than there is a clear linguistic boundary: substantial parts of the canton of Fribourg and the western canton of Bern are traditionally bilingual, most prominently in the Drei-Seen-Landor Pays des trois lacs surrounding the lakes of Morat, Neuchâtel, and Bienne (Biel).


The linguistic boundary between French and German is known as Röstigraben (lit. "röstiditch", adopted in Swiss French as barrière de rösti). The term is humorous in origin and refers both to the geographic division and to perceived cultural differences between the Romandy and the German-speaking Swiss majority.



Italian


Ascona in the Ticino canton.

Italian is the official language of Ticino and the southern valleys of Graubünden. Lombard dialects are also still widely spoken today.

Romansh


Engadin Swiss winter.

Although Romansh is spoken by only some 10,000 people in certain parts of Graubünden, it has five distinct dialects: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter and Vallader.


Facts and figures


Language facts in Switzerland

  • German is the main language of around 63% of the population. However, they do not speak standard German but rather various Alemmanic dialects that are collectively known as “Schweizerdeutsch” (Swiss German).

  • French is the main language of around 22.7% of the population.

  • Italian is the main language of around 8.1% of the population.

  • Romansh is the main language of about 0.5% of the population.

  • Several cantons are multilingual: Bern (German-French), Fribourg (French-German), Valais (French-German) and Graubünden (German-Romansh-Italian).

  • Swiss German is the most widely used language in the workplace (66%), followed by standard German (33,4%), French (29,1%), English (18,2%) and Italian (8,7%).

  • Over 42,6% of the population over the age of 15 regularly use more than one language.

  • Foreigners living in Switzerland also contribute to the country's linguistic diversity. English and Portuguese are the most commonly spoken foreign languages.


The language experience in Switzerland by Michael Delaney, the adventurous travel investigator :


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