Languages in Switzerland: the multilingual alpine nation | Expatica
Home Education Language Learning Languages in Switzerland
Last update on March 03, 2021
Gayatri Bhaumik Written by Gayatri Bhaumik

There is no one language in Switzerland – there are, in fact, four. Depending on where you live, you might hear German, French, Italian, or Romansh – or a combination of them.

However, among expats, English is the lingua franca. Despite this, learning a local Switzerland language can be useful. It is important to realize though, that each area has its own dialect of German, French, Italian, and Romansh, and that these can differ from the standard language you would hear in Germany, France, or Italy. This guide will help you understand the Switzerland language profile by covering the following topics:

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What languages are spoken in Switzerland

German is the most common language in Switzerland. But, the version spoken in the country is quite different from the standard High German. Instead, people here speak Swiss-German. The language is usually called Mundart by locals and has many of its own local dialects. These dialects, though, have enough differences that you can pinpoint the speaker’s hometown exactly. That said, there are enough similarities that any Swiss-German speaker will be able to understand the different dialects. Generally though, the trickest dialects can be found in remote valleys, especially in the canton of Valais in Switzerland’s south. Interestingly, in 2002, German and French speakers in Switzerland were asked which Swiss-German dialect they liked best. By a good margin, the Bernese dialect came out on top with 27%. The dialect of Valais got a respectable 20%, though the harsher Zürich dialect received just 10% of votes.

Multilingual sign at a train station
Switzerland is linguistically diverse, so you’re sure to come across multilingual signs such as this one at the train station in Brig

A total of 58.5% of the Swiss population speak Swiss-German. This is partly because 17 of the 26 Swiss cantons use German as its sole official language. However, schools teach High German, not regional dialects; newspapers, magazines, books, and other media use High German, too. However, even the Swiss-German pronunciation of High German means Germans or Austrians sometimes do not understand Swiss-German speakers. Even the written language can cause problems because of different grammar structures and use of words. In fact, even students struggle with the differences of Swiss-German and High German. Because Swiss-French and Swiss-Italian speakers learn High German in school, they usually cannot understand local dialects. And, even Swiss-German students find it difficult to learn High German because they are so familiar with their local dialects.

Other languages and dialects in Switzerland

Just because Swiss-German is the major language, though, you should not think that it is the only language of Switzerland. Conversely, there are four official languages in total – including French, Italian, and Romansh – and many people learn English, too. And, each of the languages also has different dialects.

French

Some 30% of the Swiss population speaks French. Traditionally, French-speaking Switzerland used different local patois which are a structurally separate language of Franco-Provençal. These days, though, Swiss-French bears more resemblance to Standard French. Of course, there are some regional words and expressions that still exist in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland, but the gaps in understanding are far less wide than in the German language.

Italian

In Italian-speaking Switzerland, dialects are part of the citizens’ linguistic repertoire. The standard language is used in writing and in public, while the dialect is mainly reserved for the private sphere. Swiss-Italian is a variant of what you would hear in Italy. 8.2% of the Swiss population speak Swiss-Italian, which includes the Lombard dialect. Though it does have some similarities to standard Italian, the local variant has German and French influences.

Romansh

Although Romansh has very few speakers – just 0.5% of the Swiss population – it has five distinct forms and each has its own written tradition. An artificial standard language, Romansh Grischun, was created in 1982, as a compromise between the existing idioms. This is mainly administrative in use, though; in the media and for literary works, most speakers prefer to use their own idiom.

In 2001, a cantonal referendum in Graubünden approved Romansh Grischun as the form for official election material and the legal code. The standard language made another gain in 2005 when Microsoft added it to its’ range of desktop languages. Lia Rumantscha oversees the interests of the Romansh language as a whole.

English

Foreigners sometimes assume that because there are four national languages in Switzerland, most residents speak the four languages – or at least more than one. The reality, though, is quite different. While the Swiss are certainly proud of their linguistic proficiency and many are indeed multilingual, the languages they speak might surprise you. In general, most people here speak their mother tongue (usually an official language of their canton), a second national language, and English.

UN Geneva
Plenty of large employers in Switzerland, like UN Geneva, have multilingual offices

Because of the Swiss governance system, each canton decides which language resident children learn – and when. In the German-speaking cantons, children learn French from the age of nine. Similarly, French-speaking Swiss children begin learning German at the same age. In Ticino and the Romansh-speaking areas, schools teach both French and German. In Italian-speaking Ticino, English is compulsory from the eighth grade and students can drop French at this time.

Zurich’s education minister provoked a national debate in 2000 by announcing that his canton intended to make English the first foreign language, rather than French. Supporters of the move point out that English is more useful in the world. They add that children and parents are in favor of the move and that since motivation is an important ingredient in language learning, pupils are likely to learn English more successfully than they do French.

Opponents see the decision as a threat to the unity of Switzerland and fear that French and Italian speakers will be put at a disadvantage because they will still need a good standard of German to rise in their careers within Switzerland.

Where the Swiss languages are spoken worldwide

Although German, French, and Italian are spoken in different parts of the world, their Swiss counterparts are not widely spoken outside the country. However, that does not mean that you might not hear them occasionally.

German

Some Swiss-German dialects are similar enough to other Alemannic dialects that you might be able to use them in some places. For example, you could get away with it in Liechtenstein and Austria’s Vorarlberg state. However, Swiss-German is different enough from High German that most people in Germany would not understand it. Luckily, High German is widely taught at schools in the German regions of Switzerland, so Swiss-German speakers could have at least basic conversations with the world’s 229 million German speakers. In addition, the language is a popular second language in non-German parts of Switzerland.

French

As one of the official Swiss languages, over two million people speak Swiss-French. Although the language has some differences from standard French, you could use the language in France, Belgium, and other Francophile countries and the world’s 275 million French speakers would probably understand you. Again, French is the teaching language of school in French-speaking Switzerland and is a common second language in other cantons. It is also a very popular second language across the world, especially in international schools.

Italian

Swiss-Italian is the official language in the canton of Ticino and the southern region of Graubünden. Because of this, there are around 350,000 native speakers in the area. Due to the influences of French and German, Lombard differs from standard Italian, so there are phrases that would not be understood outside of Italian-speaking Switzerland. However, the dialect can be used across the border, in northern Italian comuni such as Milan, Monza, Como, Lecco, and Novara. Although schools teach Lombard in the Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland, it is less common as a second language in other parts of the country.

Romansh

The fourth official Switzerland language, Romansh is the least common. In fact, only around 60,000 people speak it, and this is mostly in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. As such, it is not at all widely used around the world and is not a common second language.

Origins and history of languages in Switzerland

Switzerland is a Willensnation – a nation of will. This means that each of the country’s 26 cantons functions almost as an autonomous administrative area and agrees to work with each other. As such, Switzerland is a federation of co-equal cantons rather than a uniform nation in its’ own right. In fact, historically, Swiss cantons were sovereign states with their own borders, armies, governments, and languages. Because of this history, there are, in fact, no singular Swiss language – there are four official languages.

Map of language distribution in Switzerland (Image: Tschubby/Wikimedia)
The map of language distribution in Switzerland shows the progression of the Confederation’s history and the relationship with its’ neighbors (Image: Tschubby/Wikimedia)

The languages spoken in each canton is a result of its history and geographical locations. For example, in the south, across the border from Italy, Lombard is the main language. But Swiss-French is the lingua franca of the west because of the border with France. Similarly, Eastern and Central Switzerland have a strong German influence; as a result, Swiss-German is common here. In addition, Romansh grew in the southwest – specifically the canton of Graubünden.

German

Swiss-German is actually a collection of Alamannic dialects that come from southwest Germany and the Alsace region of France. The language developed over centuries, as a result of the country’s strong links to Germany. Germanic tribes came to Switzerland in the fifth century, following the collapse of the western Roman Empire. Later, in 1291, the first Swiss Confederation was formed by three German-Swiss cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. In the late middle ages, the Swiss Confederation had strong ties to southern German cities, leading to a growth in Swiss-German dialects. The dialects are now different enough that it is possible to tell where someone was born and raised.

French

The history of the French language in Switzerland traces back to the geopolitical realities of the time. Although the western cantons of Vaud, Neuchâtel, Freiburg, and Valais were, at one point, under the control of the Roman Empire, they were dominated by the Kingdom of Burgundy after the sixth century.

By the 13th century, the French House of Savoy, Bishop of Lausanne, and House of Neuchâtel were in charge of these cantons, and French became increasingly popular. The German influence grew in the cantons of Freiburg and Valais, which is why French is now only spoken in parts of these two cantons. Vaud became the first fully French-speaking Swiss Canton after the Confederation of 1803.

Later, under Napoleon, the western cantons came under personal French control – for example, Neuchâtel became the personal property of French Marshal Berthier. Further, after the French Revolution, the French policy of education ensured that the French spoken in Switzerland was similar to that in France, though, in the cantons of Freiburg and Valais, German influence has resulted in the addition of German phrases.

Italian

Another Romance language, Swiss-Italian traces its roots to the Latin of the Roman Empire. There are, in fact, two Swiss-Italian dialects: Ticinese (the dialect of the Ticino canton) and the more general Lombard dialect. Both owe their development to the proximity of Italy, which sits just across the Alps. However, over the centuries, Swiss-Italian morphed through influences from Italian lords, German rulers, and the French revolution. This is why many phrases in Swiss-Italian are derived from French or German and would not be understood in Italy.

Romansh

Technically, Romansh is a Romance language, a descendent of the Latin of the Roman Empire. The language draws a lot on German vocabulary and Alemmanic and Bavarian dialects. This is because in 15BC, Romans dominated the Rhaetia province. Romansh became a national Switzerland language in 1938, but only became an official language in 1996.

Interesting facts about languages in Switzerland

  • The number of French speakers in Switzerland is increasing. But, there are increasingly fewer German, Italian, and Romansh speakers.
  • Non-official languages are becoming more in vogue – English and Portuguese are especially popular.
  • Multilingualism is an important part of the Swiss identity – though not everyone is multilingual. Switzerland has a law that governs official languages and promotes multilingualism.
  • Four cantons and two cities are official multilingual. These are the cantons of Bern, Fribourg, Valais, and the cities of Biel/Bienne and Fribourg. But, Graubünden is officially the only trilingual canton.
  • Spanish, Serbian, Croatian, and Albanian are becoming increasingly common in Switzerland.
  • English is the lingua franca of Switzerland’s business community – and, the canton of Zurich is debating making it an official language.

Learning the languages of Switzerland

If you’re moving to Switzerland, language should not present too much of a problem, at least not in urban areas. This is because many Swiss residents speak some level of English. However, you will find it much easier if you try to learn the main languages of your canton – for example, French in Geneva or German in Zurich. There are many ways to do this, though, so you should be able to make a good attempt.

For Swiss-German, Plimseur offers a series of online courses that are a good place to start. Similarly, for Swiss-French, the Swiss French School offers both online and in-person classes. But, Swiss-Italian and Romansh are a little harder to learn because they are less widely spoken. Nevertheless, there are in-person courses available – such as the two-week intensive course at SUPSI, while Cudoo offers an online course for Romansh. 

In addition, many expats look for more casual ways to learn a Switzerland language. For example, many watch TV shows or movies with English subtitles or join language exchange groups on Facebook and Meetup.