Illustration by Victoria Fernández
If you played a game of word association with someone starting with the words “European country” and “competing linguistic groups” the response you’d probably receive would be: “recipe for disaster.” So it’s no wonder people are fascinated by Switzerland; a land comprised of four linguistic groups that has largely avoided the social conflict that has plagued other European multilingual societies throughout history. The Swiss have turned their multilingual identity into one of their greatest natural resources. Indeed, the country’s linguistic diversity underpins a flourishing cultural space and financial prowess.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a huge fan of Switzerland. But my admiration for the place isn’t inspired by a love for chocolate and mountain walking (all right, maybe a little bit). It’s borne out of a fascination over how a relatively small country managed to forge a stable, effortless symbiosis between various linguistic groups, all of whom possess their own unique identities, cultures and linguistic quirks that not only differ from each other, but which also differ greatly from their “bigger” linguistic brothers found in neighboring European states. I’m a frequent traveler to the country so I’ll be fleshing out the hard facts with a couple of anecdotal tales from the mountain paths.
How many languages are spoken in Switzerland?
Switzerland recognizes four languages as so-called “national languages,” and while speakers of these languages can be found throughout the country, the four languages are largely confined to specific regions.
The most-widely spoken language in Switzerland is “Swiss German.” Spoken by just over 60% of the population, its speakers are concentrated in the northern, central and eastern parts of the country. Swiss German or Schwyzerdütsch as it’s called by locals, is a collection of Alemannic dialects no longer spoken in Germany or Austria. So take it from me, if you speak standard German then you will have a hard time understanding Swiss German!
Swiss Germans vigorously promote the rich array of dialects found within their community, meaning that it’s not even accurate to say that there is one unified spoken version of Swiss German. The variety of Swiss German you’d hear in Zurich is completely different from what you’d hear in Basel, let alone in the market squares of Alpine villages. In other countries, dialects are often looked down upon and even discouraged, but in Switzerland these dialects are cherished and promoted, with their use being found across all levels of society. So if Swiss German is a dialect-ridden language that’s incredibly difficult to understand it must be folly to even attempt a conversation in German with a Swiss person right? No no no, thankfully not.
Can you get by with Standard German?
The Swiss are taught “Standard German” (Hochdeutsch) from a very early age in school, as a result, they can communicate with Germans, Austrians and other German speakers without any trouble — effortlessly making the switch to standard German almost automatically when engaging in conversation with a non-Swiss German speaker. Moreover, as there is no universal written form of the various Swiss German dialects, all laws, books, newspapers and other forms of written communication are written in Standard German in Switzerland. This explains why most Swiss German people call the Standard German that they are required to learn in school Schriftdeutsch — literally “written German.” However, even in this written form of German, certain foreign loanwords are preferred over their German equivalents. For instance, instead of Fahrrad (bicycle), Swiss Germans opt for the French loanword Velo.
But it’s not just in the written world that you find Hochdeutsch in Switzerland. Standard German is also preferred as a spoken means of communication in more formal occasions when the need for universal comprehension is greater, such as in parliamentary discussions, news broadcasts, public transportation announcements and educational settings. Swiss German kids are rebelling against this orthodoxy however, and attempts at transcribing Swiss German dialects into written forms are becoming increasingly popular in informal situations such as Whatsapp and Facebook.
As a general rule, the more formal the occasion is, the greater the likelihood that the communication will be carried out in Standard German, especially if non-Swiss German speakers are within earshot. Whereas in the private sphere, and between Swiss-Germans themselves, dialects win the day.
In the western part of Switzerland, French prevails. In total, French-speakers account for approximately 20% of the Swiss population, and if you’re thinking of traveling to cities such as Geneva or Lausanne then bring your French Babbel lessons with you as these popular destinations for international tourism are entirely French-speaking.
The differences between “Swiss French” and the standard form of French you hear in France are much less obvious compared to Swiss German and Standard German. While there are some differences in vocabulary and expressions, Swiss French won’t prove too much trouble for anyone skilled in speaking Standard French. In fact, the differences that do exist are often quite pleasant for foreigners to come across. For instance, French-learners will rejoice at the Swiss French usage of the words septante and nonante for “seventy” and “ninety” — none of that “sixty-ten” (70) and “four twenties-ten” (90) nonsense that you had to struggle with when learning French in school! Maybe the influence of the methodical German-speaking Swiss had something to do with this?
In the south of Switzerland, along the border with Italy, you find the Swiss Italians. This community of Italian speakers form the third-largest national language grouping in the country, and they count around 350,000 speakers among their ranks, which works out to a little over 8% of the country’s population.
Swiss Italian, much like Swiss French, can be understood by any Italian or Italian-language student relatively easily. Although local dialects exist here, such as Ticinese and other Lombard-influenced dialects, the Italian spoken in Switzerland is very similar to Standard Italian, with the only major differences coming via loanwords from German and French. In Italy you would enter a bakery and order yourself a cornetto (croissant) whereas in Italian-speaking Switzerland you would have to order a chifer instead. Moreover, Swiss Italian distinguishes itself from Standard Italian by the presence of so-called “calques” which are phrases that read like literal word-for-word translations from French and German. Take for instance the Swiss Italian word for “driver’s license.” In Italian, this would be Patente but Swiss Italians use the longer Licenza di condurre which is a direct translation of the French permis de conduire.
Last but not least, Switzerland’s smallest national language (and a language which only gained official recognition in 1996) is Romansh. Unsurprisingly, with only 37,000 speakers, this language is often overlooked by international travelers to Switzerland. But the language is a recognized official language in the south-eastern canton of Grisons, where is it used as a medium of governance and education, while also enjoying a healthy existence as a community language. The fact that its speakers tend to hail from the more remote, mountainous parts of south-eastern Switzerland explains in part why this language has survived into the 21st Century, in spite of the significant encroachment of Italian and German into traditional Romansh-speaking areas.
Romansh is a Romance language that has borrowed a tremendous amount of its vocabulary and syntax from German. Despite the relatively small size of the Romansh-speaking community there are incredibly five Romansh dialects in daily use, with attempts by the government of Grisons to introduce a universal “pan-Romansh” being met with mixed results at the local level.
How multilingual is Swiss daily life?
Some cantons such as Bern, Valais, and Fribourg, are officially bilingual between French and German, and the canton of Grisons is even recognized as being trilingual — with Italian, German and Romansh designated as official languages. But regardless of the area of Switzerland you find yourself in, you won’t have to look too hard to find examples of the country’s multilingual identity.
The most obvious example of Swiss multilingualism comes in the form of the numerous international companies, banks, scientific bodies and political organizations setting up shop in Switzerland due to the multilingual workforce readily available in the country. But you also find multilingualism in the smallest areas of daily life, such as when I entered a supermarket outside of Zurich only to be greeted by signs warning me in German, French, and Italian, that all shoplifters will be prosecuted. Likewise, if you plan on taking a train ride through Switzerland and are relying on the announcements being made in English you will need the patience level of a Trappist monk, as all announcements will be made in German and French first, then possibly Italian, and last but not least, English. It’s remarkable really that the Swiss can keep their trains so punctual when you consider the amount of time they spend delivering announcements in 3 or 4 languages.
The Swiss people are raised to be multilingual from an early age, with children being required to learn at least one other national language in school (along with another “foreign” language, usually English). But while knowledge of the other national languages is required among all Swiss schoolchildren, this multilingualism can often fall to the wayside in adulthood. Unsurprisingly, when you are in one language area you rarely hear speakers of other national languages and due to the highly-devolved Swiss political system it is incredibly easy to remain within one language bubble. Every language community can access TV, films, books, music, etc. in their native language, and companies will ensure to advertise their products in as many languages as possible too, to ensure no consumer feels left out.
The culture of each language area is also starkly demarcated by their language. Stepping off the train in Geneva feels like walking into a typically French city, lined with cafes. The Italian region of Ticino is chock full of piazzas and gorgeous Italianesque villas. And the German regions are exactly what you would imagine when asked to describe the stereotypical “Germanic” Alpine scene: bratwurst, timber-framed houses, and a cacophony of cowbells.
Time for a labored metaphor? All right then. Much like its world-famous pocket knives, Switzerland feels like a country made up of varying parts, where four different languages are granted the cultural, political and social room to flourish with minimal interference from the state or from the other language communities.
Want to test your language skills in Switzerland?
Switzerland is an achingly-beautiful country full of mountains, lakes, historical towns and picturesque Alpine villages. The country proves an exciting challenge to the multilingual traveler as all four corners of the country can be explored in a variety of languages. Visiting Switzerland is the perfect way to flex your language muscles, while dipping into a bit of French, Italian, Romansh and German culture at the same time. So what are you waiting for? Babbel has got you covered when it comes to French, German, and Italian, all of which will serve you well on your Swiss odyssey!