Switzerland's Four National Languages

Which official languages do they speak in Switzerland?

Switzerland's four official languages, traditionally spoken in different regions of the country, are German, French, Italian and Rumantsch [sometimes also transcribed as Romansh, Romansch Rhaeto-Romanic or even Romance etc.]). Some statistics showing a fairly high percentage of "other" languages might give a false idea, if not interpreted properly.

German74 % 63.7 %
French21 % 19.6 %
Italian4 % 6.6 %
Rumantsch1 % 0.5 %
Spanishn.a. 1.7 %
Serbo-Croatiann.a. 1.4 %
Portugesen.a.  1.3 %
Turkishn.a. 1.1 %
Englishn.a. 1.0 %
Albanesen.a. 0.7 %
Other Languagesn.a. 2.4 %

What is the difference between official languages and mother tongues?

Interpreting Statistics Correctly

Due to massive immigration (20% of the resident Swiss population are non-naturalized foreigners, 50% do have at least one parent that has not been born in the country!), there are many individuals who will not say they speak one of the four official languages of Switzerland when asked for their mother tongue.

Nevertheless, in everyday public life (economy, schools, administration, recreation) only one (or two) of the traditional four official, "native Swiss" languages will be used, depending on the region. Why this? From the early Middle Ages (6th century) to the Age of Industrialization (19th century) Switzerland's native population has been divided into four different cultures with four different languages in four regions separated from each other by «natural» borders like rivers and mountains.

Regional Languages in Switzerland

There are clearly defined regions for all four official languages (German in northern, central and eastern Switzerland, French in western Switzerland, Italian in southern Switzerland and Rumantsch in southeastern Switzerland, see map above).

The regions do, however, overlap just a little: German is being used in parallel to Rumantsch in all Rumantsch areas and in parallel to French in the bilingual cities of Biel/Bienne, Fribourg/Freiburg, Murten/Morat and in some smaller towns and villages along the language border in western Switzerland.

Major Swiss Cities by Language and Metropolitan Area Population

LanguageCities / Population
(Swiss) German Speaking Zurich (970,000)
Bern (290,000)
Basel (240,000)
Lucerne (230,000)
Winterthur (110,000)

St. Gallen (90,000)
Thun (50,000)
Schaffhausen (40,000)
Zug (30,000)
Rapperswil-Jona (30,000)
Frauenfeld (25,000)
German-French bilingualBiel/Bienne (90,000)
Freiburg/Fribourg (40,000)
French SpeakingGeneva (410,000)
Lausanne (240,000)

Montreux-Vevey (50,000)
La Chaux-de-Fonds (40,000)
Neuchâtel (40,000)
Sion (30,000)
Yverdon-les-Bains (25,000)
Italian SpeakingLugano (40,000)
Bellinzona (25,000)
Locarno (20,000)
German-Rumantsch bilingualChur (40,000)

See also: What language do they speak in Arbon, Bussnang ...?
Metropolitan area population: population of the city including its suburbs, though they may be politically independent communities.

Private Use of Non-official Languages in Switzerland

Among friends (insofar as having the same nationality) and within the family, using the mother tongue is of course widespread.

In private life, there are more occasions for immigrants to use their mother tongue: You might easily get, for example, a Turkish or Serbian newspaper at almost any Swiss newsstand and receive TV programs in almost any European language (plus some more) via satellite or cable TV. These newspapers and TV programs are produced in the countries immigrants come from, however, they are perfect to stay informed about the country of origin, but they do not inform about things happening in Switzerland.

Public Use of Languages in Switzerland

In public, using one of the many non-official languages has practical limits. Immigrants to Switzerland come from a broad variety of countries with very different cultural and language backgrounds (see table-1: the six non-official languages shown there are just the top of the iceberg, many more Scandinavian, Slawonian as well as Asian and African languages make up the last 2.4% summarized as other languages).

Therefore none of these non-official languages (except for English) is understood by more than 2% of the resident population (native Swiss people and immigrants speaking other languages). So for most immigrants the use of the official Swiss language of the region (German, French, Italian) is the only practical way to read product declarations in the supermarket, to stay informed about important events in Switzerland and to communicate when talking to native Swiss people or to immigrants from other countries.

Many immigrants do not even know some key words they use in their professional life in their mother tongue since these are related to technologies not used in their native countries. So there are lots of practical reasons to the fact that immigrants use the official regional language in everyday life.

English as the Inofficial Fifth Language

As almost everybody in Switzerland learns English at school, tourists and foreign business people may express themselves in English, however, and have a good chance to get answered. Though only 1% of the Swiss population declare English as their mother tongue, everybody is aware how useful English is when traveling abroad or surfing the internet. Therefore English has become the first foreign language kids learn in most regions of Switzerland and most of them are eager to get at least elementary skills. So younger people usually understand and speak English better than a second national language they have to learn at school, too.

In the offices of some multinational companies in Switzerland English has even been declared as corporate language, especially if most of their customers speak English anyway. Sometimes even native Swiss people with different mother tongues (German vs. French or Italian) will use some English words as a common basis if neither of them can remember a direct translation.

Nevertheless, as an expat living in Switzerland you will definitely not be well informed about things going on in Switzerland as only a small part of the information available in German, French or Italian is ever being translated into English.

Why do the Swiss speak German, French, Italian and Rumantsch?

The Origins of Switzerland's Native Ethnic Groups

Switzerland is not and has never been an ethnically homogeneous nation. The first tribes settling in the region today known as Switzerland having left written historic records were the celtic Helvetians (some 2500 - 2000 years ago), speaking a celtic language and the Rhetians who where not Romans but have adopted the Roman language (Latin) before they left any written traces. While the Rhetians, living in the alpine valleys of southeastern Switzerland, were able to preserve their language (Rumantsch) and culture to our days, the original celtic population has left almost no traces in Switzerland except for a few geographical names.

In 58 B.C. the Helvetians attempted to leave Switzerland and to settle somewhere in southern France, but they were stopped and defeated by the Roman commander Julius Cesar. So they had to return to Switzerland under Roman administration. From the times of Cesar, a Gallo-Roman culture flourished all over western Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England and western and northern Switzerland). Generally speaking, River Rhine separated the sphere of the Romans and Celts from those of Germanic tribes dwelling in Germany and eastern Europe at the time.

But during the migration of nations around A.D. 400, several Germanic tribes, among them the Francs (hence: France) and the Burgundians (hence: Burgundy, a region in southeastern France) crossed the Rhine border. The Francs settled in northern France (around Paris), the Burgundians in western Switzerland and Burgundy (their capital being Geneva). These tribes negotiated agreements with the Romans and installed themselves as heirs to the Roman administration. So they also adopted the Latin language and culture.

Another Germanic tribe, the Lombardians (hence: Lombardia = northern Italy around Milan) settled in Italy and in the valleys of southern Switzerland geographically easily accessible from there. In the course of the centuries since, Latin dialects spoken in France / western Switzerland, Italy / southern Switzerland and Spain have developed into French, Italian and Spanish.

Groups belonging to yet another Germanic tribe, the Alamannen, infiltrated northern Switzerland while a part of the tribe remained in southwestern Germany (today known as Baden-Württemberg with capital Stuttgart). Contrary to the above mentioned tribes they were neither really interested in Roman towns nor in Roman culture, they settled in small villages and stuck to their Germanic language. Within two centuries they had established a clear majority of the population in northern Switzerland, however, while part of the Celtic and Roman population retreated to the west and to the south and the remaining Celtic population found themselves in the position of a minority.

The use of the Celtic and Latin languages disappeared in northern Switzerland (except, of course, for the use of Latin in church rituals and on documents, as generally everywhere in medieval Europe). In northern (German speaking) Switzerland, most geographical names indicate that the German speaking population had either founded these villages or at least had become the dominating majority in the early Middle Ages.

So the ethnic origin of the native Swiss population (that is, the population present before modern migration in the 20th century) is in any case some kind of melting pot:
 · Roman - Burgundian - Celtic
    in western Switzerland
 ·  Roman - Lombardian
    in southern Switzerland
 · Alamannic - Celtic - Roman
    in northern Switzerland
But nevertheless, from a language point of view, one of the groups has been absolutely dominating in every of these three regions of Switzerland for more than 1500 years.

In southeastern Switzerland the situation is a bit different. First the Rhetians who used to live in a larger area in eastern Switzerland were forced by the Alamannic immigrants to retreat into the alpine valleys of southeastern Switzerland during the 5th and 6th centuries. But up there in the Alps, climate was not so favorable and above a height of some 1700m (5500ft) above sea level they could not stay all year long. There was a natural climate change in Europe in the 16th century, however, and crops could be grown in higher areas than before. In this period people from the German speaking part of Switzerland established new settlements in the upper parts of the Rhetian valleys. That is why German speaking villages can be found in the upper parts of almost every valley in southeastern Switzerland.

Because the number of native Rumantsch speaking people is relatively small and half of them have migrated to the big industrialized cities in German speaking northern Switzerland anyway, Rumantsch speaking people learn (Swiss) German in their early childhood and are Rumantsch-Swiss German biligual.

Widespread Use of Swiss German Dialects

While using dialects is considered to be somewhat uncultered in other European countries, German speaking Swiss people are very proud of their regional Swiss German dialects - even business people use them in formal negociations and university professors when discussing scientific theories.

Learn more about
· Multilinguism and Multiculturalism
   myth and reality
· Swiss German dialects
   why German speaking Swiss
   still speak them in business life
· Rumantsch language
· Swiss people and their mentality
· Religions in Switzerland

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