Learning the language spoken in Switzerland? Hold my beer! This could be a bold statement for anyone new to Switzerland.
A mysterious smile appears on Switzerland's face. A challenge for immigrants and locals alike, Switzerland has not one but four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. In one of the most multilingual European countries, communication gets complex quickly.
What's the language spoken in Switzerland?
The geographic location of Switzerland in the heart of Europe allows for four official languages:
- Swiss German: about 63 percent of the Swiss population speaks this dialect
- French: 23 percent
- Italian: 8 percent
- Romansh: less than 1 percent
- English: the unofficial fifth language of Switzerland
However, only a few Swiss speak all four languages.
In most cases, the Swiss speak the language of the home region, learn another national language of Switzerland at school, and acquire English as a foreign language.
Some of the cantons are multilingual. In the cities of Biel/Bienne and Freiburg/Fribourg, it comes to a point where the official city names include two versions - in German and French. There, it is not uncommon to spot street signs written in both languages.
Why are there four languages in Switzerland?
Switzerland's diverse ethnic groups have historically preserved their unique cultures and languages due to the country's decentralized government. This has safeguarded centuries-old dialects, particularly in remote mountain valleys.
The country's linguistic diversity traces back to the Helvetians and Rhaetians, who spoke Celtic and Latin respectively, evolving into modern-day Romansh. The Gallo-Roman culture, Franks, Lombards, and Burgundians influenced Switzerland's French and Italian languages, while the Alemanni tribe's migration led to the Swiss German dialect.
Today, Switzerland officially recognizes German, French, Italian, and Romansh as national languages, protected by law. Quadrilingualism is a key part of Swiss identity. It exists alongside a decentralized political system. This system has successfully integrated a diverse population with multiple ethnicities and languages.
What are the official languages of Switzerland?
German, French, Italian, and Romansh are all official languages in Switzerland. This means official records and federal documents must be written in German, French, and Italian.
This includes banknotes such as this (now outdated) 100 franc bill:
Even product labels must be translated into at least one or all national languages of Switzerland. This helps protect the linguistic freedom of the local native speakers. For instance, Swiss military chocolate bars are labeled in all four official languages of Switzerland:
Romansh is not an official language of administration and is used more for communication within the language community. For example, Romansh speakers can receive an answer in their mother tongue when contacting the federal administration.
Despite the language variety, there are plenty of choices when it comes to media. National TV channels and local newspapers are available in all official Swiss languages, even Romansh.
German: The most widely spoken language of Switzerland
The main language spoken in Switzerland is Swiss German. Before you start bragging about your high German skills, the German spoken in Switzerland is a collection of unwritten Alemannic dialects that vary according to the region, city, valley, or even village.
Using dialects is often frowned upon in other countries in favor of a "clean" language. On the contrary, Swiss German, or Mundart, is extensively used via speech in everyday communication in Switzerland.
High German is the written language that Swiss nationals learn in school. It is used in public institutions and the media. No need to worry; any Swiss German speakers will understand your standard German. However, Schwiizerdütsch will initially sound odd to non-speakers, even to the Swiss who learn standard German as their second language.
The German-speaking part of Switzerland extends into northern, central, and eastern Switzerland, including Zürich, Bern, Basel, Luzern, Winterthur, and others.
Check out 10 essential Swiss German words and listen to how Swiss German sounds like when compared to standard German:
French: The language of Romandie
The second most popular language in Switzerland is French. It is spoken in the western part of the country, from Geneva and Lausanne to Valais and the Jura region.
The Swiss use the anecdotal concept of Röstigraben to draw the language barrier between French and German. This imaginary border symbolizes the cultural and political differences between German and French-speaking parts of Switzerland. Supposedly, the Swiss-German dish of Rösti is only eaten on the northern side of this trench...
Swiss French used to have dialects known as the Patois. Unlike Swiss German dialects, French in Switzerland has been standardized over the centuries due to the higher social prestige of "French-French."
As a result, the French language in Romandie has fully switched to standard French. Nowadays, only about two percent of the French-speaking Swiss in some parts of Valais, Jura, and the canton of Fribourg still know this dialect. (It is mostly the elderly population.)
There have been adaptations in the Swiss-French language, such as simplified numbers. (Thank you, Swiss people, for doing that!) Instead of soixante-dix, quatre-vingts and quatre-vingt-dix (70, 80 and 90), you can use septante, huitante and nonante in Romandie.
Learn more about the Swiss-French language and download our free list of Swiss French words.
Italian: Spoken on the sunny side of Switzerland
Italian is spoken in Ticino, the southern part of Switzerland that borders Italy. Also, residents of parts of canton Graubünden and the Gondo Valley in Valais speak Italian.
Major Italian-speaking cities in Switzerland are the capital of Bellinzona, Lugano, and Locarno. Most Italian-speaking Swiss use standard written and spoken Italian, yet Lombard dialects are still common in day-to-day communication.
The sound of the Italian language, in combination with the Mediterranean lifestyle and milder climate of Ticino, is a winning formula for getting that vacation feel right at your doorstep.
Romansh: The smallest of the official languages in Switzerland is equally important
To make Switzerland's language mix even more colorful, enter Romansh. It is a distinct Rhaeto-Romanic language (don't mix it up with Romanian.)
It was recognized as an official language of Switzerland in 1938. Only in 1996 did it gain the status of an official language of Switzerland. Romansh is spoken exclusively in the canton of Graubünden in eastern Switzerland.
With only about 60'000 speakers, Romansh is the smallest official language in Switzerland. Even several immigrant languages are more widely spoken than Romansh - there are six times more Albanian speakers in Switzerland than people that speak Romansh.
For the headache of some, the little language of Romansh has five different dialects called "Idioms." And some of these dialects even have related sub-dialects!
The fact that the tiny language of Romansh has managed to survive since 15 B.C., when the Romans introduced it, is rather incredible. It has failed to be standardized, though, and the closest to a consolidated Romansh dialect is the Rumantsch Grischun.
This is what the different dialects of Romansh sound like:
Languages of the foreign population in Switzerland
Finally, let's not forget that about a quarter of the residents in Switzerland are foreigners - one of the highest numbers among European countries.
English (5.8 percent) and Portuguese (3.6 percent) are the largest language groups spoken besides Switzerland's national languages. Serbo-Croatian (2.3 percent) and Spanish (2.3 percent) are also common.
What languages do you speak, dear readers?
Now that I have unveiled the myth of the official language in Switzerland, I hope this helps avoid some “Do you speak Swiss?” questions. You would not want to tick off the residents of this multilingual alpine nation accidentally...