Each country in the world has its official language that depicts its identity. Unlike most countries having a single official language, Switzerland has declared four languages as its official languages. The speakers of these languages are present all around the country. People from different ethnicities live there. This is why Switzerland has earned the reputation of being a melting pot. Since people from different nationalities coexist here, they promote different languages when they mingle with each other.
Declaring the four languages – German, French, Italian, and Romansh – as their official language shows the country’s commitment to promoting and preserving the languages. Each of these four languages is popular in different parts of the country. People in the northern and central areas predominantly speak German. The western part speaks French. The south region has Italian as the main language. Similarly, only specific pockets in the Graubünden canton use Romansh for communication
Let’s have a Look at the Languages that People Living in Switzerland Speak:
Table of Content
- Swiss German
- Swiss Italian
- Linguistic Diversity in Switzerland
- Historical Challenges of Linguistic Diversity in Switzerland
- Debates on Mother Tongue Education for Immigrant Children
- Territoriality and Language Preservation
- Communication Hindrances and Language Competence
- Globalization and the Relevance of National Languages
- The Canton of Zurich’s Language Policies
- De-legitimization of Switzerland’s National Languages
- How Multilingual are the Swiss People
- Wrapping Up
60% of the population of Switzerland speaks Swiss German. These people are inhabitants of the Northern, Eastern, and central parts of the country. Local people of Germany called this language Schwyzerdutsch which is a collection of Alemannic dialects. The people of Germany and Austria don’t speak these dialects solely. Swiss German has different dialects which are common in the country. The important thing to note is that the Swiss-German that you can hear in Basel is different from what you hear in Zurich.
In many countries, different dialects of a single language don’t get due importance but in the case of Switzerland, people and authorities promote all dialects due to their popularity in the country. Because of the different types of dialects, Swiss German is difficult to understand. To solve this problem, you can take the assistance of Swiss-German translation services, Hochdeutsch in early school so that they can communicate with Austrians and German without any problem.
The Swiss children learn standard German, Hochdeutsch in early school and as a result, they can communicate with Austrians, Germans, and other German speakers without any trouble. In addition to it, as there is no universal written form of Swiss German dialects, the written style of all the books, newspapers, and law books is standard German. This is the reason why most Swiss German people call the standard German Schriftdeutsch which means German.
Swiss German kids don’t like to use traditional ways of communication therefore, they are including Swiss German dialects in the written forms, especially in informal situations like Facebook and WhatsApp. Observers note that if the communication is formal then there is a probability to use standard German if non-Swiss German speakers are around.
The other language that is spoken in Switzerland is French. Mostly, people living in the Western part of the country speak the French language. Approximately, 20 percent of the Swiss population includes the French population. In cities such as Geneva and Lausanne, the majority of people speak the French language. Therefore, if you are planning to visit these cities then you must know the French language and if you are unable to communicate in the French language then, you can take the assistance of professional translation services.
The Swiss-French and the standard form of French you hear in France are different just like German and standard German. Here are some of the characteristics of Swiss-French:
- Swiss-French has distinct vowel sounds and a unique accent. In comparison to the French hexagonal, Swiss-French has slower intonation and rhythm. People who speak French in Switzerland speak the language at a slower pace.
- The vocabulary of Swiss-French is rooted in a fusion of French and German phrases, expressions, and words. Some common examples include guggenmusik (carnival music) and raclonette (a type of cheese).
- The use of grammar in Swiss-French is also sometimes different. For instance, to negate a verb, Switch-French uses “ne” before that verb. Another example is the use of “on” rather than using nous (we). However, this difference does not apply to all contexts.
Approximately, 8.5% of the Swiss population speak the Italian language. Mainly the Italian language is mostly spoken in the Southern region of the country. It includes regions of the canton of Ticino, The Gonda Valley in Valais, and the Southern part of Graubünden or Grisons. In the area of Ticino, more than 20% of the population is Italian, Italian people also reside in another part of Switzerland and they have become citizens of this beautiful country.
Whether it is Swiss Italian or Swiss-French, Italian students can understand it easily. Many local dialects like Ticinese and Lombard Italian dialects which are spoken in Switzerland are very similar to Standard Italian. The only difference is because of loanwords that they have taken from Germany and French. If you are in Italy then, you can order cornetto. On the other hand, if you are in Switzerland, then you need to order Chafer. Swiss Italian distinguishes itself from other standard Italian by the loan words that they have taken from other languages. These are the phrases that are translated word for word from German and French.
Have you heard about the Romansh language? Probably not. It is one of Switzerland’s smallest national languages that gained official status in 1996. Approximately, 37,000 people living in Switzerland speak this language. Many tourists ignore this language while traveling to Switzerland. It is the official language in the South-Eastern district of Grisons. Here it is used in all operational activities. The important thing to note is that its speakers are from mountainous parts of Southeastern Switzerland. One question must be raised in our mind why this language is surviving in the 21st century, despite the great influence of Italian and German on Traditional Romansh-speaking areas?
Romansh is a Romance language that has taken many loanwords and syntax from German. Although the number of Romansh-speaking people is less, however, there are five different dialects of the Romance language that people use in their daily life.
Linguistic Diversity in Switzerland
Let’s explain the linguistic diversity of Switzerland in the following points.
1. Historical Challenges of Linguistic Diversity in Switzerland
There are different challenges related to linguistic diversity that was prevailing in Switzerland over the 150 years since the 1848 Constitution.
2. Debates on Mother Tongue Education for Immigrant Children
The first concern that the Swiss faced in linguistic diversity is not giving importance to the presence of immigrants that came from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Many people argued that migrant children should get an education in their mother tongue so that nothing hinders their cognitive skills and educational opportunities. This thing is still debatable along with various experiments that narrate the use of different languages as a medium of instruction at the preschool and elementary school levels. Such suggestions aim to preserve individual linguistic rights.
The second school of thought does not favor the traditional school of thought. And experts foresee that they will not fulfill their promises. Specifically, the invisibility of Italian and the deterioration of Romanche gave importance to territories. The Italian medium of education is important for Italian-speaking children in France and Germany that have come to Switzerland through immigration.
The second school of thought opposes the traditional viewpoint and predicts that it will fail to deliver on its promises.
3. Territoriality and Language Preservation
The concept of less territoriality is taken care of. Romanche is an uncertain language. Therefore, in the case of this language, Romanche is uncertain at best. One observation is that more territoriality should be given to more threatening language. To deal with the traditional way of dealing with linguistic diversity, the process should be made to control the Swiss people as citizens from their government.
4. Communication Hindrances and Language Competence
French speakers don’t get any competence in German to interact easily with German speakers. The people that speak the French language as a second language don’t consider communication hindrances in such a way. These observations are very complex. To check the authenticity of these observations, the Swiss National Science Foundation has undertaken many research projects. But time and space limitations prevent them from entering these considerations. One problem that is faced is the development of bilingual education where the local language was used as the medium of instruction for elementary and lower secondary school. It could be a long journey to create average competence levels in national as well as second languages so that they can contribute to inter-community relationships.
5. Globalization and the Relevance of National Languages
Discussion of languages is incomplete without globalization. With the increase of population, national languages are losing their relevance, in comparison to English. This shows that many people prefer to learn English as their first foreign language and they disregard the acquisition of another national language which is German in French-speaking Switzerland and French in German-speaking Switzerland. Several observations change the direction because the verdicts of cantonal authorities impact them.
6. The Canton of Zurich’s Language Policies
The authorities of the canton of Zurich, established in December 1997, are one of the top economic powerhouses. They talked about increasing the use of English in the compulsory school syllabus and reducing the use of French. The local people supported this notion. However, it created a problem in official circles. Therefore, a letter was sent to the commission in July 1998. It discussed the motivation to include a second language throughout Switzerland.
In any case, the letter endorses Zurich’s choices as they acknowledge English as an international language. In addition to it, they support nationalism which will remain a priority as a second language in the education system. This priority is not related to syllabus endowments; however, it results in language proficiency. Here the question arises of “how we can attain these results if we detach them from syllabus endowments”. If for any reason, these endowments prioritize the importance of English. This will create a problem of spreading English as a global language that can pose a threat to the cultural and linguistic characteristics of societies.
This is taken into consideration when you operate in other languages too, no matter if they are major languages or small minority languages. The insights that English is making in every aspect of our lives are a matter of concern in many non-anglophone countries.
7. De-legitimization of Switzerland’s National Languages
De-legitimization of the language also refers to the de-legitimization of the communities that speak different languages. This thing can be serious because it can hamper the socio-economic gap that carries major risks. Language boundaries do not impact political or religious boundaries. Therefore, they are free of economic connotations. In short, the German and French-speaking regions of Switzerland include rich and poor cantons of Switzerland.
The industrial and agricultural service sectors created a balance between the two languages in the Italian-speaking part of the country. These two languages are Ticino and Grigioni Italiano. Thus, there is no integration between language and social-economic conditions both at the micro and macro levels.
How Multilingual Are The Swiss People?
Some regions like Valais, Bern, and Fribourg are officially bilingual in French and German languages. In addition, the region of Garrisons is trilingual because it considers German, Italian, and Romansh as official languages. If you are in Switzerland, you don’t have to look hard to find its multilingual identity.
We can see the most obvious example of Swiss multilingualism in the numerous existences of global companies like scientific bodies, banks, and political organizations that have set their offices in Switzerland because of the multilingual workforce available there. The interesting thing is that multilingualism penetrates every aspect of daily life. If you visit a supermarket outside Zurich, you will find warning signs in German, French, and Italian language. Swiss people spend a considerable amount delivering these announcements in all four languages.
Swiss parents raise their children as multilingual from an early age. The children have to learn at least one national language with another foreign language which is English. These languages are necessary for all Swiss schoolchildren. However, this multilingualism can fall into adulthood. Unfortunately, if you are in one language area, you can rarely speak other national languages. Due to the highly delegated Swiss political system, it is easy to remain in one language.
Languages play a very important part in the culture of any country. To understand the culture of Switzerland, you must know the four official languages spoken there. If you are unable to speak these languages then you can take the assistance of successful translation agencies.