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Four Official Languages of Switzerland

Languages of Switzerland - Hape Bolliger  /
A few weeks ago, I came across quite an ignorant statement in the comments of a blog I'm following. Someone in all earnest claimed that there was no country on earth with more than one official language. I was dumbfounded. Haven't they heard of Canada* with English and French as official languages? Or maybe Finland*, where Finnish and Swedish are both recognized as formal languages? And what about Switzerland with not two or three but four official languages?

I decided to leave a short comment pointing towards the facts. After all, here was I - together with more than 8 million other inhabitants of Switzerland - a living witness to the different languages spoken throughout Switzerland. Besides, a quick google search would have brought up plenty of websites dealing with the issue of multilingual countries.

The Four Official Languages of Switzerland 

Switzerland is a country that unites several regions that are culturally and linguistically quite different from each other: the French speaking part, the German speaking part and the Italian speaking part. These three languages - German, French and Italian - plus Rumantsch which is spoken in a small region in the Swiss alps are the four official national languages of Switzerland.
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Guete Tag! - 74% speak (Swiss**) German 

The largest part of the Swiss population uses German (or Swiss German**) in their everyday public life with 74% of Switzerland's inhabitants speaking German on a daily basis. This does not necessarily mean that German is their mother tongue but rather that it is the main language they use outside their home when they are at school, work or during their free time. In fact, only 63.7% of people living in Switzerland consider German (or Swiss German) their mother tongue.

German is spoken in northern, central and eastern Switzerland and even some parts of western Switzerland where it overlaps with French. German is also used in all Rumantsch speaking regions.

Swiss German also comes in several quite distinct dialects. For a Swiss person, the different dialects are very recognizable and will allow them to almost immediately guess from which region someone originates. Some of these dialects are very popular - others not so much. The Bernese and Grisons dialects are generally considered pleasant or even sexy whereas dialects from Eastern Switzerland are disliked. There are social and historical reasons for this and sometimes it also reflects in the (superficial) attitude towards people from a certain region.

For a sample of spoken Swiss German, check this Swiss German weather forecast.

Bonjour! - 21% speak French

The second most spoken language in Switzerland is French. Almost a fourth of the population, namely 21%, uses French as the main language in their public life. Only a few less (19.6%) denote French as their mother tongue.

The French speaking part of Switzerland is also called "Romandie" and its inhabitants "Romands". It's culture is strongly influenced by French values and culture and at times it seems the Romands are more French than Swiss. These cultural differences certainly add to the diversity in Switzerland. Needless to say that the Romands identify very much as Swiss and virtually none of them would prefer to be living in France!

For a sample of French spoken in Switzerland, check this video about the Swiss accent.

Buongiorno! - 4% speak Italian

Italian is spoken in the southern region called "Ticino". About 4% of the Swiss population use Italian in their daily public life. The percentage of people with Italian as mother tongue is slightly higher at 6.6%. This is mainly due to massive immigration of Italians to Switzerland in the last century. Up to the 1990ies, Italians represented the largest immigrant group in Switzerland.

For a sample of Italian spoken in Ticino, check the 10 incomprehensible words of Swiss Italian.

Bun di! - 1% speak Rumantsch

Rumantsch speakers are the smallest group of people speaking one of the four official languages of Switzerland. Only 1% of the population uses Rumantsch in their daily life and only 0.5% consider Rumantsch their mother tongue.

There are five dialects of Rumantsch: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Putèr and Vallader. These are quite different in their spoken and written forms but a native speaker of Rumantsch can usually understand all of them. Someone who learned Rumantsch as a second language might have more difficulties. The formal version of Rumantsch used in public administration is called Rumantsch Grischun.

For a sample of spoken Rumantsch (and it's translation into Swiss German), check this video of Grisonian capricorns.

Hello! - Use of English

English isn't and has never been an official language of Switzerland and, yet, in 2016, 5.1% of people living in Switzerland considered English to be their main language***. This high number is mostly due to the increasing number of English speaking foreigners living in Switzerland and also supported by the great importance of English as an international professional and academic language

Since English isn't a recognized official language in Switzerland the Swiss public administration is not required to use it or provide services in English . However, since English has become the standard international language many procedures, documents and resources of public institutions in Switzerland (e.g. public administration, universities) are available in English as well. The growing number of English speaking foreigners living in Switzerland has

The growing importance of English in Switzerland is also reflected in the school system. In some cantons, English has become the first foreign language most students learn at school (replacing the study of French and German). This means that a large part of the Swiss population received English lessons as part of their mandatory schooling and has at least a basic knowledge of the language. Most who go on to become professionals, e.g. in the tourism or trading industry, or study at a university are required to improve their English to intermediate or upper levels. Thus, it is safe to assume that quite a large part of the population in Switzerland has a good grasp on English even if they don't use it on a daily basis.

Sign Language

There are about 10'000 Swiss people using sign language as their primary language. Just like in thespoken languages, there are three different sign languages for Switzerland: Deutschschweizer Gebärdensprache (Swiss German sign language) for the German speaking part, Langue de Signes Française (French sign language) in the French speaking part and Lingua de Segni Italiana (Italian sign language) in the Italian speaking part. 

Some cantons, e.g. the canton of Geneva, recognize the sign language as official language but on a national level the sign language are still lacking official recognition as national languages.

Other Minority Languages

About 20% of the Swiss population are foreigners and about 50% of people living in Switzerland have at least one parent who wasn't born in the country. The large number of migrants to Switzerland brings not only different cultures to Switzerland but also many different languages and dialects. The most commonly used minority languages are Spanish, Portuguese, Albanian and Serbo-Croation.

* Many countries throughout the world have more than one official language. Some formally recognize several languages as official (e.g. Canada, Finland, Switzerland) while others have an official language and several protected minority languages (e.g. Peru, Brazil). Check the List of multilingual countries for more information. 

** There is a debate to whether Swiss German is actually a language on its own or a simply a German or Alemannic dialect. The official language in Switzerland is German (i.e. High German or Standard German) but what is spoken in daily life is almost exclusively dialect (i.e. Swiss German).

*** In this study by the Bundesamt für Statistik people could select multiple main languages. Most likely, people who selected English also selected one of the four national languages as a second main language.


Sources for statistics: 
"All About Switzerland" by Mike G. Jud
"Sprachliche Praktiken in der Schweiz", Bundesamt für Statistik, 2014
"Ständige Wohnbevölkerung nach Hauptsprachen in der Schweiz", Bundesamt für Statistik, 2016
"Die zehn häufigsten Hauptsprachen der ständigen Wohnbevölkerung", BFS, 2018 
"Sprachenlandschaft in der Schweiz", BFS, 2015

Source for Rumantsch:
"7 Fakten über Rumantsch",, 2018

Source for English:
"Fremdsprachen: Sprache, Beginn", EDK, 2018

Source for Sign Language:
"Gerhörlose fordern Anerkennung für Schweizer Gebärdensprachen",, 2018



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