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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Here’s what you need to know about languages in Switzerland

What percentage of people in Switzerland can speak three national languages fluently? How many native English speakers are there in the country? And what exactly is Romansh? Here is what you need to know about languages in Switzerland.

Here's what you need to know about languages in Switzerland
File photo: Depositphotos

Switzerland has four main languages.

Switzerland has four so-called national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, which is spoken by an estimated 60,000 people, mainly in the south-eastern canton of Graubünden. More on that below.

All official Swiss documents must appear in German, French and Italian while the Swiss government also uses Romansh when it is communicating with Romansh speakers.

German is the country’s main language.

German is the chief language for around 63 percent of the Swiss population, down from 66 percent in 1970. It is the main language spoken in large cities including Zurich, Bern and Basel.

A copy of the classic tale The Little Prince in the Swiss German dialect of Bern. Photo: AFP

But it is important to realise that while Swiss people use standard (or ‘high’) German in written communications, they actually speak one of large number of dialects collectively known as Swiss German. 

READ ALSO: Swiss German tips and quirks – your introduction to ‘Dialekt’

These dialects can vary markedly from region to region although they are generally mutually intelligible so that someone from the canton of Valais in the southwest can still understand someone from St Gallen in the northeast despite some different vocabulary and different pronunciation.

There is no official written form of Swiss German, although you will sometimes see dialects written down, as with the version of the classic tale The Little Prince in the photo above.

French is on the rise.

French is the second most widely spoken language in Switzerland with just under one in four people (22.7 percent) using this language. It is the main language spoken in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura and is also on the rise. In 1970, only 18 percent of the Swiss population had French as their number one language.

READ ALSO: Eight reasons Swiss-French is better than French-French

There is little difference in the French of Switzerland and that of France, although there are some vocabulary differences and Swiss French sounds slower because of its longer vowels.

There are around 350,000 Italian speakers.

A further 8.1 percent of the Swiss population speaks Italian (down from 11 percent back in 1970). That’s around 350,000 people, chiefly in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and in Graubünden. Swiss Italian is influenced by German and French and there are differences that might throw people who have studied standard Italian. More on that here.

Switzerland also has a fourth language – Romansh.

Romansh is a Romance language of the Rhaetian people, who are thought to have arrived in the Alps around 500BC. Some 60,000 people are thought to speak the language. 

READ ALSO: 18 interesting facts about Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh

In 1982, the ‘standard’ language of Romansh Grishun was unveiled. Invented by a Zurich linguist, Romansh Grishun is the Romansh you will see on Swiss bank notes or in official texts, but it is actually a composite language based on five regional written Romansh dialects. The composite language remains controversial with critics saying it is artificial.

A petrol station sign in Romansh. Photo: AFP

Very few people are bilingual in Swiss national languages.

A 2014 study revealed that just 2 percent of the Swiss population are fully bilingual French and German speakers – although this figure climbs to 7.5 percent if you include people who use both languages on the street and at work.

For Italian and German bilingual speakers, the figure is 1.8 percent. 

And the number of people who trilingual speakers of German, French and Italian in Switzerland? This is just 0.2 percent, according to the 2014 study. But the study also found 1.8 percent of people use all three languages in their job or daily life.

There are four bilingual or multilingual cantons.

A number of Swiss cantons have two official languages. These are Bern (German and French), Fribourg (German and French), Valais (French and German) and Graubünden (German, Romansh and Italian).

There are also two bilingual German/French cities: Biel/Bienne and Fribourg (German and French).

Foreign languages have a large presence in Switzerland.

Just under one in four people in Switzerland do not have a Swiss national language as their native language. The most commonly foreign native language is English (5.4 percent of people in 2019), followed by Portuguese (3.7 percent) and Albanian (3.2 percent). English is therefore the fourth most common language in Switzerland.

READ ALSO: Nine German words that strike fear into foreigners in Switzerland

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SWITZERLAND EXPLAINED

Why are Swiss people among the happiest in the world?

Even though the news has been mostly depressing in the past two years, Switzerland’s residents have found the proverbial silver lining amid dark clouds. This is what makes them happier than residents of most countries.

Why are Swiss people among the happiest in the world?

For the 10th year in a row, Switzerland’s population ranks among the most content by the World Happiness Report, a publication of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network that draws on global survey data from people in about 150 countries.

In the just-released 2022 edition, Switzerland is ranked fourth globally, just below three Scandinavian nations: Finland (1), Denmark (2), and Iceland (3). Sweden and Norway are in the seventh and eighth place, respectively.

Switzerland’s neighbours, however, didn’t even make it to the top-10. Austria is in the 11th position, Germany in the 14th, France in the 20th, and Italy in the 28th.

Why is Switzerland rated so highly?

Clearly, happiness and well-being are subjective terms, inherent to each individual, and as such they can’t be measured scientifically.

“Our measurement of subjective well-being continues to rely on three main indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions”, the report said. “Happiness rankings are based on life evaluations as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives”.

Researchers used seven categories to assess each country’s contentment level: Dystopia (evaluating how much better life is in a given country in comparison to ones with bad living conditions); perception of corruption in a country; generosity; freedom to make life choices; healthy life expectancy; social support; and GDP per capita.

Switzerland ranks especially well —  (better than higher-ranked Finland, Denmark and Iceland) in terms of its GDP, and also in regards to how respondents view their overall quality of life and living conditions when with compared with other nations.

The “social support” category is also highly rated by survey participants, as is healthy life expectancy and freedom to make choices.

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It fares less well, however, in the generosity category (as do most countries) and perception of corruption.

Switzerland is no stranger to high scores (both positive and negative) in various international rankings, ranging from quality of life and competitiveness, to cost of living.

You can find more about those topics here:

Switzerland named ‘world’s best destination for expats’

Zurich ranked world’s best city for ‘prosperity and social inclusion’

It’s official: Switzerland is the world’s ‘most competitive’ country

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