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Switzerland home to more native English speakers than ever before

The number of foreign-language Swiss residents is on the increase, new data reveals.

Switzerland home to more native English speakers than ever before
Photo: AFP

Between 1970 and 2018, the share of people in Switzerland who speak a non-national language (German, French, Italian, or Romansch) increased sharply from 4 percent to 23 percent, according to data published by Federal Statistical Office (FSO)  on Thursday.

Among people whose mother tongue is not one of Switzerland’s national languages, English speakers make up the biggest share, at nearly 6 percent of the population.

FSO doesn’t specify where these English speakers come from, but about 43,000 British citizens currently live in Switzerland.

According to stats from Switzerland's Federal Statistics Office there are also around 20,000 US citizens in the country, 13,000 Indians, over 3,000 Australians and 7,000 Canadians.

Portuguese native speakers are in the second place (3.6 percent), followed by Albanians (3.1 percent), as well as Spanish, Serbians, and Croatians (2.3 percent).

The number of foreign language speakers has gone up in the past 50 years due to an influx of immigrants who are living in Switzerland on permanent basis.

Many came in the last two decades, after the government signed a treaty with Brussels allowing people from the EU countries to work in Switzerland.

Foreigners constitute nearly a quarter of Swiss population, or 2,1 million out of the total 8.5 million residents.

READ MORE: In Numbers – What do we know about Switzerland's foreign residents?

Germans, French and Italians make up the largest percentage of foreign population, but they are not counted in the FSO statistics as they speak one of Switzerland’s national languages.

The data also shows that the distribution of national languages ​​has changed over the past four decades. The shares of German, Italian and Romansh as the main language(s) has fallen, while the number of French and non-national languages ​​has increased.

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Italians ranked among worst in the EU at speaking English – again

Despite some progress in their foreign language skills Italians are still behind most other EU countries when it comes to speaking English, according to a new global ranking.

Italians ranked among worst in the EU at speaking English – again
How does English teaching in Italy compare to other European countries? File photo: Mychele Daniau/AFP

Italy's English proficiency is second to last in the European Union, going by how its nationals scored in language tests, with only Spaniards performing worse.

Italy ranks 30th out of 100 countries where English isn't a national language in the latest English Proficiency Index  from global language training company Education First, on par with Malaysia and well behind top-scoring countries in northern Europe.

The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Sweden topped the table, while Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq and Tajikistan scored lowest worldwide.

An extract from Education's First's 2020 English Proficiency Index.

Within the EU, Italy and Spain were the only two countries where English-language skills are classed as “moderate” rather than “high” or “very high”. 

And even though Italy has climbed the ranking compared to last year – when it came bottom in the EU and 36th overall – its two biggest cities performed worse than any other EU city included in the index. Even Madrid and Barcelona in Spain showed “high proficiency” compared to “moderate proficiency” in Rome and Milan, Education First said.

An extract from Education's First's 2020 English Proficiency Index.

People with moderate English skills should be able to make small talk, take part in meetings and write professional emails about subjects they're familiar with, the company says, but cannot necessarily read a newspaper, understand TV shows, give work presentations or communicate at an advanced level in social situations.

Italy has long lagged behind its neighbours in the index, with a lack of native-speaker teachers in public schools, lessons that focus on memorising grammar rules than practicing speaking and the tendency to dub foreign films and TV shows all cited as factors in why Italians struggle to perfect their English.


“The gap in English proficiency is particularly concerning because both Italy and Spain suffer from high rates of unemployment, particularly among the young, and could desperately use the new economic opportunities that faster, smoother communications with the rest of Europe would bring,” Education First said.

Its ranking is based on scores from more than 2.2 million English learners worldwide who took its free online language test in 2019. People who choose to take the test are probably interested in studying English, which means that people who already speak it to a high level are less likely to take part.