Languages of Switzerland – A Polyglot Paradise?

I’d like a coffee please Oh, thanks. Hello everyone. And welcome to the Langfocus channel.
My name is Paul Today, I’m going to talk about
the languages of Switzerland. Switzerland is a fascinating country,
known for many things such as: the Swiss Alps, Swiss chocolate,
Swiss watches, Swiss banking, but it’s also known for being a multilingual nation
and a model of coexistence. Located at the crossroads of Germany, Austria,
France, Italy and Liechtenstein, Switzerland has four recognized national languages. Those are German, French, Italian and Romansh. Three of those, German, French and Italian are official
languages used by the state, but don’t assume that
everybody can speak four languages. Switzerland is a federation of 26 Cantons
which are like states with a high degree of autonomy. This federal type of government fits well
with Switzerland’s multilingualism. At the national level Switzerland is essentially
trilingual in German, French and Italian That means that, for state purposes, you can use any
of those three languages and those three languages
are used in Parliament and government offices. Romansh is recognized as a national language
but it’s not an official language of administration. Probably because there just aren’t
that many speakers of Romansh. The Swiss Constitution guarantees linguistic freedom
for speakers of those four national languages, meaning that they are free to use any of those
languages to communicate with each other
or with the government in their respective regions. Because Switzerland’s linguistic communities
are connected to specific territories, the federal government gives each canton
the right to choose its own official language That effects which language is used at school,
which language is used at government offices,
on radio broadcasts and TV, all of those sorts of things. And in the cantons that have more than one official
language, the canton grants each municipality,
the right to choose its own official language. That means that you sometimes have
one town with one official language
and the neighboring town with a different one. And there are even a handful of bilingual municipalities
that provide services such as schools in both languages,
depending on where you live in that municipality. Now, let’s take a look at each
of the four national languages. The most widely spoken language is German, specifically Swiss German which is spoken
by 5 million people or 63.5% of the population. And it’s spoken in the largest area in northern, central
and eastern Switzerland, as well as on the Swiss plateau
and part of the Swiss Alps. It is the official language of 17 cantons
and it is co-official in 4 more cantons. Swiss German does not refer to one unified language
but rather to a group of related alemannic dialects
that are spoken inside Switzerland. These dialects are not considered inferior to standard
German and they are used for all aspects of daily life
by basically all German speakers. Swiss German is generally unintelligible
to speakers of standard German but it isn’t eligible to some Germans who live across
the border in nearby areas who speak related dialects. And it’s also understood by people in Liechtenstein
as well as border areas of Austria. Aside from spoken Swiss German dialects,
there is also standard Swiss German, which is basically the same as
the standard German spoken in Germany. In Switzerland, it is the written language and all Swiss
German speakers learn the standard language in school. But basically in speech, they almost exclusively
use Swiss German dialect. As I said before, speakers of standard German
can’t really understand Swiss German. And that includes Swiss people who learn German
as a second language in school. That causes problems because, when they travel
to the German speaking areas, they find that the German speakers speak to them only
in Swiss German dialect and they can’t understand it. Well, why doesn’t the german-speaking population
make more of an effort to speak standard German? Well, according to some sources I’ve read,
that was actually happening but then,
when World War 2 broke out, the Swiss German population wanted to be separate
from Germany, they wanted to be distinct, so they started de-emphasizing standard German
and relying more on their spoken dialect. The second most widely spoken language is French
with 1.8 million native speakers or 22.5% of the population. The French-speaking region of Romandie is located
in western Switzerland on the border with France. The French language in Switzerland differs very little
from the French language in France. I’ve taken lessons with some teachers in Switzerland,
I noticed very little difference. For example the number 70.
In France, it’s “soixante-dix” (sixty-ten)
but in Switzerland its “septante” (seventy) Also, the number 90.
In France, it’s “quatre-vingt-dix” (“four-twenty-ten”)
but in Switzerland is “nonante” (“ninety”) Or the word for “breakfast”.
In France, it’s “petit-déjeuner” but, in Switzerland,
it’s “déjeuner” which means “lunch” in France And, in some areas, people use some German
loanwords in their French but basically
the differences are very minor. There are also some loanwords from Franco-provençal Franco-provençal is an unofficial regional language
in France and it is also still to some extent spoken in some
of the rural areas in Switzerland but it has mostly
become replaced by standard French. So, unlike the situation
of Swiss German and standard German, French speakers in Switzerland really have no problem
communicating with French speakers in France
or Belgium or elsewhere. The third most widely spoken language is Italian
with 645,000 native speakers or 8.1% of the population. It is an official language in only one canton called Ticino. And it is one of 3 official languages
in one other canton called Graubunden. Both of those cantons are on the southern border with Italy. Swiss Italian is very similar to standard Italian
and there really are no problems communicating between speakers of those two varieties
but there is a different kind of accent or intonation and there has been some influence of Swiss German
and French on the vocabulary, a little bit. And there’s been some influence of
the original Italian dialect of that area. Just like standard French has grown to replace
Franco-provençal, standard Italian has grown to replace
the original Italian dialect called Ticinese It is actually quite different from standard Italian
and it could be considered its own language. It is still spoken to some extent especially
in rural areas and by elderly people but it is basically being overtaken by Swiss Italian. The least widely spoken of the four national languages,
by a long shot, is Romansh. It has only 40,000 native speakers
or 0.5% of the population. There are immigrant languages that have more speakers
than Romansh. Serbo-croatian has almost three times
as many speakers as Romansh. It is an official language in only one canton and
it’s not the only one it’s one of three official languages. It’s that Canton Graubünden that I mentioned before. Romansh is a Romance language that developed
from the spoken Latin of the Roman Empire. But it was also influenced by the local Celtic
and Raetic languages of its region in Switzerland. It seems like a mystery why Romansh is even a national
language at all because so few people speak it. But think about this:
in 1939, Romansh was made an official language. That was right about the time when Hitler wanted
to incorporate all ethnic Germans inside Germany and Mussolini wanted to include
all ethnic Italians inside Italy. So Switzerland might have felt nervous about that
and decided to emphasize that they are a different country, a multilingual,
multi-ethnic country and they showed that
by making Romansh an official language. According to some sources I’ve read, that was the case. About 10% of the population speak other languages,
those people are mostly foreign workers or immigrants. The largest group is Serbo-croatians
with about 100,000 speakers. Non-swiss people often assume that Swiss people
are all quadrilingual, that they can speak 4 languages. But that’s rarely the case. Language use is highly decentralized and it differs,
depending on the region, the canton and even the town. Of course, Swiss people speak their own native language
but then, from the 3rd grade of elementary school,
they have to study a different national language. That’s usually French for German speakers
and German for everybody else. They also take English at school and, in high school,
they have to study a third national language. Most people say that they are not fluent
in a non-native national language but
that they can get by in one But people aren’t always very excited to speak
a different national language. I hear that French speaking Swiss people
don’t really like to speak German and vice versa. In the old days, they might have tried to speak
the other language but, these days,
some people just use English instead. English is becoming more and more important
in Switzerland because of globalization and because of the presence of
more foreign companies in the big cities. Many Swiss people, these days, speak English better
than they speak any of the other national languages. So some people want to emphasize English education
in school instead of other national languages. And basically make English the lingua franca
between the different linguistic communities. But some people don’t like that idea. They think that that undermines Switzerland’s
national identity and their multi-linguistic character. In the absence of a neutral lingua franca like English
or some other language, communication can be a tricky issue. An issue that’s different depending on the city and on the region. There are a handful of bilingual cities,
along the Röstigraben in Switzerland. The Röstigraben is basically the invisible linguistic
boundary between French speaking and
German-speaking Switzerland. In some of these bilingual cities, on one side of the river,
you have French-speaking zones and, on the other side
of the river, you have German-speaking zones. Cities like this are typically not integrated.
The schools are not bilingual. They have separate schools
with languages for the different communities. So, in a city like that, when you meet someone
from the other side, which language do you speak?
It’s always a tricky question. There are some multilingual cantons but sometimes,
they have disputes over linguistic policy or linguistic identity. And in one case, a whole new canton
was created to solve the dispute. The area of Jura was split off from the canton
of Bern in 1977 and became its own canton. That is because Jura was primarily French-speaking
while Bern was primarily German-speaking. But generally speaking the Swiss attitude towards
multilingualism seems to be one of peaceful coexistence with separate and distinct linguistic communities. That seems to be at the heart
of what it means to be Swiss. The only problem is everyone wants to speak their own
language and wait for the other side to bridge the gap. But, since all of the official languages are supposed to
be equal and no preference is supposed to be shown, then maybe a neutral lingua franca like English would be
the best way to unite the different linguistic communities. These days some cantons want to stop teaching
other national languages as second languages and focus instead on English
and make that the lingua franca. Do you think that is a good idea? Let us know in the comments down below
and we’ll discuss it. Thank you for watching the Langfocus channel
Have a good day.

100 thoughts on “Languages of Switzerland – A Polyglot Paradise?”

  1. It's funny because I'm Italian, I studied Standard French at high school and when I think about numbers, the Swiss ones are the first ones which come to my mind, because they're more similar to the Italian ones (E.g. 70: septante=settanta)! I love the way Swiss people simplified them! 😂

  2. English is a language that combines romance (French an Latin) with its Germanic base and is an ideal lingua Franca for German and French speaking Swiss as it combines elements of both languages into one. So it doesn’t feel completely foreign. Scandinavians and Dutch people feel at home speaking it as there are elements of Dutch and the Scandinavian languages in English so it a language that can be easily related to by non native speakers in Western Europe

  3. Allemanic varieties are a separate language, as lombard and as arpitan. They are unintelligible with german (which comes from 16th century sächsisch/ thuringian, with some influence of swabian allemanic dialects and from hannoverian low german).

  4. I met a couple once and had a VERY hard time figuring out what they were speaking. It sounded like everything and nothing. Later they told me it was Romansch -_-

  5. I really don't undertands how any who loves languages and linguistic diversity could want to promote English as a lingua franca.

  6. Great video! Just one comment: Standard Swiss German is similar to the standard variety of Germany but I wouldn't go as far as to say that it is "basically the same". It is a distinct standard variety 1. in terms of usage (mostly used in written language as you hinted at) and 2. in terms of lexicon, pronunciation, grammar and even orthography in some cases.
    Why is this important? Many Swiss people are not even aware that they have their "own" standard German. Studies show they consider their competency in standard German as inferior compared to speakers from Germany. This results in them abandoning their own standard variety believing there is just a single standard variety namely the German one. Due to the fact that – from a linguist's point of view – German is a pluricentric language with distinct standard varieties, it should be in the interest of all of us to speak up for every single one of them. Linguistic awareness and open-mindedness are important factors that contribute to mutual cultural understanding and transnational cooperation.

  7. Romansch should be the lingua franca. It's literally a bridge. and it's a dying language, it shouldn't disappear. Since Switzerland wanted to define its existence as a different country, one of multilingual distinction and many Romansch an official language in 1939 for that very reason, it's only logical that Romansch should be taught to everyone and used as a bridge language. But if that happens the Romansch canton should be incorporated into another I guess.

  8. At least from what I understand, all people in the federal government, at least in parliament, have to speak at least TWO official languages. I think they should all at least learn the basics of German, French, And Italian, and probably in that order, though they can just ignore their native language since that will grow naturally. Learning English is a good idea for anyone. If I didn't already know english, I would certainly be trying to learn it. I wonder how the media is in switzerland. I don't recall about germany, but they are known for dubbing things. I was surprised to find that denmark, and apparently the other scandinavian countries, DON'T! I saw rosanne in the US from time to time, and was surprised to find that Denmark, on one of its official channels, had rosanne ALSO! IN ENGLISH!!!!!!!! The only difference was that it had DANISH subtitles! I also at one point saw some shows with norwegian subtitles. Rosanne also wasn't the only US sitcome they had in Denmark, and I think ALL of them were simply subtitled.

  9. As a Swiss guys i think then it’s a goos idea to teach English in secondary school for a better communications between the Cantons and personnaly i always speak in English with all Swiss-German and them to, it’s more simple for all.

    Nice video

  10. I thought there was the Arpitan Languag which was one of the main languages in Switzerland, or is that a dialect of French?

  11. When I meet an high-Walser, I'll try to speak German by politesse. If he speaks French better than I speak German, we speak French.

    I prefer hear a bad french than good english

  12. I feel like having some sort of lingua franca is a smart idea to settle any disputes, whether it be English or otherwise. Not sure why so many people in the comment section are so against English. Other multilingual nations like Singapore use English and still maintain their cultural identity just fine. Not saying it should be English, but it's just something I've noticed.

  13. They should learn English but not as lingua franca– keep the national languages! Would be sad to have less people speaking those languages and eventually lose them!

  14. I think making English the lingua franca is a bad idea. English as a world language could grow on the cost of the national languages. On which second national language to focus should depend on the canton. In cantons neighbouring French-speaking cantons, skills in French make sense. If neighbouring an Italian-speaking region, Italian should be taught at first. Furthermore, French, Italian and German are of use for links to neighbouring countries. Graubünden is a special case as it has three languages in one canton. For Graubünden, I would propose Rumantsch as lingua franca as most parts of Graubünden has at some time been Rumamtsch-speaking. However, English should be taught earlier at school. In many countries, they teach a second language from the first year. Switzerland could teach a second national language from the first year and English from the third year. Students could get the option to choose a third national language later on.

  15. Many german Swiss, also speak italian language but they don't speak French, I don't know why?
    Je suis ne en suisse romande , a la ville d'Orbe mais je suis Espagnol, salut a tous les Suisse , tres beau pays.

  16. Very nice summary 🙂 Though, one part isn't really correct. Swiss-Germans are basically 100% capable of standard-german, and it's the spoken language in all education facilities. Maybe there are some words that you use in swiss-german you wouldn't use in standard-german, so it wouldn't be an inaccurate sentence, but it's rare that a swiss-german doesn't know the difference.
    And especially in Kanti(college), swiss-germans are exposed to very difficult, old-german books they need to read and interpret. Old romantic novels, written by nobles in the 17th century, or novels from the very north of Germany, where they are influenced by a heavy accent, so we learn very difficult terms and forms of pronunciation on a pretty high level, even for Germany. (I'm talking as a border-child between Switzerland and Germany). I mean it's almost ridiculous. One of those Books, for example, was written by Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher. (If you know anything about German philosophy, you'll know how incredibly hard it is, to read only one sentence.)

  17. I'm a swiss girl an my mother language is swiss german. My mom is from Portugal and so I can also speak Portuguese. In school I learn French, English and Italian and I need this languages for my job. As a train attendant I work with people and have to speak with them in different languages. Some of my friends speak Romansch and I would love to speak this language too. I can speak it a little bit but maybe one day I will learn more Romansch.

  18. I'm an anglophone from Quebec who's studied German for two years, and I am studying chemistry, so I've often thought about the possibility of working in Switzerland, since I'll speak two of the national languages decently, plus fluent english, and I'm an expert in one of the country's main industries, but I wonder how much knowing good standard german will actually help. How long does it usually take for standard german speakers to learn Swiss german?

  19. As an anglophone who grew up in Quebec, I've noticed that Swiss french is easier for me to understand than either Quebecois french or French french. To my ear, it seems to be the most neutral dialect.

  20. Also: Swiss German is influenced by french ^^

    Example: to park = parken in German
    parker (in French) = parkieren in Swiss German

  21. Native English speaker though I am, I do not support the use of English as an international "bridge" language. It isn't neutral, and it's orthography is atrocious! Instead, I support the international language Esperanto, which is neutral, plus is vastly easier to learn: phonetic spelling, complete regularity of verb forms, etc. Its being based primarily on Romance and Germanic roots would make it especially accessible to all Swiss peoples.

  22. One of the most polyglot people I know is my master's degree organ professor, who is Swiss. His first language is French, and he also speaks fluent German and Italian. Born in 1942, in his day the Swiss schools required study of classical Greek and Latin, which he says helped him in learning other foreign languages. He is also fluent in English, Spanish, and I have heard him speak Dutch and Japanese, and understand that he also learned at least some Finnish and Russian. He tells a story about how, in the 1970s, he was touring churches in Spain to visit and study historic pipe organs, at one church he met a cantankerous old priest who insisted that he spoke only Catalan and Latin, no Castillian Spanish… whereupon this Swiss organist proceeded to converse with him in Latin!

  23. thank you so much for such a wonderful episode. for someone who likes languages like myself, I find the paradise in this video 🙂
    In my humble opinion, I think what makes Switzerland special is the multilingualism, so If they depend on linga Franca like English no one will learn the other national languages. I see the solution in teaching 2 languages for the kindergarten French and German for instance and secondly showing some tolerance and desire for integration

  24. In the only truly bilingual city Biel-Bienne everybody speaks both languages. Even immigrants learn both.

    One (1)
    Five (5)
    Ten (10)
    Ten-one (11)
    Ten-five (15)
    Five-ten-one (51)
    Seven-ten-five (75)
    Okay, that's not too bad…


  26. Last year I was in Switzerland and it was like a dream. People here truly have rights and politics and government is a mere subservient to the people's will
    Even in the air, utopia lingers

  27. Romansh is such an enigma, I'm privileged to have visited the area where it is very alive and well. It doesn't feel like an obscure thing, when you're right there. It's very present and real. Oh, and it sounds like a boring version of Italian. Xdd

  28. I have a Swiss friend from South East Switzerland. His native language is German but he speaks fluent Italian and even Romansh because he grew up in the vicinity of these languages. Funnily enough, his English is very poor. Maybe that shows why English as a lingua franca would be both unnecessary and unpractical.

  29. The French have always been more rigorous, indeed ruthless, in spreading their "standard" French to the regions than the Germans. Ever since Napoleon.

  30. I'm German and I can't understand a word of "Swiss-German". We sort of look down on it as the language of country bumpkins, which is a bit unfair and pisses off the Swiss no end.

  31. As linguistics lover I think Romansh could be the neutral lingua franca 😛
    btw If somebody can help me .. I'm looking for Swiss German books. Merci vielmal!

  32. Sans gêne, l'anglophone qui vient suggérer de faire de l'anglais la langue officielle de la Suisse quand elle n'y est la langue maternelle de personne.

    L'imposition de l'anglais partout ne dérive que de l'impérialisme culturel de Washington et Londres qui veulent une planète à leur image et se faire davantage d'argent en imposant aux autres de parler leur langue.

    L'anglais n'est pas une langue facile. Elle paraît simple parce qu'ayant été imposée partout elle est familière.

    L'esperanto, langue autrement plus neutre et rationnelle que l'anglais ferait mieux l'affaire comme langue internationale. Elle ne l'est point en raison de l'imperialisme culturel nord-américain et du snobisme des classes dirigeantes non-anglo-saxonnes.

  33. As a native English speaker from the US, the push to use English as a lingua Franca scares me a bit. English-speakers (especially here) already have an incredible degree of linguistic arrogance.

  34. Switzerland: Has 4 totally different official languages and is one of the best functioning countries in the world.

    Bosnia: Has 3 official languages which are actualy 99% identical in vocabulary and accent with a 100% same grammar, and is a mess of a country.

  35. As an American exchange student, I studied in Biel/Bienne. The city is bilingual, with most shops, and even my school, being bilingual. Most of the time, I would observe the Swiss Germans speaking German while the Swiss French spoke French to each other – two languages simultaneously! My neighbor, a Swiss German, married a Swiss French, and this was how they communicated with each other, and their children were raised purely bilingually.

  36. i am from swissgerman part of switzerland, if i find out a stranger is just visit us, i try to speak in english, or german, if they are living here, i speak swissgerman, so they can learn how we speak in this area….most foreigners are speaking swissgerman very well after few years….except germans….

  37. Lingua franca should be Latin, not just in Switzerlan but in the whole world,it is a dead language so it doesn't belong to anyone else , but still all european languages are connected to latin, english would not have the " hegemony over the world", it would be like in middle ages where latin was lingua franca.

  38. Yup, just chatted with a friend who moved back to Switzerland three years ago. They live in the German speaking part. She told me at 3rd grade they start English, in 4th grade French, and in high school they have a choice of Spanish, Italian, Latin, or Romansh. She confirmed when she visits the French or Italian speaking parts of Switzerland, they default to English 🙂

  39. So, if I'm considering moving to Switzerland, should I learn Standard German? Will I be able to get by in Switzerland speaking Standard, or would I need to learn Standard German and then learn Swiss German on top of that?

  40. Why this ugly english as lingua franca? After end of October english should have no further significance in Europe.

  41. I think they've got to keep their languages enfasis as now, it's part of their culture their accents, dialects and all, learn english is ok, but not replace their original languages and dialects. Maybe teach more the romance in other cantons as well

  42. Switzerland is like Belgium, it's existence doesn't make sense. It's literally formed from chunks of its neighbouring countries

  43. I am a native German speaker from northern Germany and I do understand Swiss German with ease. Maybe some Germans can't but these only pertains to Germans who can't even speak their own language properly.

  44. Maybe a lingua-franca should be constructed which is simple enough to learn, like Esperanto, and is a mix of Swiss German, Swiss French and Swiss Italian influences.

  45. Typical: English-speakers wanting others to learn English, even in territories where it's distinctly foreign like Switzerland.

  46. All in Switzerland speak Swiss German. French, Romansh and Italian are the second language in the parts. In the part where you say that you speak German, English is the second language. But all in Switzerland speak Swiss German. This is the official language.

    I know that. I life in south German and my mom came from swiss.

  47. Switzerland has official 4 languages not three.

    Romansh has been recognized as one of four "national languages" by the Swiss Federal Constitution since 1938. It was also declared an "official language" of the Confederation in 1996, meaning that Romansh speakers may use their language for correspondence with the federal government and expect to receive a Romansh response. (Although Romansh is split into several dialects, the federal authorities use the standardized version ("Romansh Grischun") exclusively.)

  48. Better if they stick to their own languages. Adding a foreign lingua franca will end in destructive results.

  49. Great research and presentation, Paul. Incidentally, language distribution in Switzerland ought to be broken down further into at least two domains – main language spoken at work and at home. The top 10 languages spoken at home in 2017 (source:, specifically in Switzerland were: German or Swiss German, French, Italian, English, Portuguese, Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Romansch and "Others". About double the amount of people spoke English versus Serbo-Croatian. Personally, I expect Spanish and English to be top contenders for a de facto lingua franca around 2050, given that a lot of people already speak them and that they are widely used in regions of the world with which Switzerland historically has had the most significant economic trade volumes. The Swiss on average are the mostly traveled citizens of all nations, so being open(-minded) to other languages is almost in their DNA. Last but not least: language barriers also exist within the "native" Swiss German speakers. There at least a dozen variations in Swiss German and the further the regions lie apart the less likely it is that people from each region share the same "language". The Romansh language features five distinct dialects: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter and Vallader.

  50. Your language is your horizon. Is it good to limit your horizon?

    I speak the swiss version of german, and I can speak some french. Every time I speak to someone of the french part of Switzerland, I use my french, so I can practice and hear the funny german the other person speaks.
    Sadly my italian is not fit for communication.

  51. Esos putos de Mussolini y Hïtler estan bien pinches chiflados . Mejor ni Italiano ni Aleman,que chingen a su madre. Ah ……ROMANCH!!……yeah yeah!

  52. "Allegra a touts" I,m Native portuguese speaker. Also speak italian and spaninsh.I can undestand, 90% of a simple text written in romansch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *