Switzerland is a fascinating country for many reasons. Did you know that it has topped the Global Innovation Index for ten consecutive years? Or that it is home to 7,000 lakes? When it comes to how many languages are spoken in Switzerland, the country also provides an interesting study.
As a translation agency, Tomedes has been working with the languages spoken in Switzerland for well over a decade. What language is spoken in Switzerland? Read on to find out! You can also explore our translation services to find out more about our linguistic expertise.
What do they speak in Switzerland? In fact, there isn’t just one official language spoken in Switzerland, but four! German, French, Italian and Romansh are all part of the Switzerland language map. Some 62.6% of the Swiss population speaks German; 22.9% speak French; 8.2% speak Italian; and 0.5% speak Romansh.
In this article, we’ll look at each language spoken in Switzerland in turn, as well as the history behind them. Let’s dive in!
The Official Languages of Switzerland
What are the languages spoken in Switzerland? As we mentioned above, the official languages of Switzerland include Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansh. Let’s explore each of them.
What language is mostly spoken in Switzerland? The most regularly spoken of the four official languages of Switzerland is German. This is split between the 58.5% of the population who speak Swiss German at home and/or the 11.1% who speak Standard German.
Swiss German is widely spoken across North Western, Eastern and Central Switzerland, as well as most of the Swiss Plateau and the larger part of the Swiss Alps. Tomedes has been providing English to German translation services to serve clients in these areas for the past 13 years.
Written Swiss German is incredibly similar to Standard German, though with a few notable differences. Swiss German, for example, doesn’t use the eszett (ß) but instead uses a double s (ss). There are, of course, differences in pronunciation and particularly when it comes to regional accents and dialects.
17 of Switzerland’s cantons have German as their only official language, meaning that it is an important language of both business and daily life in Switzerland.
French is spoken by some 22.9% of the country’s population, meaning that it is another of the main languages of Switzerland. It is spoken in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura. French speakers are also present in the majority German-speaking canton of Bern and in Valais and Fribourg, both of which are home to mainly French speakers.
Collectively, the French-speaking part of Switzerland is known as Romandy. Romandy is home to a total of 1.9 million Swiss citizens.
Italian is another of the four official languages of Switzerland, though the number of speakers has been in decline in recent decades. The percentage of Swiss Italian speakers has dropped from 12% of the population in the 1970s to around 8% today. A reduction in the number of people immigrating from Italy to Switzerland has been at the heart of this linguistic decline.
Swiss Italian speakers are largely located in the canton of Ticino and the southern part of Graubünden. Italian speakers can also be found in the Gondo Valley in Valais. In total, around 545,000 Swiss residents speak Italian.
A blend of the Vulgar Latin spoken by Roman conquerors and the native language of the Rhaetian people in the early first century, Romansh is today spoken by just 0.5% of the Swiss population. However, its status as an official language spoken in Switzerland means that Romansh speakers are entitled to use it to correspond with the federal government.
There are five major dialects of Romansh, which is an official language in the trilingual canton of Graubünden. Romansh Grischun is a simplified version of the five main dialects, which was created in 1982 in order to try and unify them and to preserve the language (to explore the differences between languages and dialects, you can click the link below).
The Swiss government is committed to preserving Romansh, with the Swiss Council spending over 7.5 million Swiss Francs per year on efforts to promote the language. There is a Romansh TV station, radio station, newspaper and even a contemporary Romansh hip-hop group.
Read more: What Is the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect?
All the Languages Spoken in Switzerland
There may be four official languages of Switzerland, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll only hear four languages spoken there. Indeed, the country is home to a range of minority languages.
Some 5.9% of the Swiss population speaks English natively, for example, while 3.7% speak Portuguese. That equates to around 470,000 and 255,000 speakers respectively.
Other languages that form part of the rich tapestry of the language map of Switzerland include Albanian (spoken by 2.7% of the Swiss population), Serbo-Croatian (spoken by 2.3%), Spanish (2.3%) and Turkish (1.1%).
Languages spoken by less than 1% of the Swiss population include Arabic, Russian, Tamil, Polish, Dutch, Hungarian, Kurdish, Thai, Greek, Czech and more than 20 other tongues.
In addition to living languages, Latin is also used in Switzerland for reasons of practicality. Using Latin for items such as coins and stamps avoids having to include the country name in on such items in each of the four languages of Switzerland. Thus coins are marked with ‘Helvetia’ or ‘Confoederatio Helvetica,’ while stamps have ‘Helvetia’ on them.
‘Confoederatio Helvetica’ is also why Switzerland has the top-level domain of ‘.ch’ as its country code on the internet.
Furthermore, many Swiss associations also use Latin in their names, so as not to favour one or other of the four official languages of Switzerland.
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Why Does Switzerland Speak More than One Language?
There are various historical, political and cultural reasons for Switzerland’s national linguistic diversity. In political terms, for example, Switzerland is really a collection of sovereign states that have formed a federal alliance. These regions came together to form modern-day Switzerland, but without a strong central government that enforced the notion of a single common language.
Many governments around the globe have used language as an important tool in conquering new regions, stamping out local tongues in order to enforce their own language policy. Switzerland has escaped such linguistic oppression, meaning that historic regional differences in language could peacefully coexist. This remains the case today and is a key region why there is not just one official language spoken in Switzerland but four.
So why are German, French, Italian and Romansh all spoken in Switzerland? As we touched on earlier, Romansh came about through the blending of Vulgar Latin with the native Rhaetian language back in the first century. But how do the other Swiss languages fit into the picture?
It is geographical boundaries that explain Switzerland’s linguistic diversity most clearly. German Switzerland covers central and Eastern areas, French Switzerland is to the west and Italian Switzerland is to the south and over the Alps. These historic languages have come together in modern-day Switzerland to create a culture that accepts diversity, rather than trying to impose a single Swiss language on the country’s residents.
Which Languages Should You Learn if You Were to Stay in Switzerland?
When you plan to visit a country, it’s only polite to pick up a little of the language before you arrive. If you’re planning to visit Switzerland, however, which language should you learn? Surely you can’t be expected to pick up phrases in four different tongues before you visit?
The answer lies in which region you plan to stay in while you’re in Switzerland. If you’re going to a German speaking region, then it’s time to brush off your German dictionary. If French Switzerland is your port of call, then French is the language to practice before you go. Of course, a decent translation app on your phone could also come in very handy.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that around two thirds of Switzerland’s population speak English as a second language, though with varying degrees of proficiency. If you’re planning to stay in Switzerland, therefore, as an English speaker you will at least be fairly well equipped to communicate with those around you.
Interestingly, English, just like Latin, is often used to bridge linguistic divides. This applies not only to verbal communication but also to official matters, with much Swiss documentation available in English as well as the country’s four official languages.
Official Written Language of Switzerland
Switzerland’s four official languages mean that those who live there have the right to communicate with the federal government in German, French, Italian or Romansh, and that the government is obliged to respond in the speaker’s own language (for the Romansh dialects, the government needs only to use the simplified Romansh Grischun).
Switzerland thus has four official written languages, though the main one – Swiss German – has no official orthographical rules. Latin and English are both used as supporting characters in this linguistic play!
Most Spoken Languages
The most spoken languages in Switzerland in terms of native speaker numbers are German, with more than 4.45 million speakers, French, with over 1.6 million speakers, Italian (nearly 600,000 speakers) and English (with just over 470,000 speakers).
While Romansh is one of the main languages of Switzerland due to its official status, it is actually only 11th in the country when ranked by the number of speakers. As well as German, French, Italian and English, Romansh is outranked in speaker number terms by Portuguese, Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Turkish and Arabic.
Multilingualism in Switzerland
Switzerland is known for its stunning landscapes, clean living, superb education system and low crime rate. Alongside the Nordic countries, it regularly places in the top three in lists of the happiest countries on the planet.
A partnership approach to everything from governance to schooling is behind this calm, measured atmosphere. This partnership ethos also applies to the country’s languages, hence each canton having the authority to operate in the relevant local language(s).
For those living in Switzerland, being surrounded by so many languages is a superb opportunity for multilingualism. A survey by the Federal Statistical Office found that 64% of Swiss people use more than one language at least once a week, whether for business or personal reasons. Of those using more than one language, 38% use two languages, 19% use three languages and 7% use four languages at least weekly, though that does not, of course, imply that the speaker is fluent in each.
In terms of business operations, the use of German, French, Italian and English are all commonplace in Switzerland. Romansh is also used, along with a number of minority languages. As such, there is regular demand for translation services between all of these languages, as national companies seek to engage consumers in each region of the country.
This means that translators in Switzerland have plenty of work to keep them busy! Whether they translate from English to German, German to French, Italian to Romansch or any other related language pairing, there is a long-term, sustained need for their services.
Tomedes has plenty of experience in working with Swiss corporate clients. Our talented, experienced translators cover a wide range of business sectors and regularly fulfil translation jobs for companies operating in Switzerland, as well as for Swiss companies that trade internationally.
If your business is in need of a translator in order to operate successfully in Switzerland, or to connect with Swiss consumers, then it’s time to talk to Tomedes. You can obtain a translation quote direct from our website, or else call, email or live chat with us to engage in a detailed discussion of your language-based needs. However you care to reach out, we’ll be ready and waiting to support you.