The Country of Babel?

Languages in Switzerland

Switzerland—at about half the size of South Carolina—is a very small country, even by European standards, and a good portion of that area is uninhabitable mountain terrain. languages in switzerlandNevertheless, within its boundaries, Switzerland offers a unique linguistic diversity. There are four official languages in Switzerland—German, French, Italian, and Romansh—and then there’s the inofficial, but very prevalent language of “Denglish,” a mix between German and English. Generally, the four languages are localized in a specific part of Switzerland: German in the central and northeastern part, French in the western part, Italian south of the Alps, and Romansh in the Canton of Grisons in the mountains. Because the different languages are somewhat divided along certain natural boundaries, they are not represented equally. About 67% of the population speak German, 23% French, 9% Italian and 1% Romansh. To complicate the situation even further, the language SPOKEN in the German-speaking part is not German, but Swiss German, a fairly distant relative of German. But because Swiss German is not written, actual German—“High German”—is the official language.

So how does a country function when its language changes every time you drive for more than two hours from anywhere inside the country in any direction? Surprisingly well, actually. Swiss kids grow up with the awareness that anybody they encounter in their daily lives may not speak the same language they do. They see and hear two or three languages almost every day: inside trains and buses, on food packaging, in stores and advertising etc. The three official TV stations of Switzerland—SRF in German, RTS in French, and RSI in Italian—can be received anywhere in the country.  As a result, Swiss children grow up with a natural curiosity and acceptance of other languages. By law, all official texts and publications have to be in German, French, and Italian. By law, representatives in the federal houses of Parliament have the right to address the assembly in any of the official languages. Also by law, children have to be taught at least one of the other official languages of the country, as well as an additional foreign language in school. Most Swiss school-age kids today learn English as their additional foreign language, which makes sense, given that most of the music they listen to is in English. This accounts for the pervasive presence of “Denglish” in Swiss culture. Many English words are integrated into the native languages, either straight-up or in a cannibalized version.

It occurred to me that the best way to illustrate Swiss multilingualism and the frequency of different languages in Switzerland was to provide some examples from a recent contest sponsored by “Swiss Milk” (note: this nationwide organization does not use ANY of the official languages in its name!). The contest asked Swiss schools to submit poster entries for the 2014 “Day of Milk”. To make things a little fairer, three age categories were offered: 1. – 3. grade;  4.-6. grade;  7.-9. grade.

The 1.- 3. grade category received seven official entries: 4 from predominantly German-speaking schools (57%); 2 from Italian-speaking schools (29%); and 1 from a French-speaking school (14%). Two of the entries did not have any text. Of the five entries with text, 2 were in German (40%), 1 in Italian (20%), 1 in French (20%), and 1 multilingual in German, French, and Italian (20%).


The 4.-6. grade category featured 39 entries: 27 from predominantly German-speaking schools (70%); 10 from French-speaking schools (25%); 1 from an Italian-speaking school (2.5%); and 1 from a Romansh-speaking school (2.5%). Two of the posters did not use text. The remaining 37 entries had the following language breakdown: 20 in German (54%); 9 in French (24%); 2 in Swiss German (5%); 2 in English (5%);  1 multilingual (3%); 1 in Italian (3%); 1 in Romansh (3%); and 1 in “Denglish” (3%).


The 7.-9. grade category received 35 entries: 19 from predominantly German-speaking schools (54%); 14 from French-speaking schools (40%); and 2 from Italian-speaking schools (6%). Four entries had no text, but of the remaining 31 entries, 13 were in French (42%); 10 were in German (32%); 4 were multilingual (13%); 2 were in Swiss German (6%); and 1 each was in English and in Italian (3%).


While these figures and percentages are not scientifically exact or necessarily representative of the language situation in Switzerland, they do show some interesting trends. First of all, the French-speaking schools, across all age groups, almost always used French on their posters if they used text. Second, of the 6 multilingual entries, 5 came from German-speaking schools. Both of these facts suggest that the German-speaking students are more comfortable with different languages than the French native speakers. Interestingly, the older students from German-speaking schools also seem to be less apprehensive about using their spoken native language—Swiss German—rather than High German, even in written form. The following example uses a combination of Swiss German and “Denglish.”


It is interesting to note that the figures in general run fairly parallel to the general distribution of the various languages in Switzerland and actually seem to reflect the multilingual “Babel” that is Switzerland quite well. It is rather impressive how easily many Swiss people—particularly younger and more educated citizens—can switch from one language to another. If you happen to visit Switzerland and have some free time on your hands, just sit in a café somewhere in a larger town—it doesn’t even have to be Zurich or Geneva—and listen to the cacophony of voices around you. Chances are you will pick up at least two or three different languages, and that’s not counting tourists or foreigners living in Switzerland. This multilingual reality does not mean that people speak any of their non-native languages perfectly, but they learn to cope and they learn to make an effort, two important prerequisites for communication. With that in mind, dear Switzerland: “Babel on!” 

If you would like to see all of the posters submitted for the contest, check out the website of Swiss Milk and their “poster cow,” Lovely:


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