The Swiss are renowned for their multilingualism. They seem able to switch effortlessly from one language to another, leaving mono-linguists incapable of comprehending how this is possible. And according to reports from the Federal Statistical Office the proportion of polyglots in Switzerland continues to increase.
In this post, we look at what languages are spoken and where in Switzerland. How English is being integrated as an unofficial 5th language and how English usage continues to develop in Switzerland.
Who speaks what language in Switzerland?
- Swiss German is spoken in the northern, eastern, and central parts of Switzerland and by 63 % of the population. This makes it the primary language in Switzerland. Its speakers refer to it as “Dialekt”, “Mundart”, or simply “Dütsch”.
- French is spoken in the western part of the country, known as the “Suisse Romande” and by 23% of the population. Four cantons are French-speaking. These are: Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel and Vaud.
- Three cantons are bilingual, speaking both German and French. These are: Bern, Fribourg and Valais.
- Italian is spoken in Ticino and four southern valleys of the Canton of Graubünden and just over 8% of the total population of Switzerland now speaks Italian.
- Romansh is the fourth official language of Switzerland and spoken by 60,000 people throughout Switzerland, 35,000 of whom call it their first language. This corresponds as being 0.5 per cent of the Swiss population, and mainly based in the canton of Graubünden.
Over 75% of the population of Switzerland aged 15 or over use more than one language on a regular basis.
- This is because they need these skills to communicate with each other, either in the workplace or across the four distinct language regions.
- The majority of the population of Switzerland now speaks German, followed by French, Italian and Romansh. Whereby Romansh is in decline as a language, and efforts are being made to ensure its survival.
- Around 60’000 people in Switzerland speak Romansh which is considered to be one of the oldest “Romance languages” in Europe. It was originally spoken by people living in Raetia during the Roman Empire’s rule over Europe.
Foreigners in Switzerland
- The most commonly spoken foreign languages (and not one of the official languages of Switzerland) heard in Switzerland are: English, Portuguese, Spanish, Serbian, Croatian and Albanian.
- If we add all of these language together, they outnumber both Romansh and Italian in terms of numbers of people speaking them.
- The use of English (not one of the four official languages) in the main cities has also increased significantly in recent years with the influx of foreign workers. In fact, English is regularly spoken now by 45% of the Swiss population – although this more widespread in the German-speaking part of the country than elsewhere.
- Many of the official governmental websites, especially those offering information on Switzerland also have English pages. For example the official website of the Swiss Government.
- The use of English words in business and everyday life by the Swiss has increased exponentially in the last few years. Internationally understood words such as “Computer, Manager, Deal, Know-how, Branding, Marketing etc etc” are used in Switzerland in their original form (although sometimes the pronunciation differs from the English version).
And just to confuse things more…there is “Swinglish”
What is also perhaps even most interesting is the way the younger generation of Switzerland (especially in the German part), “borrow” English words and use these in Swiss German sentences or sayings to create the hybrid language (dialect) “Swinglish”. Many of the words involve sport as an underlying theme. However politics, music & fashion, video streaming and technology all have a profound effect on how “Swinglish” has – and continues to develop.
Here some examples:
- Was isch jetz das für en neue schport? (Swiss German) /High German literal translation – What kind of new sport is that / English: What new fangled thing are you trying to do?
- Tschutte in Swiss German means “Football” in English although it is more aligned to the English word “Shoot.” A football match therefore becomes a “Tschuttimätsch”
- In Swiss German – Bish du ready? Simply means: “Are you ready”? in English
- Seen in a recent edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), a traditional Swiss newspaper, “Ein Cliffhanger beim Freihandel” (English: a free-trade cliffhanger).
- Swiss German: Wämmer eis go ziie? / English” shall we go and have a drink?
- Swiss German. Wämmer go ässe ? / English: Shall we go to eat?
- Swiss German: Hopp Schwiiz! / English “Go Switzerland!” (usually used at a sporting event).
The truth is, English words are used more and more in Swiss publications and in everyday Swinglish! That said “cross-pollination” also exists in English dictionaries, where many German words such as “Angst”, or “Schadenfreude” can be found.
Technology is changing the language landscape
Technology brought with it not only English terminology – der Web-Browser, die Email, das Cookie, surfen, chatten and many more, but with it, also access to international content. English is now much more accessible than it was a few years ago. And young people are much more exposed to English today, with the result that most young people in Switzerland today speak at least some English.
So what about the future? Will the use of English continue to grow in Switzerland both as a stand alone (5th) unofficial language or as inserts into Swiss German or even one of the other official languages of Switzerland?
The consensus seems to be that the influx of using English words in German (and perhaps the other official languages) will continue until the time that a possible backlash occurs, when people will want to go “back to basics”.
Having a language like English that is widely spoken in Switzerland, but with the vast majority of speakers of English being second-language speakers, the development of the English language is no longer in the ownership of native English speakers. This means of course that the language will develop in different directions and interpretations. So the question to ask ourselves is – how will young people in Switzerland converse in future? Will it be: “Do you want to go ässe? ” or “Wämmer go fooda?”
Swissroll GmbH was founded over 20 years ago. During this time our team of experts has worked with hundreds of companies and literally thousands of contractors. Beyond our core function of payroll management, we offer advice to contractors coming to work in Switzerland for the first time. This includes giving advice in French, German and English. Swissroll: “More than just payroll specialists” Contact us now on: email@example.com