We've got four official languages that are spoken in Switzerland; three of them belong to the most important languages in Europe: 64% speak German, 20% French, 6.5% Italian, and 0.5% Rumantsch Grischun (Romansh), and all have the right to address the federal assembly in their own language. So…
However, we have no written language of our own, except for Rumantsch Grischun (Romansh), which is only spoken by 0.5% of the population. And even that is debatable, since it is shared with parts of Northern Italy.
Italian and French do not differ much from the languages spoken in France and Italy, whereas Schwiizertütsch (Swiss German dialect) sounds more like an extraterrestrial gibberish to Germans and Austrians, and is extremely hard to learn for non-German speaking people.
Even though Switzerland is multilingual, it doesn't mean that all of us speak all four languages. Each canton decides which additional language is added to the curriculum and when. Most likely, Swiss Germans add French as their first language to learn at the age of 9, and the French and Italian speaking population German. As far as I know, only Graubünden adds Italian as well. The canton of Zürich discussed to forgo French and Italian in favour of English as the first language since it is used more and more in our global world.
The difference in languages could easily deepen the rift between our regions. Interestingly enough, we manage to get along quite well, even if we quarrel amongst us and keep the 'Kantönligeist' (a deep regional attitude) alive. Although the French and Italian speaking population are culturally more influenced by their foreign neighbours than by the Swiss Germans, in the end, they cherish their otherness and independence too much to truly divide our nation.
The language borders overlap. Some cantons are bilingual: Fribourg/Freiburg, Berne/Bern, and Valais/Wallis, even parts of Basel/Bâle. Graubünden/Grigioni/Grischun is the only trilingual canton, though Rumantsch is hardly spoken by anybody else but the Rumantsch themselves.
So, why has Swiss German not managed to become a written language, for example like Dutch?
For once, each region - even each town or village - speaks their own distinct dialect. Nobody is willing to give it up in order to find a common written Swiss German language. We cherish our own dialect way too much and identify ourselves with our own region more than we do with Switzerland itself.
The need for a uniformly written German came with the reformation in the early 15th century and has practical reasons. The bible, and later newspapers, literature, schoolbooks, political statements and so on were meant to be read and understood by everyone - translating them into different dialects would have been an impossible task.
While most Germans accepted the written form as their spoken language too, the Swiss did not. We stubbornly continue to use our dialects in private and business conversations, even in schools and universities when discussing non-language related issues.
However, Patois - a Franco-Provençal language - is a very distinctive dialect that is still spoken (not written) in rural areas and is not easily understood - if at all - by the French.
French is exclusively spoken in the cantons Geneva, Jura, Vaud and Neuchâtel; bilingual cantons are Fribourg/Freiburg, Berne/Bern, Valais/Wallis and parts of Basel/Bâle.
The Francophone Festival is an annual event around March 20 that celebrates particularly the French language and population in Switzerland.
Written Italian in Switzerland is the same as in Italy, with a few exceptions. But again, they are minor and easily understood by the standard Italian speaking population.
The dialects on the other hand - Ticinese - can be as different as Schwiizertütsch (Swiss German) from High German. The more isolated the community, the more distinct the dialect, which is hardly understood by the Italians. The Luganese (people living in Lugano) prefer the standard Italian language, whereas people in Locarno prefer their own dialect.
There are five different idioms spoken:
Since 1982 they are tied together with a standardized version - Rumantsch Grischun - used mostly for correspondence with official authorities. Rumantsch speakers though prefer to use their own dialect as written language. The official version did not gain acceptance by the population. To bridge the language barrier between the idioms, they use more and more German words or even speak entirely in German with each other. They are the most savviest when it comes to learning languages: They learn German already in Kindergarten and most of them easily pick up an accent free Italian and French as well.
They are proud of their heritage. The saying goes:
"Tchi che sa Rumantsch, sa dapli" - "If you speak Rumantsch, you know more."
The largest community of Rumantsch speaking people outside of Graubünden can be found in Zürich (Turidg in Rumantsch) due to migration for work.
Want to hear how Rumantsch sounds? Here's a medley of different idioms (with a little German sprinkled in):
If you are interested in learning more about Rumantsch, Wikipedia is a good source.
9% are speaking languages other than the four national languages of Switzerland: The largest groups being Serbo-Croatian (1.5%), followed by Albanian, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Macedonian, Turkish and Kurdish.
More and more students from foreign countries study in Switzerland. There are 38 international schools and Swiss Universities offer at least one master's program in English. ETH Zürich and the University of Neuchâtel, followed by the University in Lucerne offer the most programs in English.
Not everyone understands or speaks English in Switzerland. No worries though, if people you speak to don't know English they will direct you to someone who knows the language. And if not, don't hesitate to speak gibberish, after all, not all of us know or speak all four official languages so we are used to speak with hands and feet.
English is used more and more in advertising nation-wide and some expressions creep into everyday use amongst the young population.
In some companies, English is spoken as the first language, especially if their clientele is mostly English speaking, or - as it is the case at CERN and the Untied Nations Headquarters - if the workforce is made up of people that speak many different languages.
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