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Living in Switzerland

Difficulties & Differences through Switzerland’s Language Diversity

Switzerland’s culture is characterized by diversity. With four national languages, this comes as no surprise. But how does this multilingualism affect Switzerland as a nation? Find out more about Switzerland’s different language regions and cultures in our guide!

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At a Glance:

  • Switzerland has four distinct language regions and some cantons are bilingual or even trilingual.
  • Röschtigraben is a term to describe the political and cultural differences between the country’s German-speaking part and the French-speaking part.
  • Switzerland’s fourth national language Romansh is only spoken by around 35,000 people — a number that is steadily decreasing.

A Short Historical Overview: Switzerland and Its Four Languages

The linguistic boundaries of Switzerland started to develop after the departure of the Romans in the third century. The Germanic Alemanni conquered northern Switzerland and brought their language — a forerunner of today’s Swiss German dialects — with them. In western Switzerland, the Burgundians adopted the language of the local Gallo-Romans and it didn’t take long until the different versions of Patois were replaced by standard French. The other regions of the country (Rhaetia and Ticino) kept their Latin-related dialects, which eventually developed into Romansh and Italian.

These different territorial dominions are the reason that four national languages are spoken in this relatively small country: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. The languages German, French, and Italian are the official languages of the Confederation and all federal documents must be available in these three languages. However, Romansh is also used by the federal authorities for correspondence with Romansh speakers. In April 2016, German was the main language for around 64.9% of the population, French for 22.6% of the population, and Italian for around 8.3%. The least spoken language is Romansh, with only 0.5% of the country’s population regarding it their main language.

Although Switzerland is a multilingual country, this does not mean that every Swiss speaks all four national languages. Nonetheless, many Swiss people do speak at least one additional language, since learning another national language is on the educational curriculum. German is the first foreign language taught in French-speaking regions while French is the first foreign language in German-speaking regions. In Ticino, French has priority while Grisons gives a choice between German, French, and Romansh. Furthermore, English is taught as a second foreign language (in a few cantons even as first) as well.

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The More Languages, the Better: Bilingual and Trilingual Cantons

There are three cantons in Switzerland that are officially bilingual: Fribourg, Berne, and Valais. The official languages in these cantons are German and French. In Bern, the German speakers form the majority of the canton, whereas in Fribourg and Valais it’s the French speakers. Even though most of the people in these cantons are in fact bilingual, the two language communities coexist. There are also two cities that are officially bilingual: Fribourg/Freiburg and Biel/Bienne.

The canton of Grisons is even trilingual: German, Italian, and Romansh are the languages spoken by the local population. More than half of the people living in Grisons have German as their mother tongue, whereas the rest either speaks Italian or Romansh. In school, the children can choose whether they want to learn German, Italian, or Romansh as their first foreign language.

Swiss Culture and the Kantönligeist

The cantons in Switzerland are very autonomous and have their own authorities. Therefore, education, tax systems, and much more is different in every canton, which can get fairly complicated. The Swiss even have a word for this phenomenon: Kantönligeist (cantonal patriotism). This slightly negatively connoted term refers to the strong federalism in Switzerland and that every canton has its own culture, history, and identity.

The average Swiss has a strong feeling of belonging towards his or her home canton, especially in the German-speaking part; rather than calling themselves just Swiss, they are Zürcher, Basler, or Berner (a person from Zurich, Basel, or Bern). Therefore, Kantönligeist is sometimes also used to describe the attitude of inhabitants from one canton towards people from another.

Swiss German: The Dialect No One Really Understands

The so-called Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German) is another variety spoken in Switzerland. Swiss German is nothing other than an Alemannic dialect, which is spoken in Switzerland and some alpine communities in northern Italy. Nonetheless, it really differs from High German and is hard to understand and harder to learn, even for other German-speakers. Contrary to other Alemannic dialects or regional languages, Swiss German is used in practically all situations in daily life. High German is only used in a few settings: in school, where children are taught in High German and also learn to write it, in the news, in official federal communication, as well as in the presence of a non-Alemannic-speaker. 

To make the Switzerland’s linguistic situation even more complicated: every canton speaks its own Swiss-German dialect. This means that every canton, and sometimes even every town or village, has its own distinct variety. And the Swiss-German speakers are very proud of their “language”. When moving to Switzerland, be prepared for extensive discussions about the different dialects: they are an essential part of the culture.

Switzerland’s Invisible Language and Culture Barrier

A term you will definitely come across while living in Switzerland is Röschtigraben or rideau de Rösti (Rösti ditch). The name refers to a potato dish, which is especially popular in the German-speaking part of the country. It is a humorous term to describe the undeniable dissimilarities, especially when it comes to votes, between the German-speaking and the French-speaking regions of Switzerland. Geographically, the Röschtigraben follows the Saane River running through the bilingual canton of Fribourg.

The first time the differences between the two language regions became particularly obvious in a political context was in December 1992 when Switzerland voted on joining the European Economic Area: all the French-speaking cantons voted for it, while the German-speaking cantons voted against. In general, the French-speaking region of Switzerland tends to favor governmental regulation as well as an active foreign policy. Nowadays, the Röschtigraben has lost some of its importance due to a growing divide in political views between urban and rural regions.

There is also a term referring to the cultural and political differences between the German-speaking region and the Italian-speaking canton Ticino: Polentagraben (polenta ditch). The canton Ticino has very strong traditional values and an even stronger viewpoint regarding immigration. The term is not quite as common as Röschtigraben, though.

The Struggle of Preserving Romansh

The Romansh language is a descendant of the spoken Latin language of the Roman Empire and is predominantly spoken in the southeast of the canton of Grisons. Due to the natural barriers of the Grisons Alps, Romansh can be further divided into no less than five different regional dialects: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter, and Vallader. Each of the dialects even has its own standardized written from.

Until 1850, Romansh was the most spoken language in Grisons but since 1880, the number of German speakers has steadily increased. Nowadays, there are around 35,000 Romansh speakers in Switzerland and all of them are bilingual. Furthermore, there are more than 100,000 people saying that they at least understand the language. Nonetheless, the language is on the decline, not least of all due to the ubiquity of the German language and a strong influence of English. This is further exacerbated by a tendency toward a rural flight to bigger cities, especially among the younger population.

The institution Lia Rumantscha tries to preserve the culture and identity of Romansh and offers information on the Romansh language, culture, and courses on their website.

Rumantsch Grischun: The Solution for the Romansh’s Decline?

To prevent a continuing decline of Romansh, there were several attempts to create a unified version of the language and in 1982 a project to create a standard language called Rumantsch Grischun was launched. This artificial language was created by choosing the most common forms found in most of the three strongest dialects: Sursilvan, Surmiran, and Vallader. In 1996, the canton of Grisons decided to use Rumantsch Grischun for official communication when addressing all Romansh speakers.

However, the “new” language faced strong resistance. The opposition argued that the culture and identity of Romansh could only be transmitted through the regional dialects. Today, Rumantsch Grischun is the official and administrative language of the Confederation and in Grisons when it comes to addressing all Romansh speakers. However, in most of schools the instruction language is still the respective regional dialect.

Updated on: December 06, 2018
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