Switzerland has four official languages, so what language do they speak in Geneva? French is the official language of Geneva, spoken with a Swiss touch of course. Let’s call it Swiss French.
What Is Swiss French?
Swiss French is the variety of French spoken throughout the French-speaking part of Switzerland. It is spoken by approximately 22% of the total population and is mainly found in the western part of the country. Furthermore, Geneva is the largest french speaking city in the country.
Aside from Geneva, there are three other French-speaking cantons (states), Jura, Neuchâtel, and Vaud.
However, there are also three other cantons that are bilingual and speak both French and German, these are Bern, Fribourg, and Valais.
In a bilingual canton, as well as hearing both languages, you will more than often hear a mix of the two.
Is The French Spoken in Switzerland Different?
This is arguable. Not by me, as my French pronunciation is horrible (but I try) and it is tricky for my ear to pick up the difference. But to the French ear, there is a difference, albeit quite small.
Again, each canton in Switzerland whether French, German or Italian speaking puts its own touch, accent, nuances etc on the language.
However, in regards to French spoken in France and French spoke in Geneva, the difference is minimal. So, if you speak French you will have absolutely no problem communicating in Geneva.
If we want to look into the details a little further, some French people say that the French spoken in Switzerland sounds slower.
But what happens if you don’t speak French?
What Other Languages are Spoken in Geneva?
If you don’t speak French and heading to Geneva, it’s no problem at all. Switzerland and especially Geneva is a melting pot of nationalities and you will find most other languages there.
Even though German is spoken more widely in the country, you will find hints of it in Geneva, but French is what matters. Sure, some inhabitants might speak it, but when in Geneva, speak French, well, try a little anyway.
However, only 60% of the canton’s inhabitants are Swiss. But, of the remaining 40%, you will find nearly 190 nationalities! So you can expect to hear nearly every major language spoken in the city!
Impressively, catching a train from Zurich to Geneva, apart from being visually stunning, will give you a good glimpse into the language skills of the Swiss.
How? Taking off from the station in Zurich, you will hear the conductor happily greet everyone in German. Often I’ll greet in German/Swiss German and then resolve to English, to which the conductor replies, in English.
But, once we cross the border, you’ll see the same conductor speaking perfect French and potentially Italian too, talk about linguistically talented!
Can you get by speaking only English?
Can I Speak English in Geneva?
Yes, absolutely you can. It is always best to try and speak a little of the local language, but you will get by speaking English, especially around the city itself.
And, like most major non-English speaking countries, you will find all restaurants, cafes, and shops all willing and able to speak English.
Also, when it comes to transportation and the Swiss trains being such a popular option, all ticket machines at the major stations will have English language options, a huge help.
Do I Need To Learn French Before Going to Geneva?
No, you don’t, but yes you should, well just a little anyway.
I have spoken about human connection, and making an effort in a foreign language is important for connection. Whether it is at a cafe, a hotel, or bumping into someone in the street, try a few language basics and immerse yourself in the culture!
Ok, so let’s learn a couple of basics, c’mon you can do it.
French Basics – I Mean Real Basics
French is tough, well for me. Although people say that French is easy to learn and compare it to the likes of Italian and Spanish, the accent can be difficult to nail.
Either way, let’s carry on.
So there are many Swiss-French nuances and phrases to be learned, but a safe bet is to speak French, normal French that is.
Hello – Bonjour
Hello or Good morning, said will a smile will help your pronunciation.
Pronunciation is like “bonjooor”
Thank you – Merci
Said in both the French and also in the German-speaking parts of the country, you can never use this word enough.
Pronunciation is like “Miersee”
Enjoy Your Meal – Bon appétit
There is a lot of amazing food in Geneva, you will be spoilt for choice. This can be said before having a snack with a friend or at the start of a five course feast.
Pronunciation is like “Bon-Arpatee”
Cheers – Santé
For the French, the word Santé is used to wish good health to the other person or people. With Geneva being home to some of Switzerland’s top wineries, expect to use this quite often!
Pronunciation is like “Sontay”
Goodbye – Au revoir
This is our last little French word to throw in your suitcase before trying to speak French in Geneva.
Pronouciation is “oh-revwahh”
Again, as with all of these words, just give it a go, you have nothing to lose!
Let’s Wrap it Up!
As you now know French is the predominant language spoken in Geneva, but you can get by with English on your trip. From a cultural perspective, try and learn a few words, it will help you connect with the locals and the culture of the city.
Also, if you are planning to travel through the city or actually anywhere in Switzerland, make sure you get a Swiss Travel Pass, it will save you a lot of money!
5 Fun Facts About Geneva
Want to know some fun facts about this international city, read on.
1. The Jet d’eau Was Not Supposed to Be a Fountain
Geneva’s famous fountain in the Lake of Geneva was never actually meant to be a fountain. In fact, in 1886 it was built to control and release the pressure of a nearby hydraulic plant! The citizens fell in love with it and it became a symbol of the strength of the city. The water comes out at up to 200km/h or 124mph!
2. Lake Geneva is The Largest Alpine Lake in Europe
Lake Geneva (officially Lac Léman) is oen of the highlights of the city. Surrounded by an incredibly mountainous backdrop and covering an area of approx 580 kilometers, it is truly breathtaking. It is huge and is 73km (45.3miles) long and up to 14km (8.7miles) wide.
3. Birthplace of The Red Cross
Yes, it is not American. The Red Cross was founded in Geneva back in 1863 and its headquarters are still there today. Does the flag look familiar? It sure does, it is a color flip of the Swiss Flag.
4. Home of Watches
Ok, so some will argue whether it is the home, as Zurich is a watch-obsessed city. What you can’t argue is that Geneva with the birthplace of Beautiful watches. Patek Phillip or “Patek” to its fans, created the first Swiss wristwatch in 1868. To this day you will find the Patek Philippe Museum where you can learn everything about watchmaking. If you are in Geneva and love watches, I highly suggest you check it out.
5. World Wide Web Creation
Did the Swiss create the web? Well kind of. In 1989 a scientist working at CERN by the name of Tim Berners-Lee came up with a revolutionary new way to link and share information. This was the starting point of web development as we know it today.