what languages do they speak in switzerland

What Languages Do They Speak In Switzerland? Really?

Heading to Switzerland? Off skiing or hiking? Or perhaps seeking out the best chocolate or cheese in the world and you’re wondering what language they speak in Switzerland?

There are four official languages spoken in Switzerland. In order of popularity, they are German, French, Italian & Romansh. But, don’t worry English, although not official, is widely spoken and understood.

So, why does Switzerland have four official languages?

Let’s find out!

Swiss landscape with river stream and houses

Why Does Switzerland Have 4 Official Languages?

This is what I love about Switzerland, they do what they want, well in a considered and diplomatic way that is. To understand why there are four languages in Switzerland you first need to understand the Swiss people.

Most European countries decided on one official language, the Swiss did not, as they are what is referred to as a “Willensnation” (German word).

A Willensnation refers to Switzerland being a nation of Will, the whole country is based on 26 states (well 20 full states & 6 half states, we’ll clarify this later) which are referred to as cantons.

These cantons have their own government, laws, and constitution. They are separate from one another, but each has the agreement to work together as one.

Back in history, these cantons literally had their own border and armies and different language dialects too!

These days you will find 4 official languages and many sub-dialects and different accents, Switzerland is an incredible country like this.

So, Where Is Each Langauge Spoken?

As you most probably guessed, there are different languages spoken in different regions. Switzerland, being a landlocked country, is influenced by the surrounding nations.

In the Northeast, you will find the German and Austrian influences. In the South, you’ll find Italian influence. And in the west, you will find the French influence.

You might have noticed I missed the fourth language, Romansh, derived from Latin, also called Grisons or Grishun. Romansh is the lesser known of the official Swiss languages and really only spoken in the canton of Graubünden by around 60,000 people.

The main language in Switzerland is Swiss German, it the most widely spoken language for the Swiss population and, occasionally you will hear it in the French Speaking part too.

Let’s break things down for you.

CANTON (STATE)POPULATIONOFFICIAL LANGUAGECANTON (STATE)POPULATIONOFFICIAL LANGUAGE
1. Zürich ( ZH)1,555,423German13. Appenzell ***71,602German
2. Bern (BE)1,043,132German, French14. Saint Gallon (SG)514,504German, Romansh, Italian
3. Luzern (LU)416,347German15. Graubünden (GR)200,096German
4. Uri (UR)36,819German16. Aargau (AG)694,072German
5. Schwyz (SZ)162,157German17. Thurgau (TG)282,909German
6. Unterwalden*81,628German18. Ticino (TI)350,986German
7. Glarus40,851German19. Vaud (VD)814,762French
8. Zug128,794German20. Valais/Wallis (VS)348,503French, German
9. Freiburg/Fribourg (FR)325,496French, German21. Neuchâtel (NE)175,894French
10. Solothurn277,462German22. Geneva (GE)506,343French
11. Basel **494,111German23 Jura (JU)73,709Jura
12. Schaffhausen83,107German
* Unterwladen consists of Obwalden (OW) & Nidwalden (NW)
** Basel consists of (BS) & Basel Land (BL)
*** Appenzel consists of (Appenzell Ausserrhoden (AR) & Appenzell Innerrhoden (AI
)
Figures courtesy of Wikipedia
speaking german in switzerland

Speaking German aka Swiss German In Switzerland, “Guten Morgen!”

As you can clearly see above, the German language is the dominant influence throughout Switzerland (19 states). Although the Swiss have made German their own language, welcome to the Swiss German dialect. The most widely spoken language in Switzerland.

What is Swiss German?

Swiss German is unique, very unique. Some love it, others can’t stand it. Personally, I think the language is cute, friendly and with a touch of “what did they say!?” mixed in.

The Germans don’t like it because they can’t understand it, and their language has been changed. On the other hand, the Swiss love it, as no one can really understand it and it’s somewhat of a secret language.

Basically, each German-speaking state has taken the German language and put their unique twist on it. The official language of German can be understood slightly by an English speaker, but Swiss German is another story.

It’s tricky to decipher.

To top it all off, Swiss German accents and dialects can differ hugely between cantons. So sure, you think you’ve got an ear for a few words, then you jump on a train and the conversation seems like a completely different language. Well, it kind of is.

Now, let’s dig into the other official languages of Switzerland!

Tschüessli! ( Swiss German for Good Bye)

french dog ready to travel switzerland

Speaking French In Switzerland, “Bonjour!”

French is the second most widely spoken language in Switzerland, with over 20% of the population officially speaking it (6 states).

Although, as I mentioned before. Many Swiss will speak French as a second language too. So you can be confident that if you are a French speaker, you will be ok in Switzerland, well mostly.

Much like the Germans being unimpressed with Swiss German, I’ve heard numerous comments from the French about Swiss French.

Why you ask?

Let’s dive in further.

What is Swiss-French?

Swiss French is a variety of French spoken by the Swiss population in the French speaking part of Switzerland. How is it different from normal French spoken in France?

Well, the Swiss have basically, over time, put their own spin on it, which includes changes in the vocabulary, accent, and expressions too.

Overall the French tend to say the Swiss-French is a slower, older style of French.

So, If you speak French, you can for sure communicate and understand the majority of Swiss French, but, listen carefully and be prepared for a few surprises!

Furthermore, have you ever seen SUI in the Olympics and wondered what country it stands for? SUI stands for Switzerland!

What about Italian?

speaking italian in switzerland

Speaking Italian In Switzerland, “Ciao Ciao!”

The third most spoken Swiss Official language is Italian.

Although it is an official language, only just over 8% of the population speak it.

You will find Italian being spoken in the Southern part of the country and across the alps.

Let’s just first talk about Italian. The Italian language is spoken by around 60 million people in Italy. With that being said, of these Italian speakers there are many different dialects and accents.

The Italian language spoken in Switzerland can be understood by Italian speakers, but it is somewhat of a dialect and will be confusing too.

Again, this is what makes Switzerland unique. Sure the languages have many similarities, but the culture is a different story.

The Swiss Italians inherit many Italian cultural traits and nuances, but at the end of the day, they are Swiss, we will discuss more about the culture in further articles.

However for those of you that speak Italian, you will be understood, you might just have to listen closely when you hear Swiss Italian and maybe ask for clarification or two!

Ok, so what about the last official language of Switzerland?

So, What is Romansh & Do I Need To Speak It?

Romansh is the fourth and final official language of Switzerland. It is only spoken in one state (canton) Saint Gallon (SG) by approximately 60,000 or less than 0.5% of the population.

This language is somewhat a mystery and you will rarely hear it spoken outside Saint Gallon. If you do hear it, you will be left wandering “what language is that?”

Romansh is a big part of the Swiss culture and is actively promoted by the government to assure it stays alive.

You won’t need to learn this language as most Romansh speakers also speak German and potentially a touch of English too!

So, do I have to learn a language before traveling to Switzerland?

romansh language in switzerland

Getting By In Switzerland – Language Basics

In short, as an English speaker, you will not have to learn any of the four official languages in Switzerland to get by.

English is prevalent in most places including airports, train stations, and a lot of restaurants, plus most Swiss speak it well.

Although learning a language and especially taking the time to learn a touch of the Swiss dialect (depending on the language) will let you learn and unlock the charm and secrets of the culture.

Language is all about human connection and trying to speak a language is fun (but slightly challenging), especially Swiss German!

However, once you have a couple of words under your belt, it will help you connect with the locals and immerse yourself in the wonderful culture.

Tschüssli, Adieu, Addio, Chau!

P.S Want to find out why Switzerland was not invaded by Hitler?

P.P.S If you’re planning to travel through Switzerland, it can be really expensive, make sure you read up on the Swiss Travel Pass, it can save you a lot of money.

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