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What Languages Do They Speak in Switzerland?

Answering the question "What is the official language in your country?" is easy in most places around the world. But if you ask someone from Switzerland, well, things get a bit more complicated. This is where the counting and explaining come in.

Switzerland is renowned for its top-notch quality of life, perfect infrastructure, and environmentally-friendly outlook. The key to the Swiss success and harmony might be in the level of diversity in this country. After all, the country has four official languages.

Not one, or two – four! 

The four official languages are German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Each of them is spoken in different regions. This makes it a dream for any international student!

Not only are university programs offered in various languages, but it makes everyday communication easier. Four times easier, you could say! 

Let’s take a closer look at the languages and the regions they are spoken in.

German

Swiss German is spoken in the northern, eastern, and central parts of the country, and is spoken by 63 % of the population, making it the primary language in Switzerland. Its speakers refer to it as Dialekt, Mundart, or just Dütsch.

However, if you decide to study in one of the Swiss German-speaking cantons, you should know that this language also has a range of different dialects. Therefore, it can be rather tricky to understand if you are used to speaking standard German.

But don't let this discourage you! Standard German is still used for formal correspondence, in books, and in the newspaper, which makes things a bit easier.

Swiss German, on the other hand, is a collection of Alemannic dialects no longer spoken in Germany or Austria, peppered with a whole lot of French expressions. The Swiss Germans take pride in the diversity of their dialects.

You’ll find the same words being used differently in Zurich, Bern, or Basel. Again, no need to worry, when in doubt, politely ask for clarification! 

If you're thinking of studying in one of the German speaking cantons, check out these other interesting facts about Swiss German.

French

Swiss French is the second most popular language in Switzerland. It is spoken mostly in western Switzerland, covering the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura. Despite the name, there is very little difference between the French spoken in Switzerland and that spoken in France. 

Some do claim that Swiss French sounds slower, due to its longer vowels. This is good news for speakers of standard French as they won’t encounter any difficulties chit-chatting with locals from the French-speaking areas. Another advantage for French speakers is that the popular travel destinations, such as Lausanne and Geneva, are entirely French-speaking. 

Italian

Swiss Italian is the language spoken in the canton of Ticino and the southern part of Graubünden (Canton Grigioni). This part of Switzerland boasts a unique blend of Swiss and Italian culture, which is just one of the reasons to visit and study here.

Known historically as Lombard, Swiss Italian is spoken by about 350,000 people. It is also influenced by German and French, so some differences might be confusing if you studied or speak standard Italian. Don’t worry, though; you might still manage to communicate pretty well.

Romansh

The final piece in this Swiss linguistic treat is Romansh. With only 37,000 speakers, it is the language with the fewest speakers in Switzerland. But that doesn't mean its history is any less rich!

Like Italian and French, Romansh is a Romance language. In 15 B.C., when the Romans conquered the province of Rhaetia, their language was influenced by that spoken by the native people. This unusual combination created Rumantsch.

Although not very famous outside of Switzerland, Romansh is used in governance, education, and is spoken freely as a community language. While there are different dialects of Romansh, a linguistic consensus was used to create the language used today.

What's even more impressive about this language is the fact that it survived into the 21st century. Now, that would make for a compelling linguistic study!

How does this translate for international students?

As an international student, you can use the multilingualism of Switzerland to your advantage.

For starters, there are numerous Swiss banks, companies, and political organizations looking for people fluent in one of the official languages.

If you are more comfortable in English, then we also have good news for you! The Swiss are taught to be multilingual from an early age, and most of them are fluent in English. Not only can you pick programs in different languages from prestigious Swiss universities, if you ever get lost on your trek in the Alps, don’t worry - chances are someone will be able to help you out in a language you understand.

If the fantastic nature and the fact that language is not a problem has put Switzerland on your study destination list, make sure to check out the admission requirements so you can adequately prepare.


Further reading

 The Importance of Language Learning

 4 Clever Tips to Help You Learn a New Language


About the author

Study in Switzerland is a comprehensive resource on studying in Switzerland. It aims to give prospecting and current international students an insight in studying, the cost of living, and the eventual challenges they might face. The advice, tips, and resources will make your studying in Switzerland unforgettable and the process easy.

Last update: 02 Jan 2020

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