Our translation services specialists know that most people see Switzerland as a country with majestic mountains, fine chocolate, and luxury watches. It is also a very complex and rich country in terms of culture, ethnic groups, and languages. The people of Switzerland speak French, German, and Italian – each with very specific dialects depending on the part of the country they live in.
So, what are the languages spoken in Switzerland? Is there a primary language that everyone uses, irrespective of the region they come from? In this article, we will discuss this language-rich country in detail. We will also tell you what part of Switzerland speaks French and whether you can get Swiss people to understand you if you only speak English.
How Many Languages Are Spoken in Switzerland?
Before we approach the topic of the official language of Switzerland, let us give you a few necessary details about this beautiful European country. Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons (a kind of self-administrating district) and each of them is linguistically influenced by the neighboring country they are closest to:
- North – Germany
- South – Italy
- West – France
- East – Austria.
Thus, we cannot really speak of a national Swiss language, but rather the most spoken language in Switzerland canton by canton. Let us now talk about them!
According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, as of 2021, 62% of the people of Switzerland speak German, mainly in the eastern and central cantons of the country. However, a German citizen would not understand them. The dialect spoken in Switzerland is called Swiss German, or, variously, Schwiizertüutsch, Schwiizerdütsch and Schwyzerdütsch. In some important cities like Lucerne and Zurich, the Switzerland language you are most likely to hear is Swiss German.
However, children learn Standard German (Schweizer Standarddeutsch or Schweizer Hochdeutsch) in schools, but Swiss nationals call it Schriftdeutsch, meaning “written German”. Thus, if you need a document translated into Swiss German, the language used by the Swiss language translator will actually be Standard German – the language used for business and in official documents.
There are, nevertheless, some small differences between Standard German as written in Switzerland (Schweizer Standarddeutsch), and Standard German as written in Germany (Standarddeutsch). To mention a few examples, the Swiss variant has done away with the ß and replaced it with ss, so that German Straße becomes Strasse in Switzerland; certain common words that are purely German in nature have been replaced by loanwords, most often from French:
Billett (Swiss)/Fahrkarte (German) – ticket (for transportation)
Velo (Swiss)/Fahrrad (German) – bicycle
Poulet (Swiss)/Hähnchen (German) – chicken
Jupe (Swiss)/Rock (German) – skirt
Other subtle variations abound. This is an important point when needing a translation into German specifically for the Swiss market or a Swiss audience. The selected translator should be a Swiss national or a German who has resided for a long time in Switzerland.
If you happen to visit Geneva, the official Swiss language you will mostly hear is French. And, if you know Standard French, you will do just fine. The Swiss version of the language spoken in the western cantons (by 22.8% of the Swiss population as a whole as of 2021) does not differ a lot from the language spoken in neighboring France.
You will notice a slower pace in speaking, which is actually great for tourists who speak French as a second language. They also use simplified versions of some words. For example, “ninety” in Standard French is quatre–vingt–dix (literally four times twenty and ten) – which is extremely complicated to remember. The Swiss people simplified it to nonante. This is much easier to say and write.
The people living in southern cantons (7.9% of the Swiss population as a whole) speak Swiss Italian. The language spoken in Switzerland is different from the Italian spoken in Italy, but it can be understood fairly easily.
However, the written Swiss Italian language follows all the spelling and grammar rules of Standard Italian.
Romansh (also spelled Rumantsch) has been spoken for centuries in the Swiss canton of Grisons (also known as Graubünden). It became a national language in 1938 and an official Switzerland language in 1996, despite the fact that less than 1% of the population speaks it. Since it is spoken in various valleys, it has developed five distinct dialects:
Other Languages in Switzerland
If you are wondering: do they speak English in Switzerland or any foreign language? – we have good news. Thanks to immigration, authorities added several new languages to the list of languages spoken in Switzerland. These are:
- 5.8% of the population – English
- 3.6% of the population – Portuguese
- 3.1% of the population – Albanian
- 2.3% of the population – Serbo-Croatian
- 2.3% of the population – Spanish
- 1.1% of the population – Turkish.
Do All Swiss Speak Multiple Languages?
Now that we answered the question: how many official languages does Switzerland have? – let’s tackle a new issue. Are all Swiss people multilingual? Or do they speak only the language of their canton?
The nature of Switzerland’s administrative system plays a huge influence on the distribution of languages in Switzerland. Each canton is completely self-contained. Each has its own educational, tax, and judicial systems – thus there is little need for different cantons to interact with each other at official levels.
This led to the development of Kantönligeist – describing the strong feeling of cantonal patriotism, combined with less than friendly feelings towards neighboring cantons. This feeling also reflects in the fact that people also stay faithful to the language spoken in their canton.
However, you will still find bilingual cantons – Bern Switzerland language includes French and German, just as Freiburg and Valais.
Is English Spoken in Switzerland?
We have already answered this question when it comes to immigrants. But do people in Switzerland speak English? The answer is yes, as it is the common language of business. At a certain point, authorities in Zurich even considered making English the first language in the canton, as it is so frequently used.
Areas of Usage of the Four Languages of Switzerland
What is the official language of Switzerland in the main cities and areas of the country? What do I need to speak to understand Swiss people? These are very frequent questions we get from potential clients, so here is the answer:
- German – spoken in the northern, eastern, and central cantons, including the cities of Zurich, Bern, and Basel
- French – spoken in the western cantons, including the cities of Geneva and Lausanne
- Italian – spoken in the south, including the cities of Lugano and Bellinzona
- Romansh – spoken in various valleys in the canton of Grisons.
Now you know which language is spoken in Switzerland from north to south and from east to west. But knowing what people speak in Switzerland is not enough – you will need professional assistance for document translation.
Let Our Specialists Help You With Switzerland Language Translation!
If you are looking for a competent Swiss language translator for any of the official languages in Switzerland, come to Pronto Translations. We have over 20 years of experience and offer over 300 language pairs for translation. We know the answer to what language the Swiss speak in various areas of the country and how it differs from the written language.
Our office is in New York, NY, so contact us whenever you need assistance with translations into any language in Switzerland: 646-984-4073!