What Languages Are Spoken In Switzerland? (German, French, Italian, Romansh and...)

avatarMille Larsen
12 mins read

Switzerland is a country situated in the center of Europe. It's a land-locked country, but in stead of having direct access to the sea, it has its neighbors Italy, France, Lichtenstein, Austria and Germany. And the Swiss don't just share their borders with these countries, they share their languages too.

In Switzerland, there are four national languages, namely German, French, Italian and Romansh. While the Swiss-German dialect is very different from High-German, the Italian and the French spoken in Switzerland are close to the standard languages. Romansh, on the other hand, is a uniquely Swiss language spoken by a little over 0.5% of the Swiss population. Besides from the four national languages, English is widely used in business and education, and about 8 other immigrant languages have more than 10.000 speakers.

More precisely, around 60% of the Swiss population speak Swiss-German as their first language, 23% speak French, a little over 10% speak standard or High-German as their mother tongue, a little over 8% speak Italian and finally, as mentioned, 0,5% speak Romansh at home.

Why Do The Swiss Speak So Many Languages?

Switzerland is a small country of about 8.5 million inhabitants. That's a little less than the US state of Virginia.

Switzerland isn't much like Virginia, however. In a way, the country is better compared with the USA as a whole in that it's a federation, where each canton (state) has a high degree of independence.

In Switzerland, this has meant that the individual cantons have been "doing their own thing" for centuries. They're like small countries, and have differences, not only in languages, but also in culture.

Where they all agree, however, is on being part of Switzerland and apart from a short lived period with central administration, the Swiss have lived together peacefully for centuries. (The exception being Helvetic Republic which existed for 5 years between the 18th and 19th centuries).

So do all Swiss people speak all of the four languages? They don't, but almost everyone in Switzerland is multilingual.

Map of Switzerland with different linguistic regions marked in different colors. (Source: Wikipedia).

Depending on the canton people come from, they speak their mother tongue in addition to at least one other local language or sometimes two. In addition to that, most Swiss people learn English in school.

German is the only official language in 17 of Switzerland's 26 cantons.

These are Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Glarus, Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, and Zürich

French is the sole official language in four cantons: Geneva, Vaud, Neuchatel and Jura

French is co-official with German in three cantons, namely Bern, Fribourg and Valais.

As for Italian, it's the only official language int he canton of Ticino.

And then there's the tri-lingual canton, Graubünden, where German, Italian and Romansh are official languages.

So in other words: The fact that there are 4 official languages in Switzerland doesn't mean that all of the Swiss population speak 4 languages. It is very likely that they speak two or three however.

If you come from a canton that has more than one official language, you most likely speak the other language too, or for the case of the tri-lingual canton Graubünden, one of the co-official languages.

If you're from a canton that only has German as an official language, chances are that you also speak French, and vice-versa.

Add to that that most Swiss people also learn English in school, which makes for a country of several million polyglots.

The German Language In Switzerland (High-German And Swiss-German Or Schwiizerdütsch)

The majority of the Swiss population (about 60%) speak German as their mother tongue.

But what kind of German?

Switzerland is known in other German-speaking countries like Germany and Austria for it's dialect of the German language, known as Swiss-German or "Schwiizerdütsch"".

Swiss-German is not just one dialect, but several related dialects that all have one thing in common, namely being unintelligible to people who only speak Standard German.

The fact that there are several dialects of Swiss-German might also be why the language isn't a written one. The German-speaking people of Switzerland simply have never been able to pick one, standardized version of Swiss-German that they'd turn into the official written and spoken language of the German-speaking cantons of the country. This is why Standard German is a thing in Switzerland.

Despite most German-speaking Swiss people using a form of Swiss-German to communicate in their everyday life, Standard German is used for writing, education, politics, some media and other more "formal" things.

This means that most German-speaking Swiss people are, in fact, fluent in two forms of German.

Around 11% of the Swiss population are reported to speak Standard German as their mother tongue, however. Most of these are probably migrants from Germany or Austria.

To get an idea about the differences between standard "Hochdeutsch" and the Swiss "Schwiizerdütsch" watch the video below. In this example the Swiss-German dialect spoken is the one spoken in Zurich.

The French Language In Switzerland

The French-speaking part of Switzerland is called Romandy and consists of the cantons Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura in the Western part of the country, as well as the three cantons Fribourg, Valais and Bern where French is a co-official language with German.

A little over 2 million people speak French as their first language in Switzerland. That's close to 25% of the country's population. Many more (29%), however, speak French as a second language.

Where Swiss-German is quite distinctively different from Standard German, Swiss-French is much more in line with the French language spoken in other French Speaking countries.

There are slight differences, however, especially in cantons where German is a co-official language. In these cantons, many German loan words are used, which, on the other hand are uncommon in cantons such as Geneva.

Among other differences are the numbers. The French language spoken in France is infamous for its peculiar number-system that almost seems like you're doing a little math-equation every time you're saying a certain number.

Seventy is soixante-dix (sixty-ten) eighty is quatre-vingt (four twenties) and ninety is quatre-vingt-dix (four twenties-ten). In Swiss-French, these illogical numbers are replaced with septante (seventy), huitante (eighty) and nonante (ninety).

Finally, some people say that the French spoken in Switzerland is spoken a little slower, dwelling a little longer on the vowels while pronouncing than it's the case with the French spoken in France. This might be another influence from the German language.

It's also worth mentioning Arpitan, (which is also known as Romand, Franco-Provençal or Patois). Arpitan is a language closely related to French and sometimes considered in-between Langue d'Oïl (which is considered the ancestor of modern French) and Langue d'Oc (also known as Occitan).

While less than 16.000 speakers are left in Switzerland today, Arpitan used to be a common vernacular language spoken in Romandy, the otherwise French-speaking part of Switzerland, and the language probably also took part in influencing Swiss French.

The Italian Language In Switzerland

A little over half a million people in Switzerland speak Italian as their first language. That translates into about 7% of the population.

Most of the Italian speakers of Switzerland reside in the canton Ticino, which is the only canton where Italian is the sole official language, as well as in Graubünden where Italian is an official language along with German and Romansh.

The Italian language spoken in Switzerland is generally close to standard Italian, only with a few influences from French and German.

About 100.000 or a fifth of Switzerland's Italian speakers speak the Ticinese dialect, however. And some would argue that Ticinese isn't Italian at all.

In fact, Ticinese is a dialect, not directly of Italian, but of the Lombard language which was the main language spoken in Northern Italy before Italian really broke ground. Lombard has only recently begun being considered a separate language and not a dialect of Italian, and there's no denying the similarities from Italian. Yet there are distinct differences too.

For an example of the Lombard language (not specifically the Ticinese dialect of Switzerland, but two Italian dialects) have a listen to the video below:

The Romansh Language In Switzerland

Romansh has been a national language of Switzerland since 1938 and an official language since 1996. It's spoken by as few as 44.000 speakers as a first language and by a little more than 60.000 people in total, mostly in the canton of Graubünden where it shares an official status with Italian and German.

Romansh is by no means a dialect of any other local language in Switzerland. It is in fact a separate language from the Romance branch of the Indo-European tree of languages by its own right, next to other languages of the Romance family such as Spanish, French, Italian and others.

Romansh does, however, have a lot of loan-words from German and even the syntax and grammar has been influenced by Germanic languages.

While Romansh isn't spoken by many, it is seeing a positive trend since it's been made an official language in the canton of Graubünden.

And while Romansh is a small language only spoken by a few, it still exists in different variants. At least five dialects of Romansh is spoken in Graubünden. These are the Vallader, Puter, Surmerian, Sutselvan and Surselvan dialects.

For an example of the Romanch language, have a look at this video:

The English Language In Switzerland

English is relatively widely spoken in Switzerland as a second language (or should I say third, fourth or fifth language?)

According to this report around 40% of the Swiss population use English regularly in their daily life. It would be safe to assume that a lot more people have a basic command of the language.

Switzerland is a nation well known in the world of international business, and this might be one of the reasons why English is so common as a foreign language.

Add to that that a lot of native English speakers live permanently in Switzerland, making up for close to 6% of the population. (In other words, there are 10 times more native English speakers in Switzerland than there are Romansh speakers, and almost as many as there are Italian speakers.

While most expats going to live in Switzerland for work or other reasons end up learning one of the official languages, some rely on English in their everyday life, and in Switzerland, this is, in fact possible, at least in the big cities.

The Portuguese Language In Switzerland

A quarter-million Portuguese speakers live in Switzerland. This is almost 4% of the Swiss population and a very significant number. Especially when you take Portugal's relatively small population of 10 million into consideration. (That's one in forty Portuguese).

Most of the Portuguese in Switzerland have come to the country as migrant-workers and have since settled for good. Especially during the financial crisis in 2008-2012, an important number of Portuguese migrated to Switzerland.

The Albanian Language In Switzerland

The Albanian language is very current in Switzerland, mostly due to immigration from North Macedonia, Kosovo and to a lesser extent, Albania during the 1990's and as an effect of the Yugoslav and Kosovo wars.

Close to 190.000 people in Switzerland, or 2,7% of the population spoke Albanian as their first language in 2015.

The Serbo-Croatian Language In Switzerland

Like Albanian, the Serbo-Croatian language is also represented in Switzerland because of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990's.

In 2015, around 160.000 people or 2,3% of the Swiss population spoke Serbo-Croatian.

The Spanish Language In Switzerland

As it was the case with the Portuguese, a large number of Spanish people migrated to Switzerland during the financial crisis in 2008-2012. Most of these settled down in Switzerland with the objective of finding a job.

About 160.000 Spanish lived in Switzerland in 2015, which is 2,3% of the Swiss population.

The Turkish Language In Switzerland

Since the late 1960's, Switzerland has received migrant workers from Turkey who have come to look for jobs and to settle down in Switzerland.

Today, close to 80.000 Turks live in Switzerland, which makes for around 1,1% of the total Swiss population.

Other Languages Spoken In Switzerland

Besides from the languages already mentioned, a large number of nationalities live in Switzerland today, and while most learn one or more of Switzerland's official languages every migrant group brings a language with it as well.

Apart from those already mentioned, the most widely spoken languages brought by migrants to Switzerland are the following:

  • Arabic, or a dialect of Arabic, which is a language spoken by 37.000 people in Switzerland or 0,5% of the population.
  • Russian, which is a language that has 32.000 speakers in Switzerland, making for 0,5% of the population.
  • Tamil, a language spoken by 31.000, or 0,5% of the Swiss population.
  • Polish, a language spoken by 25.000 or 0,4%
  • Dutch, which is spoken by 22.000 or 0,3%
  • Hungarian, which is spoken by 21.000 or 0,3%
  • Kurdish, which is spoken by 19.000, or 0,3%
  • Thai, which is spoken by 15.000 or 0,2%
  • Greek, which is spoken by 15.000 or 0,2%
  • Czech, which is spoken by 14.000 or 0,2%
  • Romanian, which is spoken by 13.000 or 0,2%
  • Chinese, which is spoken by 12.000 or 0,2%
  • Slovak, which is spoken by 12.000 or 0,2%
  • Persian, which is spoken by 11.000 or 0,2%
  • Macedonian, which is spoken by 11.000 or 0,2%

Additionally 11 languages are each one spoken by 0,1% of the Swiss population, and several other languages are spoken by fewer.