Dealing with the languages of Switzerland (or not)

Nestled in the centre of mainland Europe, huddled up against the borders of no less than five other countries (Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein since you ask), Switzerland itself feels rather like a country of several very distinct lands – squished together into one state with order, democracy and melted cheese as their glue.

Of course, different lands tend to have different languages and Switzerland is no different, offering up perhaps the most disparate assortment of tongues anywhere in Europe if not the world.

Languages of Switzerland - Going Neutral Swiss blog

Photo: dotbenjamin (

For starters, there is no single Swiss national language. That fact alone gives you a hint of what’s to come. In fact, this wee country of just under eight million folk (roughly 20% of whom are immigrant étrangers like myself) touts no less than four official tongues.

 The 4 languages of Switzerland

Here, where we habitons in the sunny South Western corner of La Suisse (known as Suisse Romande), if you wander outside the house you’ll hear French being spoken. This is largely the same as lingo as you’ll hear across the Jura in France itself, only it tends to be spoken rather more slowly here (“thank goodness!” us learners remark) and with a few notable linguistic exceptions which will no doubt be the topic of many future posts.

Head South East and after a few hours of winding your way around immaculate mountain roads you’ll arrive in Ticino, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. Or ‘Italy: the organised version’ as my wife puts it.

Before we arrived here in 2008 – the missus having bagged a bread-winning career on the shores of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) – we spent an overly-optimistic hour geeking out over Google Maps, trying in vain to work out whether we could indulge my pasta obsession by living in Italian-speaking Switzerland and her commuting to work. Sadly the pesky Alps get bigger the more you click on Zoom, so we eventually concluded that a one-way commute of three hours plus was probably pushing it.

Travel up North and around 45 minutes’ drive from the shores of Lake Geneva you crossover into Swiss-German territory, where I work. Contrary to the thinkings of some ignorant foreign folk (my younger self included) this region is in fact in no way politically or geographically linked to Germany. Neither does its language hail from Deutschland. It is however a world of spoken change from Suisse Romande, where tricky French liaisons (word endings that run over into the next word) and throaty Parisian R’s disappear to be replaced by, to my mind at least, an indecipherable melange of monster-sized nouns, positionally-challenged verbs and bile-shifting throaty grunts.

First spoken before proper (or I should say, ‘high’) German was apparently even invented, Swiss German is only a spoken language – there simply is no official written version. This means your average Swiss German speaks one language (Swiss German) and writes another (High German), though the latter usually with less confidence than a Deutschlander person might display.

Bringing up the rear, demographically at least, with by far the fewest speakers in total, is Romansh. This Swiss tongue is spoken by just 1% of Swiss natives (around 70,000 people) in a place we’ve yet to reach – Far East Switzerland. Specifically the canton of Graubünden, where the Davos Economic Forum is held. Frankly I’ve no idea how Romansh sounds but from what I’ve read (see References below) it’s best described as sounding like Italian with a Swiss-German accent. To find out for sure, our drive from Lausanne would take over four hours, meaning this education will occur only when we’re feeling brave and have saved up for a full tank of petrol.

On top of all this mind-bending variation (and this, don’t forget, in a country only 2.5 times the size of Yorkshire, or in US-speak a touch bigger than Maryland), all Swiss I believe also learn English at school. Of course they have varying degrees of success with this, but generally the results are highly impressive. While a Swiss person might not feel they speak it well, and you might have to coax them into trying with dark chocolate and schnapps (or, in my case, butchering their native tongue beyond measure), when they do let rip with the Queen’s best they usually put us native speakers to shame. They really shouldn’t be so humble.

The wonder of work

So from an aerial point of view, peering down at Switzerland, it’s all very alphabet soup. But what about in on a more local level, such as in the office?

Well, it’s more of the same. And while this is at first confusing, then comes acceptance. And after that respect. Lots of it.

Picture the scene: I am talking to three Swiss colleagues who are hovering around my desk (I like that, it makes me sound rather important).

– I start to speak in English, as is my want.

– A Geneva-born colleague responds and, without her even realising it, her remarks soon segue into French.

– My Swiss-German colleague next chips in, in English once more as she’s more confident with this language, up until she reaches a word she can’t remember. Instead she announces this in German, glancing at me with an overly optimistic expression on her face (this approach never works – if it doesn’t include the word bahnhof my response is unfailingly blank).

– Everyone nods, and then the first colleague tells me what the word means. In French. (It’s actually the same root as the English, they often are).

– Finally my Dutch boss, overcome with patriotic fervour, insists on telling us a marginally related Dutch play on words, explaining it for us in all three languages -English, French and German.

This takes five minutes.

And they wonder why the European Union is such a slow-moving behemoth of an organisation!

Bye for now!
(A la prochaine! Bis spöter! A pli tard!)



Driving in Switzerland: an update

Re: my last Rules of the Road post, I have now delicately raised the issue of roundabout etiquette over lunch with Swiss colleagues and I can report that this apparent lack of indication is not in fact a result of continental complacency. Not at all.

The difference instead is educational. Unlike Brits who must indicate their intended direction on entering a rondpoint, Swiss drivers are taught only to indicate as they leave the circle.

I know. Figure that.

Whilst I find this a curious approach – raising as it does the possibility of Mr. Swiss Driver tootling around and around said tarmac island indefinitely should his indicator be kaputt – if that’s the local way then I consider myself – as they might put it back in Yorkshire – learned.

It also means the end of my one-man re-education campaign, which had previously involved driving straight into roundabouts in order to come bumper-close to Mr. Turning Swiss to advise him on the error of his ways. Sad maybe, but that’s the cost of European integration right there.

Rules of the road

Every nationality it seems has its own particular approach to driving. And while this topic is admittedly the clichéd fallback of the uninspired travel writer, le homme suisse is genuinely an interesting case. As generally speaking he’s actually a most excellent driver.

Not for Monsieur Suisse arDon't worry about the damage, worry about the fine.e the urban scrapes of the Italian motorist, nor the risk-defying autobahn antics of Herr Deutsche.

And our Swiss chauffeur generally drives more slowly, more considerately than his French-speaking neighbor just the other side of the border.

Mr Swiss’ voiture is likely newer, with less dents (if any), and I would hazard a guess he gets by with less motorized bumps and bashes each year than all his European cousins.

But he does have his moments. And they can enliven the arteries of the uninitiated Brit.

So here follow a few observations from three years of driving in Switzerland:

1. Pedestrian crossings are holy

Unlike many European countries in which you take your life in your hands every time you try to cross the road, Swiss pedestrians are like cows in India – sacred. (Providing they are crossing at an approved spot.)

In fact, if a Swiss pedestrian so much as glances towards a striped yellow crossing from within leaping range, you’d better be prepared to break, if not start slowing straight away. For know this – they will hurl themselves bonnet-wards without a second thought.

Les anciens in particular assume that you’ll follow the letter of the law, as presumably everyone has done for decades before, so don’t even expect them to look and check. They won’t. They’ll just totter across like your route was a little extra pavement.

In short, if you’re not on your toes, you’ll quickly be on someone else’s.

2. If it’s in front, it rules

To my mind the most crucial Swiss driving lesson: if someone is in front of you, they will do exactly what the buggery they want. And they’ll expect you to let them.

You could be panning it down the motorway 30- or 40kph faster than your sloth-like neighbor in the slow lane, but when it comes time for him to finally overtake the truck or tank he’s behind (literally, as there’s plenty of military in Switzerland relative to its size), he’ll pop into your path without so much as jetting you un oeil (throwing a glance). Cue some serious brake hammering on your front and some equally serious tremoring on your heart’s.

The same applies, more bizarrely still, at roundabouts. Which is a result of many Swiss drivers being seemingly oblivious to the function of those little stalks either side of the steering wheel that make the side lights flash on and off.

Really. I’ve very rarely seen a Swiss driver indicate. Even less often when heading all the way around a rondpoint. I have however seen their faces more closely than I’d planned after I assumed they were heading straight through and pulled out into their path. I’m not sure who was more aggrieved. They’ve even pipped their horns at me on occasion – an illegal act except in case of emergencies, of which I’m guessing taking liberties at roundabouts is one.

3. Remember your tires

Now then, every car in Switzerland comes with its own set of extra tires for winter. These aren’t the chain-ensconced spheres you may be thinking of, but simply tires with slightly deeper treads that work a treat when temperatures plummet and everything turns white.

It’s up to you to pop these on – or pay a garagiste around forty Francs to do so – around October or November time, lest you skate your way into an automotive crunch, your insurance company thumb its nose and the resulting monstrous bills be yours to pay.

Come April it’s back to the more fuel-friendly summer versions and you’re on your way.

4. What speed can you afford ?

Our last rule is not so much an observation of Monsieur’s roadcraft but a financial tip for those planning to drive in La Suisse. Calculate how fast you can afford to go.

Break the speed limit here and you won’t receive points on your license as you would in France or the UK. Instead you’ll pay. And you’ll pay plenty.

The amount you will be fined will be based on two factors: how far above the speed limit you were rocketing along, and your monthly salary. This wallet-squeezing ratio is why you might occasionally read in the news about a supercar owner, often unknowing foreigners, being fined mindboggling sums for attempting to break the sound barrier as they careered past Cossonay.

Which is really a waste, as the surrounding countryside is lovely to look at.

I’ve almost been party to this punishment myself actually, after some local law enforcers noticed me rattling through a tunnel on my way to a meeting (speed limit 100kph, actual speed 140kph – my one-time Swiss speeding offence and a continual source of dinner party shame).

My second mistake was trying to have the subsequent road-side conversation in French. The result of which was, well, not much… the only thing I understood with any degree of certainty was that I was knee-deep in la merde.

I did raise a smirk from the purple-faced officers at one stage after I got my adjectives confused and tried to pass my annual salary off as my monthly wage. This faux-pas became quickly obvious however when two bewildered gazes at my scratchy old Fiat Punto suggested they didn’t believe a man of such apparent means would choose to drive a vehicle with such, erm, caractère.

But after all that, in distinctly un-Swiss hip-hop style, I got off on a technicality after the Police speed recorder malfunctioned.

Très bien!