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!)



2 thoughts on “Dealing with the languages of Switzerland (or not)

  1. That last anecdote from your office was hilarious, Matt! Even funnier was your conclusion: “And they wonder why the European Union is such a slow-moving behemoth of an organisation”

  2. Thanks, Matt. It explains so well about Swiss languages…and with some great examples of your office. lol I’m going to forward this to my other friends. Cheers

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