“MULTILINGUAL COUNTRIES” COLUMN. SEASON 1 – EPISODE 5 “SWITZERLAND”

Today let’s continue with our beloved “Multilingual countries” column. In one of the last episodes we talked about our French neighbours: the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the cheeses. Speaking of cheese, let’s move on to another multilingual European country which is also famous for a particular type of cheese. Have you guessed it yet? What if I told you it was the most famous cheese with holes? That’s right! Today we’ll be talking about the Switzerland and its languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh. 

THE OFFICIAL AND NATIONAL LANGUAGES OF SWITZERLAND

There are only three languages spoken in Switzerland with official, national language status. To be precise, they are the first three mentioned above:

the official and national languages protected and promoted by Swiss Confederation legislation are French, German and Italian. 

All the national, official texts are drawn up in these languages. This covers all legal texts, web pages, brochures and other Confederation documents. Furthermore, every citizen has the right to express him or herself, and to interact with the authorities, in one of these three languages. Obviously receiving answers in the same language.

In terms of education, these languages are taught in the various schools in the different cantons. Each canton chooses its own language of instruction (i.e., the canton’s official language). However, all institutions must also teach a second national language. 

At this point you’re likely wondering, what about Romansh? Well, the fourth national language deserves a separate discussion.

ROMANSH

The recognition of Romansh as a national language dates back to 1938. In this year, the population voted in a referendum to decide whether to recognise it as the fourth national language of the Swiss Confederation. 

All those who speak it have the right to receive any official document in Romansh. However, citizens must request this service from the authorities, while the texts are already published in French, German and Italian.

Romansh is also an administrative language in all the municipalities where it’s spoken by a considerable number of citizens. Not only that, this language is studied and taught in schools in these areas. 

SWITZERLAND AND ITS CANTONS

The Swiss Confederation has a total of 26 cantons. 

Although it’s common for the geographical and linguistic borders to not coincide, with numerous border municipalities being affected by the language spoken in the neighbouring areas, we can still distinguish the cantons that officially use two or more languages: of the 26 cantons, only three are fully bilingual and only one is trilingual.

In Canton of Valais, Canton of Bern and Canton of Fribourg the official languages are German and French. The only trilingual one is Canton of the Grisons, where German, Italian and Romansh are spoken.

Switzerland, a flag of European multilingualism.

Stefano Gaffuri

Spoiler alert: in the next episode we’ll talk about the European country that’s home to the main EU institutions.

English translation and adaptation by Sarah Schneider