Switzerland has four national languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh. English, though not an official language, is often used to bridge the divides.
German (both High German and Swiss German) is spoken by about 63% of the population, French by about 23%, and Italian by about 8%. Romansh is spoken by less than 1% of the total population.
The most notable linguistic fact about German-speaking Switzerland is the use of dialect for spoken communication and standard German for written communication. French is spoken in the west of the country, while Italian is spoken in Ticino and the south of neighbouring Graubünden, and Romansh is spoken only in Graubünden. However, there are language minorities from elsewhere in all the major cities.
The three main languages are, accordingly, shared with the surrounding countries. Even Romansh is not really unique to Switzerland – there are similar Rhaetoromanic languages spoken by minorities in the South Tyrol and the Friuli regions of northern Italy.
The Swiss constitution recognises the rights of the various language groups to communicate in their own language. German, French, and Italian are full official languages of the Confederation – all laws and official documents have to be available in them – and Romansh is a “partial” official language for the purpose of communication with Romansh speakers. The constitution contains provisions for the federal government to assist the cantons of Ticino and Graubünden in supporting Italian and Romansh.
People abroad often incorrectly assume that the fact that there are four national languages in Switzerland means that every Swiss speaks four languages. Swiss populations tend to stay in their own language regions and consume media in their own language if possible.
The divide between the French- and German-speaking areas is an undeniable reality, jokingly known to the Swiss themselves as the Röstigraben, or "rösti ditch" – the name refers to a typical potato dish popular in German-speaking Switzerland. As in other countries, languages compulsorily learned at school tend to be forgotten in adult life.
Still, bilingual individuals are common enough in many parts of Switzerland, and there is a general tolerance among the population of each other’s languages.
Immigrants have also brought their own languages to Switzerland. These non-national languages combined now outnumber both Romansh and Italian in terms of being main languages spoken.
Around 4.6% of the population lists English as one of their main languages, followed by Portuguese at 3.6% and Albanian at 3.0% (see Swiss Statisticsexternal link).
English has taken on a major profile in recent years as a language of international communication. Swiss of all language groups are eager to learn it because of its importance in business. English speakers who come to Switzerland find no shortage of people who can speak English – at least in the cities. English is even coming to be used as a lingua franca between French- and German-speaking Swiss in business settings.
Increasing numbers of Swiss from different parts of Switzerland also communicate with each other in English.