Skiplink Navigation

Main Features


Switzerland is a place where many cultures cross over



The only common factor in Swiss society is its extreme diversity. No attempt at a homogenous picture can be made.

The main reason is the linguistic makeup of the country, which encompasses three main languages - German, French, and Italian - that stem from the heavyweight cultures of Switzerland's neighbours.

But while Swiss culture has always drawn from, and been influenced by, Germany, France and Italy, there is an independent Swiss culture in all the language regions. Taken together this can be called Swiss culture, but it still never fits into anything but a whole series of pigeonholes.

In numbers, the German-speaking Swiss are a clear majority, making up well over 60 per cent of the population. But their mother tongue is Swiss German - a range of dialects that make a native of Valais difficult to understand for someone from St Gallen, and vice-versa.

And for someone who speaks High German, Swiss dialects are practically impenetrable, unless he or she hails from an adjoining border region.

Eternal tension

Thus there is for Swiss-German artists an eternal tension between the spoken and written language, whether they are writing a novel or a programme for an art exhibition or concert.

German-speaking Swiss are born with a tongue and an idiom, but have to learn their written language by hard slog at school.

Recent surveys in Europe show that schools here are having difficulties in maintaining standards of written German. Their efforts are undermined by increasing use of dialect in pop music and on radio and television.

As a countermeasure, many cantons now oblige teachers to hold classes in High German instead of dialect.

This could help to remove a barrier not only with the rest of German-speaking Europe, but also within Switzerland. The other main constituents of the country, the French and Italian speakers, learn High German at school, and not Swiss German.

Switzerland's language divisions are clear geographic demarcations and do not follow political frontiers. There are bilingual cantons such as Bern, Fribourg and Valais, and Graubünden where three languages are spoken - German, Romansh, and in a handful of valleys, Italian.


There are even officially bilingual towns such as Fribourg/Freiburg or Biel/Bienne. Here a visitor can take his pick of German or French, with a good chance of being understood.

However, a French-Swiss on the shores of Lake Constance in the northeast might have difficulty in being understood in his native tongue, as could an eastern Swiss trying to get by with German in Geneva.

Thus Swiss trilingualism, if not a myth, is a complex situation, alleviated by a general consensus that everybody should at least understand two of the languages spoken in Switzerland. This is underlined by the school systems, which are committed to teaching at least two national languages.

Interestingly, and perhaps logically, the most languages seem to be understood and spoken by the smallest minorities, by the Italian-speaking Swiss, and the Romansh-speaking minority who had been successively driven to the high valleys of canton Graubünden since post-Roman times.


Officially, only 35,000 Swiss speak Romansh as their first and everyday language, but there are probably around 50,000 native Romansh speakers, although many live in other parts of Switzerland.

Considerable efforts are being made to keep the ancient language alive. It is compulsory in many local schools, but the situation is complicated by the fact that Romansh has several marked dialects.

Recent attempts to promote a standardised form, Romansh Grischun, are not proving popular with students or teachers who have to learn what is in effect a new language.

The advent of English as a business language, pop music, the computer world etc., have all weakened trilingualism in Switzerland.

The very large conscript army of the past ensured that most soldiers spent some time in at least one other language region of the country.

There were more mixed language units than now, and in past years it was far more common for girls leaving school to spend a year as "au pair" in another region.

While there are still over 100 daily papers available over much of the country, and Swiss radio and television broadcasts in all three major languages, there are few readers who buy papers in other than in their native language.

And while radio and television are under the umbrella of a national corporation, in effect the different language entities are practically autonomous, with little cross-fertilisation.


However, the fragility of Switzerland as a set of linguistic regions has always been a preoccupation of the federal government in Bern, and thus bilingualism has always loomed large in the big nationalised state corporations such as the railways and Swiss Post, not to mention the officer corps of the armed forces.

Religion and language are two potential problem areas, which the structures of Swiss federalism tend to defuse before they become problems. Thus the French-speaking Jura region was given autonomy as a new canton in 1979 following a national plebiscite, which left canton Bern with only a rump French-speaking area.

With 20 to 25 per cent of the Swiss being native French speakers, this country is regularly invited, and takes part in the francophone summits. But Switzerland plays a low-key role, not least out of respect for the other linguistic groups in the country.

The checks and balances inherent in the Swiss political system also play their role in the way the arts are managed and promoted in Switzerland.

Cultural policy involves the confederation, the cantons, and the individual local communes. But the system of subsidiarity does not work in today´s world of the arts.

Arts funding

The system of burden-sharing which entails cantons equalising or offsetting costs of local authorities is insufficient to subsidise theatres, orchestras, and ballet companies. Thus the big cities now meet at least half the cost of cultural life in this country.

Suburbs of the big cities, which may be political entities of their own, as well as regions or cantons in the catchment areas of big cities, now often have contributory agreements to pay for theatres and other cultural institutions in cities such as Zurich, Basel, or Bern.

Cultural sponsorship is also underwritten by foundations, large companies, banks, and retail chains such as Migros which donates a percentage of turnover to the arts.

The federal government supports cultural activities through the Federal Culture Office, and pays for Pro Helvetia, the Arts Council of Switzerland, which gets parliamentary grants for four-year periods.

The annual budgets for 2009 and the following years is SFr34 million ($30 million) each. Over 85 per cent of the money is spent in supporting artistic projects submitted by artists, or initiated by Pro Helvetia itself. These can include thematic exhibitions, art displays, showings of Swiss films, or supporting tours of theatre or ballet companies, or Swiss orchestras.

Pro Helvetia works closely with Swiss diplomatic and consular representations abroad to foster Swiss artists, and it also runs eight offices in Europe and Africa.

Neuer Inhalt

Horizontal Line

WEF 2018

WEF Teaser 2018

WEF 2019

subscription form

Form for signing up for free newsletter.

Sign up for our free newsletters and get the top stories delivered to your inbox.

Click here to see more newsletters