Swiss perspectives in 10 languages
French, German, Italian, Romansh, English: How do the Swiss talk to each other?

French flourishes in Switzerland

Young people sitting outside
People living in Switzerland come from all over the world, which contributes to the nation's multilingualism. Keystone /Jean-Christophe Bott

While French has become steadily more popular over the past 50 years, fewer Swiss speak German regularly. The main reason for this is migration.

Almost two-thirds of the people living in Switzerland regularly speak more than one language. With four official national languages, Switzerland has a special language landscape – and many non-national languages can also be heard in everyday life.

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According to current data from the Federal Statistical Office (FSO)External link, the majority of the permanent resident population speaks German or Swiss German as their main language. Among the non-national languages, English and Portuguese are the most common. According to FSO, the main language is the language in which we think and which we speak best.

Since the 1980s, the proportion of people who name German as their main language has been declining steadily. Italian also declined until 2000, when people began citing it as their main language more often. Meanwhile, French has become increasingly popular since 1980.

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The changes since 2000 are largely due to a change in data collection. For example, until ten years ago, those who grew up in German-speaking Switzerland but spoke Portuguese at home had to choose one main language for the purpose of statistical reporting. Since 2010, respondents have been able to specify several main languages.

This has led to a sharp increase in the proportion of non-national languages among the main languages.

According to Renata Coray of the Institute of Multilingualism at the University of FribourgExternal link, economic immigration to Switzerland has a major influence on which languages are spoken. Almost a quarter of the permanent Swiss resident population comes from abroad.

English is also becoming a prominent language in Switzerland. In 2010, 4.6% of the Swiss population spoke English as a main language, compared with 5.4% seven years later. This is also due to growing immigration from English-speaking countries such as Britain and the US.

But why is French becoming more popular as a main language, while German and Swiss German are becoming a little less important? It has to do with the different origins of the immigrants and the integration power of the language regions.

More affinity for French than German

In French-speaking Switzerland, immigrants tend to adapt to the local language, says Coray. For example, many people who speak Spanish, Portuguese or Italian immigrate to French-speaking Switzerland, and they tend to learn French quickly. French is somewhat easy for them because it is also a Romance language and thus close to their native languages. And, foreigners generally integrate more quickly into French-speaking Switzerland than they do in German-speaking Switzerland.

Immigration trends are different in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. People who emigrate from Kosovo or Turkey, for example, tend to have greater problems speaking German at first compared to Spaniards learning French in French-speaking Switzerland.

In addition, in German-speaking Switzerland, Swiss German is often used both in private life and at work, along with High (or Standard) German. For many immigrants, this doesn’t necessarily make it easier to integrate linguistically.

Translated from German by Susan Misicka

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR