Use of English remains a matter of opinion

Many Swiss can speak two or more of the four national languages Keystone

A study which questioned the dominance of English as the first language of business in Switzerland has itself been brought into question.

This content was published on October 25, 2005 - 12:48

The finding that English took second place to German and French in Swiss firms came as a surprise to many, and contradicted the widely held notion that English is the lingua franca of business.

The study, by the Technical College Northwestern Switzerland, comes amid continuing debate about the introduction of English as a first foreign language at primary school and efforts to limit the use of English in the federal administration.

The authors said English was less widely used than assumed because most Swiss companies focused on domestic trade or had close ties with their French- and German-speaking neighbours.

But a report in Tuesday's Tages-Anzeiger newspaper criticised the research for presenting a "distorted picture" of language use in Switzerland.

The paper said the university team had made no distinction between small and medium-sized businesses. Of the 2,000 firms surveyed only 11 had more than 500 employees, while 1,063 had fewer than 20 employees.

Foreign trade

Rudolf Walser, chief economist at the Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, said he was surprised at the finding that English was not the number one foreign language in business.

"The result of this study does not concur with what we are seeing in the Swiss economy," Walser told swissinfo.

"Roughly 60 per cent of our foreign trade goes via small and medium-sized enterprises and this is, I think, a good indicator of the importance of English in business life."

And he said the importance of English as a lingua franca was growing as Switzerland steps up trade with other parts of the world.

But language expert Urs Dürmüller told swissinfo the study's findings on the use of English were logical and not really a surprise.

"It depends very much on the sector or on what kind of people these companies are in contact with," he said.

"For businesses which don't have excessive contacts with people using English - abroad probably - English cannot be the dominant language. For them Swiss-German, standard German or French are likely to be far more important for primary contacts with their clients," said the Bern University English lecturer.

National languages

Both Dürmüller and Walser believe knowledge of English should go hand-in-hand with knowledge of at least one other national language.

"Obviously several languages are being used in a multilingual Swiss society and it is important to ensure that young people know these languages," said Dürmüller.

"They need to learn standard German and French, but they also have to be able to use English."

And he said he did not consider the spread of English in Switzerland a threat.

"There might be a lot more contact among the language communities if English were spoken by all the Swiss," commented Dürmüller.

"But when you a have a closer look you see that English dialogues between, for instance, a native French and a German speaker often don't go beyond phrases picked up from music, movies or the internet.

"In short, there is no dialogue among the Swiss without the use of English, but English only would make for an extremely superficial dialogue."


Key facts

There are four national languages in Switzerland: German (63.7%), French (20.4%), Italian (6.5%) and Romansh (0.5%).
English is used by the younger urban generation and as a business language.
However a study has revealed that the use of English for business is less widespread than was previously thought.
English as a first foreign language in school is the subject of current political debate in Switzerland.

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