Period IV newsletter

Bild/Photo: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz 1997-2002.

Multilingual Switzerland

“Les langues ne sont pas neutres. Elles incarnent des cultures, elles imprègnent les mentalités, elles engendrent des affinités, elles aiguillonnent des susceptibilités, elles expriment des sensibilités, elles traduisent des manières de raisonner, de penser, de vivre et elles influencent et déterminent même la conception que les citoyens ont du rôle de l’État par rapport aux individus et à la société”. (José Ribeaud, La Suisse plurilingue se délingue. Plaidoyer pour les quatre langues nationales suisses, Neuchâtel, 2002).

Switzerland is the only country in Europe with three (four) official main languages. They are Italian, German and French and Romansh.

In the European labyrinth of languages and cultures, Switzerland occupies a unique place with its relatively small surface area (41 000 square kilometers).

Around 5 million German speakers (and their many dialects Schwyzertütsch, which is mostly the vernacular), 1.2 million French speakers in the Romandie region and the bilingual cantons of Wallis, Bern and Freiburg, 350 000 Italian speakers in Tessin and Graubünden and around 60 000 Romansh-speakers with five dialects in Graubünden.

In addition, there is a large number of foreigners with other languages.

The four languages are recognised as official languages in the Constitution of 1848  and in 1938 in the case of Romansh.

Civil servants and members of the parliament at federal level speak at least two languages, German and French and, or Italian (or Romansh).

The use of local German dialects (Schwyzertütsch) sometimes counteracts the effect.

The 200 members of  the House of Representatives (Nationalrat) debate in their own language or in one of the other languages, often without using the simultaneous interpreters.

The Senate (Ständerat) does not use interpreters. The 46 members use their native language of one of the other languages.

The official parliamentary documents appear mainly in German and French. Improvements are possible, but in general multilingualism functions well at the federal level.

The (declining or absent) knowledge of other languages among citizens and young people, in particular, is worrying.

English sometimes becomes a universal language. Fewer and fewer young people are proficient in other languages of their country.

The (limited) exchange of students takes mainly place between French and German-speaking Switzerland and hardly with Italian-speaking areas.

In the (autonomous) cantons, there are also discussions about the education and teaching of languages. Is English more important than French/German in German-speaking or French-speaking cantons?

That also applies to regions in Graubünden, where Romansh is the first language. German is always obligatory as a second language, but French, English or  Italian ?

Conclusion. Even in traditionally multilingual Switzerland, harmonious coexistence and integration are not self-evident.

The constitutional, pedagogical, local structures and mentality continue to demand attention.

The languages make Switzerland one of the most multicultural countries in Europe. Despite the cultural, linguistic, religious, and political diversity, the country is also the most prosperous and democratic country on the continent.