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).

Four national languages

Switzerland is the only European country with four national languages: Italian, German, French and Romansh.

Switzerland occupies a unique place on a small territory (around 41 000 square kilometres) in the European labyrinth of languages and cultures.

More than 5 million German speakers (and their many dialects Schwyzertütsch, which is mostly the vernacular), 1.5 million French speakers in the Romandie and the bilingual cantons of Wallis, Bern and Freiburg, 350 000 Italian speakers in Tessin and Graubünden and around 60 000 Romansh-speakers in Graubünden.

In addition, there is a large number of foreigners who speak other languages. The four languages are recognised as official languages in the Constitution of 1848  and 1938 in the case of Romansh.

Federal level

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

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

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

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

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

The (limited) student exchange occurs mainly between French and German-speaking Switzerland and hardly with Italian-speaking, let alone Romansh-speaking areas.


There are also discussions in the cantons 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 or Italian is the first language. German is always obligatory as a second language, but what about French or English?


Even in multilingual Switzerland, harmonious coexistence and integration are not self-evident. The constitutional, pedagogical and local structures and mentality demand permanent attention.