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 where the three (four) official main languages 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). Some 5 million German speakers (and their many dialects Schwyzertütsch, which is mostly the vernacular), over 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 some 40-60 000 Rhaeto-Romanesque dialects (five, only in the canton of Graubünden). In addition, there is the large number of foreigners with other languages.

These four languages were recognised as official languages in the Constitution in 1848 (1938 in the case of Rhaeto-Romanesque). Up to the highest federal level and the election of members of the government (Bundesrat), the languages play a role in appointments, debates and public appearances. Generally speaking, civil servants and members of the parliament at federal level speak at least two languages, German and French and, or Italian (or Romansh). However, the use of local German dialects (Schwyzertütsch) sometimes counteracts the effect. he 200 members of  the House of Commons (Nationalrat) debate in their own or one of  the other languages, often without using the simultaneous interpreters. The Upper House (Ständerat) does not use interpreters. The 46 members use one of the languages. The official parliamentary documents, however, appear mainly in German and French. Improvements are possible, but in general multilingualism functions well at the federal level.

The (declining or missing) knowledge of other languages among citizens and young people, in particular, is worrying, however. 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 teaching of languages. Is English more important than French/German in German-speaking or French-speaking cantons? Italian is hardly spoken about anyway. That also applies, for example, to regions in Graubünden, where Romansh is the primary language. German is always mandatory as a second language, but then?

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. However, this effort and attention are more than worth it. It makes Switzerland one of the multifaceted countries in Europe. And despite its (multi) cultural, linguistic, religious and political diversity, it is also the most prosperous and democratic country on the continent.