The four national languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansh. All but Romansh maintain equal status as official languages at the national level within the Federal Administration of the Swiss Confederation.
Swiss German is spoken in the northern, eastern, and central parts of the country, and is spoken by 63 % of the population, making it the primary language in Switzerland. Its speakers refer to it as Dialekt, Mundart, or just Dütsch.
However, if you decide to study in one of the Swiss German-speaking cantons, you should know that this language also has a range of different dialects. Therefore, it can be rather tricky to understand if you are used to speaking standard German.
But don’t let this discourage you! Standard German is still used for formal correspondence, in books, and in the newspaper, which makes things a bit easier.
Swiss German, on the other hand, is a collection of Alemannic dialects no longer spoken in Germany or Austria, peppered with a whole lot of French expressions. The Swiss Germans take pride in the diversity of their dialects.
You’ll find the same words being used differently in Zurich, Bern, or Basel. Again, no need to worry, when in doubt, politely ask for clarification!
Swiss French is the second most popular language in Switzerland. It is spoken mostly in western Switzerland, covering the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura. Despite the name, there is very little difference between the French spoken in Switzerland and that spoken in France.
Some do claim that Swiss French sounds slower, due to its longer vowels. This is good news for speakers of standard French as they won’t encounter any difficulties chit-chatting with locals from the French-speaking areas. Another advantage for French speakers is that the popular travel destinations, such as Lausanne and Geneva, are entirely French-speaking.
Swiss Italian is the language spoken in the canton of Ticino and the southern part of Graubünden (Canton Grigioni). This part of Switzerland boasts a unique blend of Swiss and Italian culture, which is just one of the reasons to visit and study here.
Known historically as Lombard, Swiss Italian is spoken by about 350,000 people. It is also influenced by German and French, so some differences might be confusing if you studied or speak standard Italian. Don’t worry, though; you might still manage to communicate pretty well.
The final piece in this Swiss linguistic treat is Romansh. With only 37,000 speakers, it is the language with the fewest speakers in Switzerland. But that doesn’t mean its history is any less rich!
Like Italian and French, Romansh is a Romance language. In 15 B.C., when the Romans conquered the province of Rhaetia, their language was influenced by that spoken by the native people. This unusual combination created Rumantsch.
Although not very famous outside of Switzerland, Romansh is used in governance, education, and is spoken freely as a community language. While there are different dialects of Romansh, a linguistic consensus was used to create the language used today.
What’s even more impressive about this language is the fact that it survived into the 21st century. Now, that would make for a compelling linguistic study!