Languages in Switzerland; The Invisible Boundary Between Population

by AnLuu on October 5, 2017 - 10:10pm

Switzerland has four official languages, being German, French, Italian and Romansh. 63% of the population speaks German, while 23% speaks French, 8% speaks Italian and 1% speaks Romansh. However, the three first languages appears on every official documents, while the last one is in danger of extinction. Furthermore, Switzerland has its own German, French and Italian dialects, as a result, language plays a huge part in Swiss’ identity. 


Even if Switzerland has four official languages, depending on the region, one or two languages are favoured over the others. In region where the population speaks almost a unique language, such as the canton of Zürich, being German or the canton of Geneva, being French, it tends to have less problems.


However, in regions such as Bern (the capital), where both German and French are the official language, or in the canton of Graubünden (Grisons), where German, Italian and Romansh are official languages, it creates a bigger and visible division among the population.


In the canton of Bern, where French and German are the official languages, parts of the city/region is fully German or French, while other parts are mixed. As a result, in a same city, there is an invisible frontier between French speaking and German speaking communities. Furthermore, with different cultural heritages, thus having different political ideas, they live really separated from each others. The Swiss French community tends to be liberalism while the Swiss German community tends to be more conservative. Even if all important infrastructures in Bern are officially bilingual, in a few parts of the city, only one language is apparent, making it less welcoming to the other community. Additionally, language barrier is also a problem since not every German can speak French and vice-versa for example, thus they are exchanging in another language that both can understand, and it is usually English. 


Another example is the canton of Graubünden, where three languages are used alongside as official languages. The problem is almost the same as the one in Bern, but this time, the third language (Romansh) bring another problem. Romansh is Swiss’ own and forth language, but unlike the three others, it has a less important status. Less than 1% of the Swiss population can speak that language and people who speaks it tends to be really conservative and does not want to speak another language.




As for my personal opinion, Switzerland has this issue that I find really peculiar since it has four official language in its constitution, and yet it have English as its fifth “non-official” language. What makes it more particular is since they are all “Europeans,” there is not a dramatic separation of races that one can see at first. For example, who can actually differentiate between a German Swiss from a French Swiss? It is easier to differentiate, for example, Asians from Europeans. It is only once that we start to speak with them that we realise how different these two are and that there is a less clear separation between them. Swiss government have tried many solutions to bring its inhabitants together, but it is not simple. They tried to create a national TV cable channel, diffusing contents in the four languages, but it did not work since they did not have the same interests. Despite all these social, cultural and political differences, Swiss people are still proud to be Swiss and even if their heritage are not all the same, they still try to live along with each others. 





(Additional source)


This is interesting! I chose your summary to comment because it reveals an interesting yet rare social characteristic of Switzerland, which is the multiculturalism. Also, I agree with you that Switzerland is indeed a peculiar country due to its diversity of races and languages, this is very rare around the entire world. When I was younger, I was believing that being a citizen of a multicultural country will be the happiest thing in the world, since I can learn several languages at the same time, and therefore, I can communicate with more people in the world. But for a country, being multicultural is not always a good thing. As you mentioned in your summary, there is an invisible segregation between French Swiss and German Swiss due to cultural conflict.

In my opinion, in order to eliminate that segregation caused by linguistic differences, Swiss government could encourage the Swiss citizens to use English as their daily communication tool. Because it is not a good idea to encourage all the citizens to speak one of the official languages, since it will trigger the discontentment of those who speak other official languages. In this case, English is a perfect choice, not only it can unify the people, also, it is “an intercultural communicative tool that has no identity or community function” (Brunelière, 2016). By speaking English, Swiss people can still nicely communicate with each other. Yet, due to its international influence, being able to speak English will tighten the relation between Swiss people and those in the rest of world.

Reference: Brunelière, Jean-François. (2016). English as an intra-national language in Switzerland. English Today, 32(3), 61-62. doi: 10.1017/S0266078416000109.

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