Brought to you by Unbabel

How can Switzerland function with four national languages?

When it comes to identity, language can be as important as religion or race. This is why, in Europe at least, national and linguistic boundaries tend to run side by side.

In Switzerland, this is not the case. Not only does the country have four national languages, but three of these languages (German, French and Italian) are spoken natively by significant portions of the population. Romansch, the fourth language, despite declining native speaker numbers is afforded much the same legal status and protections.

The achievement of this national cohesion despite language diversity is not chance, but the result of pragmatic policy making, historical quirk and just a little conscious conflict resolution.

Pragmatism

Swiss language policy is practical and pragmatic. The tension between symbolism and common sense is navigated everywhere from money to road signs.

Pull out a Swiss bank note and you'll find the same phrases written in four languages. Pull out a coin, and you’ll see that writing so much on such a small surface becomes impractical. Instead, expect to find the two letters CH, from the latin for Switzerland: Confoederatio Helvetica.

For convenience and official matters, the fall-back language is often Latin, a conveniently dead and therefore neutral language, deliberately chosen to quell accusations of favouritism from any one one linguistic community.

When driving, clarity trumps other considerations: it is more useful to have one word large and visible at a distance than four words written unreadably small. As a result, on the roads, the language of the federal state or “canton” you are in is given priority. Where a second language is used, this can be a second national language or depending on context, English.

As an example, airports in the Zurich have signs in German and English. Airports in Geneva have signs in French and English. On the roads leading away from the airport you can find signs written in the language of the canton. The tug of war between symbolism, identity and common sense finds consensus. Cantonal identity is preserved, international visitors feel welcome and day-to-day life continues unimpeded by language barriers.

Politics

Linguistic coexistence isn’t coincidence. It is written into the country's constitution as well as its consciousness. First and foremost, for the national languages, there is linguistic equality before the law. The Swiss Federal Constitution protects and promotes the countries multilingualism. All citizens have the right to communicate in whatever language they chose in the private sphere. Parliamentary sessions are translated into all four languages and government literature is available in all languages.

The modern day Swiss psyche shares a lot with that of its past, with strong autonomy given to its constituent cantons. Kantonligiesit or canton spirit is still strong. The principle of territoriality allows cantons to manage the linguistic make up within their borders. While guidance is given from the central government, education policy is cantonal. The canton of Bern, for instance, is German-speaking and therefore decides to educate primarily in German. The canton of Valais self-defines as bilingual so whether to teach in French or German is decided at an even more local level.

The benefits of multilingualism in Valais: a case study

The canton of Valais (Wallis in German) has the Röstigraben or “Rösti Rift” running straight through it. This linguistic divide between Swiss French and Swiss German takes its name from the famous Swiss-German potato meal and allows a tourist in Valais to speak German beside the Matterhorn in Zermatt, and French beside Mont Blanc in Verbier.

In Valais, the 2000 census found that 63% of the population spoke French or Arpitan, 28% German or Walser German and around 10% Italian, Romansch or other languages. In many ways the canton is a microcosm of Switzerland with the numerical dominance of French and German reversed.

The canton is a case study in how Switzerland positions itself as an ideal destination for both tourist and immigrant workers. French-speaking tourists can ski in the Four Valleys without switching out of their mother tongue, while German speaking tourists can ski in resorts such as Saas Fee and Zermatt with the same comfort.

Valais can cater to a much higher proportion of customers in their native language than a similar mountainous region in France, Italy or Germany. Multilingualism spreads beyond the languages of the Canton too. The Ski resort of Veysonnaz, on the French side of the divide, has an above-average number of Dutch-speaking clientele. The Ski school therefore offers Dutch speaking instructors, making themselves a destination of choice for well-heeled Flemish and Dutch tourists, as well as migrant Ski instructors.

This benefit scales to the country at large. Are you a professional services worker wanting to earn good money? Speak German? come to Zurich. Speak French? try Geneva. Or perhaps you are one of the 25% of workers in the Italian speaking Canton Ticino who commutes from Italy every day.

Language diversity makes the country more accessible for immigrants who do not speak any of the official languages too. Portuguese and Spanish immigrants typically try to send their children to French-speaking schools, giving the linguistic similarity to the Romance languages.

Speakers from Turkey and the Balkans tend to opt to send their kids to schools in German speaking schools, meaning that there are multiple ways to assimilate to the Swiss way of life, without a one-size one-language fits all mentality.

Mountainous terrain ahead

The situation in Switzerland is certainly not perfect. Problems exist.

For a start, you can always have too much of a good thing. The case of Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton receiving a quarter of its workforce from Italy everyday, has slowly hardened its attitude to such significant daily migration. They recently voted 68% to curb foreign worker numbers, a decision rooted in social considerations: traffic congestion, strain on local services. The overt appeal of the canton to immigrant labour has hardened attitudes of the Ticenese, once the most open canton to EU integration and cooperation.

The Ticino case also highlights another friction: concerns of favouritism, particularly the preference of German speaking opinion against that of French, Italian and Romansch minorities. Because the political capital is based in German speaking Bern, statements such as “We are ignored by Bern,” have both political and linguistic dimensions.

Such concerns also play out on a city level. Take the bilingual city of Biel (Bienne in French) which as a dual-lingual French/German-speaking city, bucks the trend for the typical one-town-one-language setup of the country at large. Road signs are written in both languages and the locals are happy to take orders in either. Specific codes of conduct manage conversation: The spoken language of a conversation is selected by the first participant.

But not all is well beneath the surface. A survey carried out in 2016 found that while three quarters of the city population found bilingualism to be an advantage, a staggering 87% of the French speaking residents felt at a disadvantage to the German speakers.

Particular problems were found in the workplace, as German is the dominant language of most businesses in the area. The perception is on the rise too. When the survey was taken in 2008, only a reported 53% of French speakers felt disadvantaged.

Of course, perception and reality are not always aligned. A common if unconscious feeling of French speakers in Switzerland, particularly those on the linguistic border, is that their language is under threat. The reality is a slow decline in the number of German speakers in the country.

There is a however a more evidence-backed belief that non-German languages are being sidelined. While the federal government may try to promote the teaching of the national languages in schools they are often sidelined for English, and its perceived international uses. Zurich for instance has chosen to teach English before French in its schools, a move derided by many. Managing the priorities of keeping the country internally cohesive while outward looking, has caused strain, but nothing unsolvable.

Getting off the fence

Switzerland may be multilingual, but the Swiss themselves are not.

A country of four official languages is defined by communities living side by side unified by a sense of national identity and a highly pragmatic set of policies, that continue to evolve to this day.

Education policy plays a primary role, with non-cantonal languages taught as second languages in schools, alongside English.

History too, plays its part, with its resultant federal structure and significance of the cantons in the individual identities of the Swiss.

There are problems, of course. The elevation of English as the priority second language above French in Zurich schools has come in for significant criticism. The marginalisation of French speakers in the bilingual city of Biel show that there is always progress to be made and compromises to be struck.

But for a country often associated with cautious neutrality, the equality of languages before the law and the peaceful coexistence of different linguistic communities remains as Swiss as chocolate.