28 December 2022

Die Schweiz spricht Englisch

Die Schweiz spricht Englisch

English in Switzerland: “Englisch als Landessprache: Go oder No-Go?” *

Ask someone to name the four Swiss national languages, and most likely they will include English. In reality, it isn’t, but it might be about to become the fifth. For the question posed in the heading is indeed now being asked. Seriously.

The discussion is about whether to give English priority at the expense of the 4 “authentic” Swiss languages. This is causing considerable controversy across the Swiss regions (in fact at the level of individual cantons, since they are in charge of education) when it comes to deciding which language(s) school children should learn at primary and at secondary school.

German, or rather Swiss-German, is spoken by approx. 60% of the Swiss population, French by over 20%, Italian by 8% and Romansh by 0,5%. Over recent years, a trend has been visible towards an increase of French at the expense of German, which is due to immigration.

But the language that is really on the increase in Switzerland is English.

Over the last 20 years or so it has been taking on the role of an “intermediary” between the French and German-speaking Swiss, acting as a “lazy” bridging language or lingua franca.

A recent article in The Economist, “Out of one, many”, states as an introduction that “at the heart of Europe (there is) one nation in one state (that is) one of the most happily, successfully multilingual places on Earth.” In the article, Johnson mentions a German executive living in Geneva who says that on his visits to Zurich he finds it most practical to speak English. Given the gap between (High) German and Swiss-German and the reluctance of Swiss-German speakers to speak (High) German that is not surprising.

More surprising is that many Swiss, when speaking to a compatriot from another language region, will also resort to English, rather than to one or the other of their national languages. One could put it down to a sense of fairness and egality. Apart from the fact that English is considered an easier language to learn than either German or French, speaking English means that both are on an equal footing in that they are both communicating in a language that it not their own and which most likely they do not fully master. In other words: they are both at a disadvantage.

A Swiss-German journalist who wrote his dissertation on the topic of language use in the Swiss educational system recounts that when interviewing a French-speaking colleague from the Romandie they both felt “more at ease” speaking English. He was embarrassed that his French was not good enough to hold an involved conversation at a high level, and she had learnt “High-German” at school and was unable to speak or understand Swiss-German. So it was easier and more natural to use English.

Since English is becoming such an all-important language and might be a contributing factor to someone being promoted or not, it is also a cunning and convenient way of practising the language, without having to pay for language lessons. Whether or not the fact that everyone seems to indulge in speaking and writing English is contributing to what some describe as the deterioration of people’s command of their native language is yet another topic that creates a lot of hot debate.

Recent statistics prove that the Swiss working population in the German and French-speaking regions speaks English about twice as often as a Swiss national language apart from their own. The exception are the citizens who have Italian or Romansh as their native tongue. They typically use French or German in preference to English.

Another important factor for the predominance of English are the many foreigners who live and/or work in Switzerland – for them, using English is often by far the best way to communicate.


Language spoken at work (source: BFS 2019, OLSI)

Language German-speaking region French-speaking region Italian-speaking region
Swiss-German 94.3 6.6 11.3
German 36.6 9 15.1
French 9.8 96.5 12.7
Italian 3.9 2.8 91.4
English 19.1 17.3 13.1


This leaves the Italian-speaking region (Ticino), where children are taught French as their first and German as their second foreign language, as the only region where English is not about to be displaced by the indigenous Swiss Italian. The Ticinesi are the only ones that speak more German than English in their working life – though I surmise that this may also be changing, given the general feeling that when communication happens in a broad, multilingual context (such as the Internet) neither German nor French can successfully compete with English.

It may or may not come as a surprise that the Swiss are quite inventive in their use of English, or what they think is English. For example, they are making up terms that they think of as English, but an English native speaker might look aghast. These include Wellness, Healthness and Eatroom, or the very commonly used “Handy” (for mobile phone). There is also Milch-Drink (for non-whole milk, non-alcoholic!) and Trainer for a tracksuit.

Another rather funny “invention” are direct translations from Swiss German, such as “hoi zäme”: “Hello together” (instead of “Hi everyone”). And while these are just a few examples, by no means exhaustive, the most Swiss of marketing concepts – even though it has a German equivalent (Marke Schweiz) as well as a French one (suissitude) is most commonly referred to as Swissness. For those who are not familiar with it, it is meant to encompass everything typically Swiss about a product, including precision, reliability, stability, cleanliness and whatever else they might want to bundle into it. But rather than just a marketing concept it is also a political, and sociological one, meant to restore a somewhat tainted self-confidence, and perhaps promote some kind of harmless patriotism.

Given that Switzerland is the nation that according to the Patent Index 2021 of the European Patent Office, files the most patents in the world in proportion to its population) and the fact that the Swiss are generally very practical people, perhaps this development is not surprising at all. But there is a certain nonchalance about making up words in a language that is not your own. And of course it is not just these made-up words (“Swinglish”) but also the fact that English words are simply taken over into the language. When you are on a tram in Zurich, you will hear sentences peppered with “sorry” (ich ha kä zyt hüt, sorry”), or “easy”, for example (s’examen isch easy gsi, nimm’s easy). Is this an example of linguistic (mis)appropriation? Or just proof of human ingenuity when it comes to communication?

*see: https://www.swissinfo.ch/ger/debatte_englisch-als-landessprache–go-oder-no-go-/46510630

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