Switzerland recognizes four languages as the national languages, and these are largely confined to specific regions, although speakers of all four languages can be found all over the country. These languages include: German – divided into Swiss German and Standard German (Hochdeutsch), Swiss French, Swiss Italian, and Romansh.

Swiss German: A Dominant and Diverse Language

Swiss German is the most widely spoken language in Switzerland, spoken by over 60% of the country’s population. Its speakers are mainly concentrated in the central, northern and eastern parts of the country. Swiss German is also called Schwyzerdütsch by the locals, and it represents a collection of Alemannic dialects which are no longer spoken in Germany and Austria.

Thus, Swiss German is vastly different than Standard German, or Hochdeutsch, which is learned by the Swiss from a very early age in school. As a result, Standard German speakers can communicate with Germans, Austrians and other German speakers with no issue. As there is no universal written form of the various Swiss German dialects, Standard German is used to write all laws, books, newspapers and other forms of written communication. As a result, Standard German is often referred to as Schriftdeutsch, which literally translates to “written German”. Standard German is also preferred as a spoken means of communication in more formal settings, such as during parliamentary discussions, educational settings, news broadcasts, public transportations and other occasions when the need for universal comprehension is greater. During the everyday life, however, dialects have inherent dominance over Standard German.

Swiss French and Swiss Italian: Regional Language Richness

Swiss French is mainly spoken in the western part of the country, where the French-speaking population accounts for approximately 20% of Switzerland’s total population. Major cities and most popular travel destinations such as Geneva and Lausanne are entirely francocentric. The differences between Swiss French and the French used in France are much less obvious as those between Swiss German and Standard German.

Swiss Italian is spoken by the Swiss Italian community in the south of Switzerland, along the border with Italy. They count around 350,000 speakers among themselves, which accounts for about 8% of Switzerland’s total population. Much like Swiss French, Swiss Italian can also be understood by any Italian-speaking individual relatively easily.

Romansh: Switzerland’s Smallest Official Language

Switzerland’s smallest national language is Romansh. Romansh is a Romance language with a large amount of German-borrowed words. With only 37,000 speakers, this language is recognized as the official language in the south-eastern canton of Grisons, where it is used as a medium of education and governance, and in the everyday life as a community language. Its speakers tend to hail from the more remote, mountainous parts of south-eastern Switzerland. Despite the small size of the Romansh-speaking community, the language is divided into five Romansh dialects used in daily life, with attempts made by the government of Grisons of introducing a universal “pan-Romansh”.