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Why do Swiss people speak so many languages?

If you’ve ever met a Swiss person, there’s a big chance that they spoke multiple languages – and an even bigger chance that you were quite impressed by it. Many Swiss people speak a comparatively high number of languages. Some reasons for this, such as the country’s four official national languages, are fairly obvious as to why the Swiss are polyglots.

But let’s have a closer look at some of the other reasons why Swiss people speak so many languages.

Multilingual Switzerland ­– the obvious reasons

Switzerland is a tiny country, snuggly tucked away in the heart of Europe and bordering with Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. It’s geographical location also explains the four official national languages: German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romanic or Romash as it’s locally called. The latter being a language native to the Swiss mountain Canton of Graubünden. Unfortunately, Romansh is an endangered language according to UNESCO, with less than 0.5 % of the Swiss population now able to speak the language fluently.   

There currently seems to be no coherent research on how many languages the “average human” speaks but there are a few sources that suggest it is between one and two languages with about half of the world’s population speaking one language.

A cultural melting pot tucked away between mountains

In addition to its geographical location, Switzerland also happens to have one of the highest foreign-born populations in the world in relation to the total number of inhabitants. This includes all people born abroad who have migrated from their place of birth to Switzerland, where they now hold residency. In addition to the four national languages thus come a large number of other spoken languages with some of the main ones being Portuguese, English, Turkish, Spanish, Serbian, Croatian and Albanian. Many households are multilingual with immigrant parents learning the local language whilst raising their children in their native tongue of their places of origin. This makes for many polyglot families in Switzerland.

Want to see proof? Just have a look at Switzerland’s national soccer team. Most of the players have a migration background and their parents come from all corners of the world. Some joke about how this “immigrant team” isn’t truly Swiss but if you think about it, there isn’t a better way to represent what Switzerland really is: a multicultural melting pot of many different nations.

A good education as a foundation

Good schooling is not a must to learn a language. It sure is a big help though. The Swiss are fortunate to enjoy one of the best education systems in the world. This of course includes access to learning multiple languages from a young age. In Switzerland, it is mandatory to learn two of the national languages plus English from primary school onwards (each Canton can decide autonomously at what grade students start learning what language). In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, students study French and vice versa, plus, in the Italian speaking part, they often learn both at various ages throughout their primary and secondary schooling. All schools also teach English nowadays and higher schools of education often have additional languages on offer.

Learning is one thing, practising another

Studying languages in school is one thing. Practising how to actually speak them is another. We all know how frustrating it is to be crunching hours over textbooks, studying long lists of vocabulary and conjugating verbs to then simply forget everything later in life. Being fluent in a language sadly isn’t like riding a bike: you have to practise it continuously to not forget how it works and to keep improving your skills. Switzerland is lucky in this aspect too. Hop in the train from Zurich to Lausanne to Lugano and once you get to your destination, you can immerse yourself in another language right away – one of the benefits of living in a small multilingual country with a fantastic railway system! Plus, the proximity to many other countries with little to no visa restrictions for Swiss passport holders allows for international travel and the option to live, work and study abroad. A dream which is unattainable for many as it requires a strong and stable currency as well as a sufficient income.

Next time you meet a Swiss person

So there you have it! Now you know why so many people in Switzerland speak multiple languages. And whilst it’s certainly impressive for a person to speak multiple languages, we must admit that the Swiss definitely have many advantages to develop their language skills from an early age. Perhaps you will be slightly less mind-blown now that you have a better understanding of where this talent for languages stems from.


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