Switzerland has four official languages, but in reality many more are spoken. Multilingualism in the national languages German, French, Italian and Romansh is cultivated in society and is enshrined in law.

Street signs in French and German
A bilingual street name in Biel/Bienne: where German and French-speaking Switzerland meet, both languages are spoken. © FDFA

Anchored in Swiss law and culture

Switzerland's multilingualism is governed by the Languages Act, which ensures respect for each of the four language communities. The Federal Office of Culture has chief responsibility for promoting the four languages and associated culture.

German, French and Italian are the official languages of the Confederation. Romansh, although a national language, is used by the federal authorities only when communicating with Romansh speakers.  Each language group has the right to communicate in its own language. All official federal documents (legislation, reports, websites, brochures and building signage) must appear in German, French and Italian.

A second national language is compulsory

Few Swiss people master all four national languages. Most people live in the region where their native language is spoken and communicate in that language. At school, all children in Switzerland must learn at least one of the other national languages. Even if they forget their second language after leaving school, many people, especially those living close to another linguistic region, make an effort to understand one of the other languages.

Distribution of the four national languages

Four of Switzerland's 26 cantons are officially multilingual. Both French and German are spoken in the cantons of Bern, Fribourg and Valais. The cities of Biel and Fribourg are also bilingual. In the canton of Graubünden, three languages are spoken: German, Romansh and Italian, depending on the proximity to neighbouring linguistic regions.

Over the last four decades, the linguistic landscape has changed radically.  The proportion of people who speak German, Italian or Romansh as their native language has declined, while speakers of French and non-national languages are increasing.

Languages of immigration

Immigration has brought many more languages into the country in recent decades. Together, these non-national languages are now spoken by more people than Italian and Romansh combined. The two most widely spoken non-national languages are English and Portuguese.

As the language of international communication, English has become much more important in all linguistic regions in recent years.