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17 March 2015

Speaking "Swiss" 

Multilingual countries – think Spain, Canada or Belgium – often experience tension over how those languages coexist, especially where they are bound up with regional identity. The dividing lines are less fraught, but if anything more complex, in Switzerland, a country with no fewer than four official languages.

Alongside German, French and Italian, there’s also Romansh – a Romance tongue with some 60,000 regular speakers, mostly in the southeastern canton of Graubünden. Romansh evolved from Latin, picking up words from the Celtic and Raetic languages previously spoken in the area, although today German strongly influences its grammar and vocabulary.

Romansh is one more factor complicating a proposal that Swiss children should start learning a second national language by the fifth year of primary school, in addition to a foreign language (usually English). This would help preserve the country’s cohesion, according to interior minister Alain Berset, but the federal government cannot dictate to the cantons which second or third languages are taught.

Currently German is the first non-mother tongue taught in French-speaking Switzerland, while Italian-speaking Ticino opts for French. In Graubünden, which borders Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein and itself has three official languages, there is a choice between German, Italian and Romansh.

Some politicians, especially in German-speaking areas, would like to drop the teaching of French in primary schools and focus on English instead, but the idea that children in different areas of Switzerland should learn each other’s language still seems popular. Earlier this month voters in the central canton of Nidwalden decisively rejected a proposal that would cut the number of required additional languages to one, effectively keeping French on