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English as a common language in Switzerland: a positive or a problem?

Valery Kachaev

It’s not unusual to hear Swiss people from different parts of the country chatting away in English. Not everyone is happy about this, but does using English as a lingua franca – a bridge over the Röstigraben, the country’s main linguistic divide – benefit national cohesion or harm it?

This content was published on April 4, 2021 - 10:00

The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has created communication challenges between the country’s language regions which need to be addressed, according to a top politician.

“I think this has presented an opportunity to discuss multilingualism in the country and that these discussions should include a modernisation of the law to consider English as one of the main languages […],” said Sven Gatz, who described the current situation as “not very future proof”.

He acknowledged, however, that there would be opposition. “There are already many people who say that we should first learn each other’s languages before prioritising English.”

Gatz isn’t Swiss. He’s the Brussels Minister for the Promotion of Multilingualism and was speaking to the Brussels Times on March 16. While the Swiss government has certainly been criticised for its response to the pandemic, no one has yet pointed the blame at Switzerland’s four national languages. However, Gatz’s comments highlight some of the political and social challenges facing officially multilingual countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium and Canada.

Earlier this year a Swiss reporter for German-language Swiss public television, SRF, interviewed Jean-Stéphane Bron, a Swiss film director from French-speaking Lausanne, about his latest documentary. They spoke in English.

“Normally SRF and [news programme] Tagesschau want interviews to be carried out in the respective national language,” explained the journalist, Uta Kenter. However, she had grown up in Germany and felt her French wasn’t up to discussing how to replicate the human brain on a computer. Bron clearly felt the same about his German.

“Very often we ask questions in English and the interview partner answers in their national language. Unfortunately in this case that wasn’t possible,” she said.

Given that Bron’s comments would have been dubbed into German no matter whether he was speaking English, French or any other language, in practice there was no difference for the viewer. In theory, however, it raises interesting questions about the role and status of English in Switzerland. First of all, is the use of English as a linguistic bridge actually increasing?

“Anecdotally, I think we’re all in agreement that people from different Swiss linguistic backgrounds tend to use English as a lingua franca,” said Franz Andres Morrissey, a senior lecturer in English linguistics at the University of Bern.

Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch

Mutual comprehension

Morrissey was unaware of any large-scale quantitative study that confirms or rejects the anecdotal evidence. However, he referred to a 2003 study by Mercedes Durham, a sociolinguist now at Cardiff University, who looked at email exchanges between Swiss medical students and found that they started communicating in their mother tongue and ended up switching to English to ensure greater comprehension.

“English appears to be the most readily understood and accepted language in mixed language groups, the main reason for this being that it is a non-native language for all,” Durham wrote. “The Italian speakers on the mailing list were at the forefront of this change, since as nobody else spoke their native language, they experienced first-hand the need to ensure that people be able to understand one another.”

Language use in Switzerland

Switzerland has four national languages: German is spoken by about 63% of the population (the vast majority of those people actually speak Swiss German), French by 23%, Italian by 8% and Romansh by 0.5%, about 50,000 people.

Whether chatting to relatives or work colleagues, surfing the internet, reading or watching TV, 68% of over-15s use more than one language at least once a week, according to 2019 data. The remaining 32% said they use only one language, down from 36% in 2014. The older the person, the more likely they are to use only one language. The survey found that 38% regularly use two languages, 21% use three, 6.4% use four and 1.7% use at least five.

English is the most common non-national language and is regularly spoken by 45% of the population in Switzerland. English is more widespread in the German-speaking part of the country than in Italian- and French-speaking regions (46% vs 37% and 43% respectively).

In 2019, almost three-quarters of people aged 15-24 said they spoke, wrote, read or listened to English at least once a week, around ten percentage points more than in 2014.

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The Osservatorio linguistico della Svizzera italiana (OLSI), which conducts research on various aspects of Italian in Switzerland, said that, in the workplace, the use of English had been increasing – and the use of national languages decreasing – across the country since at least the 1990s.

However, “English is currently used less overall in Italian-speaking Switzerland than in other language regions”, they said, citing 2019 data from the Federal Statistical Office.

This graph shows how Swiss workers in French- and German-speaking Switzerland are roughly twice as likely to speak English as another national language, but the situation is much more balanced in the Italian-speaking region. Non-Swiss nationals working in Switzerland are even more likely to use English at their workplace.

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OLSI said the reduced presence of English at work and the relative importance of the national languages in the Italian-speaking area was “undoubtedly” due to the school system – especially in Ticino, where the other national languages have priority over English in compulsory schooling (first French, then German).

It explained that if you work in a minority language region – and if your work is at a national or interregional level – then the other national languages can’t be ignored.

“For this reason it can be said that in Ticino there is generally little need to use English as a lingua franca and skills in the national languages can be assumed.”

So English is not seen as a disruptive invader? “Even if in Ticino we note a certain importance of English in the professional world, we certainly can’t speak of a problem with English, for example in the sense of a real danger that English might supplant Italian.”

Bad school experiences

But could English supplant French or German? Durham noted that when the aim is to communicate to a broader, multilingual audience, as the internet makes it easy to do, “neither French nor German is able to serve as the main language in the Swiss context, and it becomes necessary to use English”.

SWI swissinfo.ch has ten language departments and editorial meetings are held in English. It is also not unusual to hear two Swiss colleagues conversing in English. Common languages also exist between specific individuals. I, for example, speak German with two members of the Chinese department, French with another and English with the fourth.

Morrissey, who is a German-speaking Swiss with native-level English, said he too has had personal experience of English as a lingua franca.

“My dissertation was on language choice in bilingual education in Switzerland. And one of the people I had a lot of contact with was a journalist from L'Hebdo [a former Lausanne-based news weekly]. And we both actually felt much more comfortable speaking English to each other because my French is not at all good, and her German – well basically she said she’d been ‘wounded by the school experience’.”

He explained how the standard complaint from French-speaking Swiss is that they learn “good” German (as spoken in Germany) and then their compatriots insist on speaking dialect. “That is, of course, an incentive to say, ‘OK, forget it – we’ll go for the language that basically requires the same effort between us’.”

Political issue

In 2016 Durham wrote that the main development in the use of English as a lingua franca was who the Swiss spoke English with.

“Initially English was primarily used with tourists, but in the past two decades it has been increasingly used by Swiss speakers with one another as well, making it an intranational lingua franca and making English a de facto Swiss language.”

The Swiss government already publishes many press releases in EnglishExternal link, but hearing English described as a Swiss language – de facto or not – is enough to make some Swiss dizzy.

In September 2000 the head of education for canton Zurich (education is a cantonal issue in Switzerland) announced that English, rather than French, would be the first foreign language taught in schools. The following day, the French-language newspaper Le Temps asked whether the inclusion of English in the canton’s school curriculum spelt the “end of Switzerland”. This was also the phrase used by Ticino politician Chiara Simoneschi-Cortesi in 2009, when she was president of the House of Representatives, warning about what she thought would happen if English became the language of communication between the Swiss.

Many people, particularly in the French- and Italian-speaking parts of the country, fear that teaching English ahead of Swiss national languages would weaken or even undo the social glue that holds Switzerland together.

“That English is useful does not mean it is useful for everything,” concluded a study on languages and the economy by the University of Geneva in 2016. “To understand French-speaking Switzerland, one must speak French. To know German-speaking Switzerland, one must speak German and at least understand Swiss-German to some extent.”

In 2017 voters in canton Zurich decided that pupils would continue to learn English from age seven and French from age 11.

Two sides

When it comes to teaching English or a national language, Morrissey says there are basically two arguments.

“A utilitarian argumentation would be ‘let’s go for English’. And in fact this is how the debate in Zurich and other places has been sorted,” he said. In other words, English is considered more useful for German-speakers than French or Italian.

“The other argument, about national cohesion, is fairly old. To what degree it actually washes, I’m not convinced. I do feel to a large degree that Switzerland has a cohesion which is fairly firm. There’s a nationalistic element to it; there’s an economic element to it. I don’t think language plays that much of a role, but it’s kind of a banner that we like to rally behind,” he said.

“But if people couldn’t speak each other’s national language – Italian and Romansh are cases in point – it’s highly unlikely the country would fall apart.”

So speaking English isn’t a problem? “I don’t know if it’s a problem. If it helps communication, then it’s certainly not a bad thing. It is perhaps a little bit of an impoverishment of the language repertoire that you could have. But I don’t think there’s anything we can do, because people will use whichever channel of communication works,” he said.

“I tell my students that communication is the epitome of the path of least resistance. You communicate in whichever shape or fashion that creates the fewest obstacles.”

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