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Language Research

4. Minority groups: To what extent are minority groups in this country disadvantaged by their language?

Updated (July 2004)


The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF/FNS) has recently commenced work on a research concerning the linguistic diversity and language competency in Switzerland. A government-sponsored project is set to become the most comprehensive study on the linguistic situation in Switzerland ever undertaken. The three key areas of the research will incorporate language policy, education, as well as individual and group identity.

Initially the project was to be part of a much greater package of measures that were recently laid on ice due to the funding problems. Besides the four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), the study will also look at other community languages.

Language policy in Switzerland is based on the so-called “territorial principle”. The official language of each municipality is predetermined in the Constitution of the respective Canton. Currently only one larger municipality, Biel/Bienne, is officially bilingual. Due to the changes in linguistic make-up in certain areas, particularly along the linguistic boundary, this policy has been subject to criticism in recent years.

The two most famous examples of the towns with considerable minority population, that remain officially monolingual due to the current territorial law, are Fribourg/Freiburg (an officially French-speaking city with an ever increasing number of German speakers) and Chur/Chiur (officially German-speaking with a considerable Romansh speaking population).

About 25 percent of the total population of Switzerland are foreigners. Languages like Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish and Albanian are widely spoken and understood in the country; however, none of them has a formal status nowadays. In addition, English is increasingly used as the language of business communication between German and French-speaking Swiss.

Foreign language education in Switzerland has traditionally focused on the two main languages: German and French. In German-speaking Switzerland French was taught as the first foreign language and vice-versa. However, in its recent resolution the Canton of Zurich decided to give priority to English at a primary-school level. This highly controversial move was strongly criticized across the country. Thus the SNF research study is also expected to give guidelines for the future of language education in Switzerland.

Dr Christian Mottas, one of the project coordinators, pointed out that certain foreign languages, like Spanish, are already spoken by a greater number of people in Switzerland than the endangered official Romansh language. According to him, the enormous potential of multilingualism is underestimated and insufficiently utilized in the country.

The findings of this study may not only be of interest to Swiss policy makers, but they may equally give guidance to a much greater multilingual project called “Europe”.

Source: Eurolang News, Biel/Bienne, July 20, 2004, by Peter Josika,

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Updated (October 2004)


On September 22, 2004 the Committee of Experts, appointed by the Council of Europe, released their latest report on the situation of regional and minority languages and the application of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in Switzerland.

Generally the report praises a continued excellent level of cooperation among the Swiss authorities as well as a newly developed legislation in the Canton of Graubünden/Grischun/Grigioni, which recognizes Romansh and Italian as official languages besides Swiss German.

The European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages defines basic rights of linguistic minorities and outlines the most fundamental measures necessary to protect regional and minority languages as well as the linguistic diversity in Europe. The Swiss National Council (Lower House) ratified the Charter in 1993; however, it came into force only in 1997, when the Federal Council (the Council of the Swiss Ministers) finally agreed on it.

The report highlights that the latest 2000 Swiss Census showed a relative decrease in the number of minority and regional language speakers. The principal autochthonous minority language of Switzerland is Romansh1, spoken primarily in a few valleys of the trilingual Canton of Graubünden/Grischun/Grigioni. The proportion of Ladin speakers, constituting only 1 percent of the total Swiss population, has decreased by 0.1 percent recently.

Italian is a regional language of Switzerland spoken in the Cantons of Ticino and small parts of Graubünden/Grischun/Grigioni. While in 1990, 7.6 percent of the population had been Italian speakers, in 2000, this figure dropped to 6.5 percent.

There is also a small minority of Germanic-speaking Walsers who live in the north of the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino. Their number has decreased from 35 to 23 speakers and their language is in an extreme danger of extinction.

According to the estimates, 30,000 Yenish (self defined as Swiss Gypsies) are spread across the country. However, Switzerland currently considers them as a cultural rather than linguistic minority.

Concerning the weaknesses mentioned in the report, the Committee pointed to the following areas:

  • The lack of measures to support transnational cooperation, especially between the Romansh speakers of Switzerland and the Ladin speakers of Italy (South Tyrol, Trentino, Belluno)
  • The lack of effort to raise the awareness about minority languages among the majority population in the areas of the media and education
  • The lack of educational facilities for Walser Germans in the Canton of Ticino
  • Recognition of the Yenish as a linguistic rather than cultural minority

It was further noted that the Swiss system of linguistic territoriality, which makes the language of instruction at educational facilities dependent on the official language of a municipality, has a detrimental effect on the linguistic diversity, especially along linguistic boundaries.

In addition, the report also mentioned that the authorities do not encourage the use of minority languages (like Romansh) in the courts, in administration and government communication (brochures, etc.).

Source: Eurolang News, Biel/Bienne, September 28, 2004, by Peter Josika,

1 called also Ladin

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Updated (December 2007)


According to the Helvetia Latina Association, French and Italian-speaking minorities in Switzerland are still under-represented in the federal administration.

The Association has called on the Government to apply a new language law that would improve the role of minority languages in this sphere.

Helvetia Latina said the cabinet was responsible for ensuring the right balance between the country's different languages within its administration. And, if the Government does not want to fulfill its duties, the Association president noted, they should consider creating a new post – Commissioner of Official Languages as it is in Canada – who would have the power to carry out investigations.

Several other proposals have been sent to the Parliament, including a demand that all new managers and senior civil servants should speak two national languages and understand the third.

In Switzerland, German is the first language for about 64 percent of the Swiss population, ahead of French at 20 percent. In addition, 6.5 percent of population speaks Italian as their mother tongue and only 0.5 percent speaks Romansh.

Source: website, December 3, 2007

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