Foreign Exchange Program

Languages in Switzerland By Maria Traskowsky

September 1, 2017


IFYE Participant, Maria Traskowsky

IFYE Participant, Maria Traskowsky

So what language do people speak in Switzerland, anyway? The answer depends on where you go. Switzerland has 4 official languages; German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Of these languages, German is the one that I have heard the most. Yet the Swiss actually speak a different language, called Swiss German.

In  each of the 26 cantons (I think of each canton as what we in the U.S. would call a state, but on a smaller scale) there are variances in the languages. Each canton has its own dialect, and sometimes these dialects are so different that someone who was born and raised in one canton, could have a little difficulty understanding the Swiss German of a different canton. This may not seem that crazy, until you take into consideration how small Switzerland is, and how small of a psychical distance there is between cantons. For comparison, Kansas is over 5 times as large as Switzerland. For those back home, imagine going a few counties over, and people around you are speaking a different language.

Swiss German is also not written down - anywhere. There's really no guide to learning the language, other than listening, which makes learning it quite challenging. When I first came to Switzerland, I spoke no High German, and of course I didn't speak Swiss German. Now, after 3 months, l can understand a little bit of High German and speak very basic phrases, but not much Swiss German. My favorite way to learn these languages is by talking with my host families, and asking them how to say words and phrases. A few have tried to teach me Swiss German as well, which is always an interesting experience. I did learn how to say "No idea" in Swiss German.. Kei Ahnig. It is my favorite thing to say, mostly because it fits pretty much any situation I've been in, and saying kei ahnig is better than giving someone a blank stare when they speak Swiss German to me.

The proximity of the surrounding countries also influences the dialect of each canton. In the canton of Bern, there is more of a French influence because it is closer to the French speaking part of Switzerland, and France. In the canton of Zurich, there is less of a French influence and more of a German dialect.

The language is another aspect of Switzerland that makes it especially unique from other countries, and hearing so many different languages makes me eager to learn more.

One of the most important things I have realized, is that a language barrier doesn't mean that you can't connect with someone. Sure, it helps to be able to speak the same language. But when you can't rely on language alone, you realize how well people can communicate without words at all. Some of my favorite people that I've met along the way have spoken very little English, and may never be able to, but it's perfectly fine. Smiling, kindness, and showing gratitude to others is a universal language that everyone understands.

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