Switzerland is officially quadrilingual, but many more languages are spoken in the country. Multilingualism in the national languages German, French, Italian, and Romansh is actively encouraged and enshrined in law.

Street signs in German and French
Bilingual street name in Biel/Bienne: Where German- and French-speaking Switzerland meet, both languages are used. © FDFA

Legal and cultural status 

To ensure that all language groups in Switzerland receive adequate respect, multilingualism is enshrined in the Language Act. The Federal Office of Culture is responsible for promoting languages and their associated cultures.

At the federal level, German, French and Italian are the official languages, while in Romansh-speaking areas, the Romansh language is also used for official purposes. Every language group has the right to communicate in its own language. All official federal texts, including legal documents, reports, websites, brochures, and building signage, must be provided in German, French and Italian. 

Compulsory second national language

Most Swiss people are not proficient in all four national languages, as they typically live and communicate within their own language region. However, all children in Switzerland are required to learn at least one other national language at school. While many may forget this additional language after finishing school, a significant number of people, especially those living near language borders, strive to maintain an understanding of one of the other national languages. 

Distribution of national languages

Of the 26 Swiss cantons, four are officially multilingual: French and German are spoken in the cantons of Bern, Fribourg, and Valais. Both German and French are spoken in the city of Biel/Bienne in the canton of Bern. The canton of Graubünden is unique in that three languages are spoken there: German, Romansh and Italian. The distribution of languages is influenced by the language borders between different language regions.

Over the past four decades, the distribution of national languages has changed significantly. The proportion of people who speak German, Italian, and Romansh as their main languages has decreased, while the proportion of those who speak French and non-national languages has increased. 

Immigrant languages

Immigration has introduced many additional languages to Switzerland in recent decades. Today, the total number of speakers of these non-national languages surpasses those speaking Italian and Romansh combined. The most frequently mentioned non-national languages in surveys are English, Albanian, and Portuguese.

In recent years, English has become significantly more important as a language of international communication in all language regions.