Do People Speak English in Switzerland?

Switzerland attracts many English-speakers from around the world because the country has several beautiful sites to see. So, if you’re eagerly planning a trip to Switzerland, you might be wondering if people speak English and how you’ll communicate with the locals.
Switzerland has a population of around 8.57 million people.Many people do speak English in Switzerland as a second language. Even though the country’s four official languages are Romansh, French, Italian, and German, approximately 45% of residents still speak English regularly, with the highest number of English-speakers found in the German-speaking canton. You are more likely to speak English if you are younger, live in an urban area and are rich. The major cities of Zurich, Bern, Basel and Geneva have significant numbers of people speaking English especially in the service industry and amongst the corporate and finance industry. Fewer people in the countryside of Switzerland speak English. 

About 60% of the population resides in the German-speaking canton, which means that there are fewer English-speakers in the French, Italian, and Romansh cantons. Still, the population’s high levels of English fluency are impressive. Let’s explore the reasons behind the country’s English-speaking abilities, how Swiss people learn English and why it’s becoming more popular.

Many Young, Swiss Students Choose to Learn English

English has become the most popular language to learn among high school and college-aged students. As a result, 72% between the ages of 15 and 24 communicate in English weekly but the percentage drops as the age increases.

Currently, Switzerland’s English Proficiency Position is ranked at #18 out of 100 countries, and English remains the primary language of 67 world nations and secondary in 27 countries.

It’s also the language of popular movies, TV shows, and music, which explains why Switzerland’s youth are eager to embrace the language more.

So, even though English is not one of Switzerland’s four official languages, it is commonly accepted in public settings because younger generations are regularly speaking it.

Switzerland Is a Popular Travel Destination

Globally, there are 1.5 billion English-speaking people. For a significant number of them, Switzerland is a desirable travel destination. The beauty and challenge of the Alps for hiking, skiing, and sightseeing by train, attracts large numbers of tourists. Visitors are also drawn to the many historic cities, scenic villages, and landmarks.

Switzerland welcomes travelers who speak only English, and the language is spoken in shops and the main tourist areas to accommodate visitors.

Swiss Universities Offer Courses in English

English speakers wishing to study abroad will find Swiss universities accommodating. They do not compromise on entrance standards, and their educational standards at all levels are impressive.

Student feedback regarding their time spent studying in Switzerland is positive. While academic demands are rigorous, they praised the scenic and tranquil environment.

Interested students have a broad range of degree subjects offered in English, including physics, civil engineering, medicine, international business, and computer science.

English Can Be an Asset in the Swiss Job Market

Switzerland is a significant financial hub. Technology, engineering, banking, IT, and pharmaceutics are primary industries, so being multilingual is a much-desired asset.

The Swiss workforce is also extremely skilled; wages are high, and so is the standard of living. Most people who enter the workforce are bilingual in at least two of the country’s official languages, and many have additional English skills.

English-only speakers can find a job in Switzerland, but their language does not necessarily guarantee them a position, except for specialist jobs that require English as a first language.

Therefore, learning English can be an asset in the Swiss job market, as well as learning the other official languages too, such as French and Italian, because they’re also widely spoken.

There’s a Push to Make English the Fifth Language

Currently, Switzerland encourages teaching English in schools as a foreign language. The demand to learn English is there, but at the same time, the desire to maintain the primary language in each canton is also strong. This is especially true for the Romansh canton.

So, is there room for a fifth official language? The German canton believes there is, especially when the language is considered easy enough to master. So much so that some young people teach themselves English at home.

The Swiss National Science Foundation has weighed in with the support of English as a fifth official language. They see it as an efficient means of communicating across all four cantons.

English Use in Major Cities in Switzerland

  • Bern – The city of Bern is the capital city of Switzerland. Around 120000 people live in this city which is located in the west of Switzerland. The city is awash in natural beauty, art galleries, museums and parks. From Bern you can see the majesty of the Bernese Alps. Bern sits on the border between the French speaking part of Switzerland and the German speaking part. 60% of young people who live in Bern can speak English, while the older generations can speak English much less.
  • Basel – Basel is a city with around 164000 people located in the north of Switzerland on the border with Germany and France. This means that it is also on the border of the German speaking region of Switzerland and the French Speaking region. That being said, the predominant language among the local people is German. It is a small city, but there are lots of museums and beautiful shopping streets. Amongst young people English is spoken by around 62%. The tourist sights, restaurants and hotels will certainly have a number of people who can help in English.
  • Zurich – The biggest city in Switzerland is Zurich with around 342000 people. It is located in the north east of Switzerland within the German speaking region of the country. Zurich is the location for many international institutions, it has two major universities and is the financial centre of the country. It is said to be the gateway to the alps and is surrounded by beautiful scenery. It sits on the edge of lake Zurich. Zurich has the highest rate of English proficiency among the young people at around 63%. Given its importance for international student and international organisations you will find that a large number of people can easily converse in English.
  • Geneva – The city of Geneva is the second largest in Switzerland with around 184000 people. It is an international diplomatic centre as well as a place for amazing natural beauty. There are many art galleries, museums and there is even a large hadron collider nearby. Geneva is located in the far west of the country deep into the French speaking region of Switzerland. Amongst the local young people around 57% of people speak English. The city is an international travel destination so many people in the hotels, restaurants and tourist sight can speak English to help you.

What Languages are Spoken in Switzerland?

  • German – German is the most common language spoken in Switzerland of the official languages. The official languages being, German, French, Italian and Romansh. The total number of German speakers is around 5.32 million or 62%. The German regions of Switzerland are in the central and northern parts of the country.
  • French – French is the second most common official language. It has around 1.97 million speakers or around 23%. The French speaking regions of Switzerland are located in the west of the country bordering France.
  • Italian – Italian is the 3rd most common official language. There are around 0.68 million people or 8.2% of the population of the country. The Italian regions of Switzerland are located in the south of the country bordering Italy.
  • Romansh – Romansh is the 4th most common language being spoken by only 40,000 people or 0.5% of the population. Romansh is spoken in the central region and also in the far eastern region of the country.
  • English – English isn’t an official language of Switzerland, but it is spoken by 61% of people in Switzerland in large part as a second language. This means in total around 5.22 million people speak English.

Is English necessary in Switzerland?

  • Tourists – If you are travelling to any of the big cities in Switzerland you are going to find many people who are able to speak English. As with many countries English is more likely to be spoken by the rich, the urban, and the young. But Switzerland is a very international oriented country with many international companies and institutions so you are going to find much more prevalence of English. There are also many international students studying in Switzerland meaning that English is their most common means for communication.
  • Locals – Amongst the local people you will find that English helps people if they work in the service industry. Also, for any students who wish to study abroad or do business abroad an understanding of English is very useful. The people least likely to know much English are old people in rural areas.

English vs German

There are 4 official languages in Switzerland, German, French, Italian and Romansh. But not all the languages are equally popular. German is the most popular with around 65% of people being Germanophones.

It is with that in mind that if you are looking to visit Switzerland and you wish to learn one of the local languages then German is probably your best bet. That being said, be aware of where you are as German might not be the most popular language in the region in which you are spending most of your time.

So, for anyone looking to take on German, here are some of the key differences between the two languages.

  • Vocabulary – There are many cognate words between German and English, so you can learn some new vocabulary fast, however there are also many confusing false friends which mean something else to the intuitive meaning. German words are often built by adding affixes to base words which can be both logical and on occasion overwhelming.
  • Grammar – There are some very big differences in the rules for the use of verb tense. You will find that German doesn’t use the continuous form, and that for future will you can use the present simple. This can lead to a lot of confusion initially. There are 3 genders for nouns in German and there are also some very specific rules for word order to learn and apply.
  • Speaking/listening – The stress and intonation rules in German and English are very similar. In terms of sounds produced, again there are many similarities. That being said, you may encounter problems with the th sound and the difference between w and v.
  • Writing/reading – The German alphabet has all the 26 letters of the English alphabet with the addition of 4 letters, ä, ö, ü, and the ß.

Basic Phrases in German

  • Nice to meet you! – Freut mich
  • Hello – Hallo
  • It’s lovely weather today, is not it? – Schönes Wetter heute, nicht wahr?
  • Encantado – Encantado
  • Good morning – Guten Morgen
  • Good afternoon – Guten Tag
  • Good evening – Guten Abend

Final Thoughts

Switzerland is a great country, I real melting pot of different cultures, languages and values. Of the local languages, German is the most popular with Romansh being the least popular. That being said English has long played a part and a very significant number of people in Switzerland speak English.

So if you are planning to visit the country, you should be also to survive with just your English unless you venture to the more rural parts of the country.

Thanks for taking the time to today’s overview of English in Switzerland.

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