HOW TO: Speak "Swiss"

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One minute, the train announcement is in German. An hour later, it’s in French. Then you get off the train and everyone is speaking Italian. Welcome to Switzerland, where people often use multiple languages in the same sentence, where crossing the Alps is like crossing the border into another country, and where somehow everyone manages to understand one another.

But before you roam around this tiny, linguistically rich country, read this helpful guide to speaking “Swiss.” It won’t make you fluent in any of Switzerland's many languages, but it will help you understand where to speak what, and what to say where.

French (Western Switzerland)

In many ways, western Switzerland is more like a region of France than a region of Switzerland. The French speaking Swiss here love their language and rarely speak anything else. They enjoy their wine and have large festivals around the grape harvest. They fill their streets with brasseries and outdoor cafés. So prepare to feel like you are in France, and prepare to be spoken to in French--and only French.

At a French Restaurant
Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?
Hello, do you speak English?

Oui, mais vous ne voulez pas?
Yes, but you don’t want to?

Ok, d'accord, parlez vous allemand?
OK. Well, how about German?

Vous ne voulez pas non plus.
You don’t want to speak that either.

Je voudrais simplement un menu en anglais ou en allemand.

I just want a menu in English or German.

Vous n'avez que des menus en francais. Intéressant.
You only offer menus in French. Interesting.

Ok, je prendrais la fondue, je sais lire ca.
OK, I’ll have the fondue since I can read that.

Italian (Southeastern Switzerland)

The southern side of the Alps feels like a different world. In fact, should you find yourself in southeast Switzerland, you might begin to wonder if you have accidentally crossed the border into Italy. There is sunshine. There are people talking with their hands. Every other shop is selling ice cream. And the buildings are all painted yellows, oranges, and pinks. Plus, every restaurant serves only two things: pizza and pasta. Suddenly disoriented, you might find yourself needing directions:

Asking Directions in Italian
Mi scusi, come arrivo al lago di Como?
Excuse me, where is Lake Como?

Attraversare la frontiera? Veramente pensavo di essere già in Italia.
Across the border in Italy? But I thought I was in Italy.

Oh, sono ancora in Svizzera?
Oh, I’m still in Switzerland?

Adesso capisco perchè non si vede smog.
Ah, that explains the lack of grime.

Ma, e le palme?
But what about these palm trees?

E com'è che la gente parla italiano?
And why are people speaking Italian?

Ah, e così, gli svizzeri parlano anche italiano.
Oh yeah, Swiss people speak Italian too. Figures.

German (Most of Switzerland)

German is the most commonly spoken language in Switzerland. But how do you know you’re in a German-speaking area? It’s simple: The street sweeper is on constant duty, the shopkeeper is more concerned with wiping down the counter than serving the next person, and if the train comes a second late, everyone around you will nearly suffer a heart attack. But cleanliness and timeliness don’t come cheap.

Speaking German at the Bus Stop
Eine Busfahrt kostet wie viel?
A bus ride costs how much?

Ha, ha. Das ist ein guter Witz.
Ha, ha that’s a good joke.

Der Bus hat schon dreissig Sekunden Verspätung. Mein Gott. Was ist los?
This bus is already thirty seconds late. My God. What’s going on?

Ich könnte direkt auf dem Boden des Busses essen.
I could eat off the floor of this bus!

Romansh (Mountainous Region of Kanton Graubünden)

Romansh is spoken by roughly 40,000 people—0.5 percent of the population—who are scattered in tiny, rural towns throughout Kanton Graubünden, a mountainous region in eastern Switzerland. Romansh doesn’t appear on grocery store items, restaurant menus, street signs, or Swiss job search sites. And yet, it is still considered an official language of Switzerland, so it still appears on formal Swiss documents. But since more and more young people seem to be leaving Kanton Graubünden, and the forested, mountainous region is sparsely populated to begin with, it’s starting to feel a bit empty.

Speaking Romansh to a Cow
Hallo? Ei cheu enzatgi?
Hello? Anyone?   

Nua ein tuts auters?
Where the heck is everyone?

Hallo vacca. Ti eis la suletta, che jeu anfla per tschintschar.
Hello, cow. You’re the only one I can find to talk to.

Mi plai tiu sgalin. Astgel jeu far ina fotografia da tei?
I like your bell. Can I take your picture?

Di "cheese" = caschiel!

Say cheese!

Wow. Bien Echo.
Wow. Cool echo.


Given the frequency of breakdowns in communication in Switzerland, it’s also common to communicate through good old-fashioned body language. Here are a few acts or gestures that you might find especially helpful, no matter what part of the country you’re in:

Kissing the air around someone’s cheeks three times.

Holding up a photo of Obama and pointing between you and it.
I’m an American, and I want you to like me.

Setting a huge bag on the bus seat next to you.
Sorry, this seat is saved.

Pulling out a cell phone, pointing to your watch, pointing back to the phone, and walking away.

I’m sorry, I really have to make this phone call.

Just remember, don’t be too embarrassed if you mix up your languages—language confusion is nothing out of the ordinary in Switzerland. In the world of linguistics, the Swiss are the champions. The rest of us, well, we just end up speechless.


Posted on 6/12/2009 by

Helen Appleby

Helen Appleby

Refreshingly funny and true :) You just missed the fact that if you speak German, don't actually expect to understand Swiss German!

Posted on 6/14/2009 by

Amy Smith

Amy  Smith

Chantal, great story, love your writing style!

Posted on 6/15/2009 by

Chantal Panozzo

Chantal  Panozzo

Thanks, glad you enjoyed the piece. And Helen, you are right--I have taken German lessons for two years and still can't understand most of what Swiss Germans say--it really is another language--and since it's not a written one, only a spoken one, it makes the whole "How to Speak Swiss" even more complicated!

Posted on 7/14/2009 by

Saleem Reshamwala

Saleem Reshamwala

I feel like one of the things that helps people learn languages is being in situations where it's just expected that you be multilingual. My cousins in India all speak at least a couple languages and a few very different dialects. Languages aren't a big deal to them. They're more like a practical ability. They learn a language with the same matter-of-fact-ness that kids at my old high school learn how to use computers. Did you get any insight into how they pick up languages? Is it study or just constant exposure?

Posted on 7/14/2009 by

Chantal Panozzo

Chantal  Panozzo

Good point. People in Switzerland definitely learn languages as a practical thing. It's not a big deal like it is to Americans to know another language--in fact, it's almost necessary for survival. A third of the population also speaks English, which isn't even an official Swiss language.

Posted on 10/05/2009 by

Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco

Hilarious, and very true. I loved Switzerland when I visited... I think it may be time to go back!

Posted on 11/20/2010 by

Virginia Holliger

Yes, a place for those who loves languages. I like your style of writing,too, I hope you don't mind,I just shared it in facebook.

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