Switzerland is an interesting and diverse country with no less than four national languages, but just how widely is English spoken there? Can tourists and longer term stayers expect to be able to get by or will some German, French or Italian be needed to converse with the locals?
In general, English is quite widely spoken across Switzerland, with around 60% of the total population estimated to be able to speak some English. Proficiency does however vary across the cantons or regions, with English speakers more common in the German speaking cantons than the French or Italian speaking cantons. However, the general English proficiency is always at least 50% wherever you go.
Tourists should be able to get by fine with just English. However, given the different fluency rates in the different cantons, having some of the local languages can help for longer term residents who want to open up more work and social opportunities.
A 2008 survey placed the proportion of the population who could speak some English at around 61% overall across the country. This will have risen further in the intervening decade, since some Cantons now teach English as a primary foreign language, and it is an optional language at least in pretty much all Swiss schools.
Young people nowadays are well grounded in English in Switzerland; it is mainly the older population who may lack proficiency. It is widely enough spoken for instance for you to get by with shopping, restaurants and hotels, especially in the larger cities like Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Bern and Lugano.
Switzerland actually has four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh. Different regions or cantons have different prevalence of languages. German is the most widespread with around 62% of the population speaking it as of 2017. French follows behind at around 23% prevalence, with Italian much lower at around 8%. Romansh is tiny at around 0.5% of the population.
English is not recognized as an official language but is still quite commonly spoken due to widespread teaching. Zurich and Geneva especially are very international cities and you will perfectly fine using English there as well as the other major cities. Move into smaller towns and villages and deal with older people and the proficiency rates will drop off but still be common enough for you to get by, much the same as in Germany.
Using English is never reported to be a problem for shorter term tourist visits. Some people even report being able to live there long term and not learn any of the official languages. This depends largely on the work and personal circles an expat chooses to move in. Here is one account of getting by just with English from a forum:
“….Yes, it is livable to not speak the local language. You would be limiting yourself to other English speakers but depending on how long you plan to stay, that may not be a problem. I have two friends whose husbands never learnt to speak French despite living here over 10 years. Why should they?
They go to work where everyone speaks English and they come home to an English speaking household. They rarely need to do the shopping and what shopping they do do doesn’t really require them to know French.
My friends though have made a bigger effort to learn French because it does help to deal with administrative issues if you do speak it, especially for school (teachers, deans, etc.) but others just send their kids to private English-speaking schools and so don’t have to worry about it.”
And another account which expresses much the same view:
“I have plenty of friends who only speak English. It does limit your ability to connect with a lot of people – by far not everybody speaks perfect English – and especially in everyday life, you may face limitations sometimes. People working in a grocery store may not be able to help you as well as if you spoke German, for example. But yes, it is definitely livable. The bigger problem is that most employers will still require you to speak German.”
Of course taking this approach does somewhat limit you in terms of socializing and just handling everyday administrative issues and commercial interactions like phone, internet, banking and rental contracts, which may not be translated. Even though not strictly essential, it is always worth learning the local languages for longer term residents as it can make certain things easier living there.
English Proficiency in the Different Cantons
Whilst the overall prevalence of English in Switzerland is quite high, similar to Germany and comparing favorably to southern European countries like Spain and Italy, English proficiency does vary between the different regions or Cantons.
The Education First website has some excellent data on this. In general, the central and northern parts of Switzerland have the highest rates of English speakers, with Zurich in particular having excellent rates of English proficiency. The rest of the country has lower but still impressive rates of English fluency.
Here is an overview of the prevalence of English speakers in the major cities tourists may visit and expats may likely move to:
- Zurich – 64% English proficiency
- Basel – 61% English proficiency
- Bern – 59% English proficiency
- Geneva – 59% English proficiency
- Lausanne – 57% English proficiency
- Ticino – 57% English proficiency.
(See here for the dataset from Education first).
As a general rule, English is most prevalent in the German speaking Cantons, slightly less prevalent in the French speaking Cantons and less prevalent still in the Italian speaking parts of Switzerland. English proficiency is always over 50% wherever you go though,with the average across the country as a whole at around 60%
This level of English speakers should be plenty enough for tourists (and sometimes expats) to get by, as the accounts above demonstrate.
Learning The Local Languages
The language situation is no doubt more complex in Switzerland than other countries, since there are three main languages that are spoken in different frequencies in the 26 different Cantons (parts) of the country – German, French and Italian. German is the most prevalent as we mentioned, though in other areas, French and Italian are more predominant. Here is a general overview:
- German only – the main language, spoken in 17 of the 26 Cantons – Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Glarus, Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug and Zurich.
- French only – second biggest language, spoken widely in the Western Cantons – Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel and Vaud.
- Binlingual French and German – both languages spoken in Bern, Fribourg and Valais.
- Italian – spoken in Ticino and parts of Graubünden. Lugano is a key Italian speaking city.
- Trilingual canton – all three spoken – Graubünden
Image Credit: Marco Zanoli
So it depends greatly on where you are going which language you are best learning. However, on the balance of probabilities, German is the best language to learn that has the most chance of being spoken, unless you are in one of the French or Italian only regions.
Also the German spoken in Switzerland is a specific type of German known as Swiss German, which differs in some minor ways but is plenty close enough to standard German for the two to be mutually intelligible. As with most countries there are also regional dialects, but standard German will get you by fine in the German speaking and multilingual Cantons. Here are some key phrases.
|Goodbye||Auf wiedersehen||Owf veeder zayn|
|Sorry||Es tut mir leid||Ess toot meer lite|
|My name is||Ich heisse||Ich high-ser|
|Good morning||Guten morgen||Gooten morgen|
|Good day||Guten tag||Gooten taag|
|Good evening||Guten abend||Gooten ar-bent|
|Good night||Gute nacht||Gooter Nacht|
|Thanks a lot||Bitte schön||Bitter shurn|
|No problem||Kein problem||Kaiyn problem|
|Do you speak English?||Sprechen sie Englisch?||Schprecken zee ang-lish?|
|Where is the toilet?||Wo ist toilette?||Vo ist toy-lett-ay?|
|Where is the train station?||Wo is bahnhoff?||Vo ist barn-hoff?|
|Where is the exit?||Wo ist ausgang?||Vo ist ows-gang?|
|One ticket please?||Ein fahrkarte bitte||Ein far-cart-uh bitter|
|One/Two beers please?||Ein/Zwei bier(e) bitte||Ein/Tsvye beer(e) bitter|
|The bill please||Die Rechnung bitte||Dee rech-nung bitter|
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Some Swiss German words are different to standard German; see this video for some examples of this. Many of the differing words are more obscure and the small differences should not affect day to day communication.
For people visiting or living in the French of Italian speaking regions (Geneva and Lugano are two more common destinations), then check out our French and Italian articles for videos and tables of key phrases in these languages to help get you by.
Language & Travel Essentials For Visiting Switzerland
- Essential stats on Switzerland:
- Population: 8.6 million
- Time zone: EST +6 hours; GMT +1 hours.
- Currency: Swiss Franc (CHF) ($1 = 0.94 CHF; £1= 1.11 CHF at time of writing)
- International calling code: +41 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- German, French and Italian courses can also be found on our Language Courses page.
- See also our Phrasebooks page for travel pocketbooks to get you by with everyday phrases.
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – If you don’t want to get stung with high ATM fees, check out our article on the Wise Borderless Card, which allows you to open up balances in euros and many different currencies (including Swiss Franc) and spend for free on your card, plus draw out a certain amount of francs for free each month at ATMs.