'Can I get by in Switzerland with English alone?'
When it comes to moving to Switzerland - or really any other foreign country - you'll want to know how far your English will get you. In Switzerland, the answer to the question is: it depends. Or, as one would say in Swiss-German: “Jain” (ja & nein, meaning, you guessed it, yes & no). The country may be small, but there are a lot of nationalities packed in. Big cities such as Basel, Zurich and Geneva are pretty international. So you can “get by” with English. That means that you can do most everyday activities without encountering a language barrier. Think: ordering food at a restaurant, buying groceries or managing your account in person at a bank. But...knowing at least a little bit of one of the four Swiss local languages can go a long way when it comes to settling in
Who speaks what in Switzerland?
In Switzerland, there are four national languages: German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Rumantsch. German is the most widely spoken language in the country, with 19 cantons that are predominantly German-speaking, that means around 64% of the Swiss population. French is the official language in four cantons, all of which are located in the western part of Switzerland. Italian is spoken in Ticino and parts of the canton of Graubünden. And Rhaeto-Rumantsch is spoken by only 0.5% of the Swiss population, so you will probably get further there with English.
When you know some German, French or Italian (or Rhaeto-Rumantsch), it’s easier to make friends, interact with your child’s teacher and participate in small-talk during the 9 o’clock coffee break at work.
Switzerland is a particular country when it comes to languages
Because of how international Switzerland is, most people expect the Swiss to be fluent in English. But this is not always the case. Business may be conducted in English, but everyday life happens in the local language. Swiss often know two national languages, for example, German and a bit of French. That doesn’t mean that they know English!
Why you should learn your local Swiss language
Even if you are only living in Switzerland for a short time, there are so many reasons why we think learning the local language is important and will do you good:
You get the full 'Swiss experience': Living in Switzerland is wonderful and knowing the local language makes it even better. You can experience Swiss cuisine because you’ll be able to read the menu; you’ll never get lost because you can read the signs on the highway, and you can ask for directions on your day trip; you’ll feel a lot less like an outsider when you know a few key phrases.
You'll be closer to your children: If your child attends a local school, then knowing some German, French or Italian will make it easier for you to interact with their teachers, as well as other parents. The assignments and papers that your child will bring home from school will be in the local Swiss language. You’ll be able to support your child better when you can read, write and speak the same language they are taught in.
It's so much easier to make friends: The Swiss love their clubs! No matter where you live, you’ll be surrounded by opportunities to meet up for activities ranging from networking, hiking and sailing, to chess and cooking. In their free time, the Swiss revert to their own language. So if you want to join your local fishing club and build friendships with your neighbors, knowing how to converse in German, French or Italian will make it much easier.
It helps with getting your C permit: If you want to stay in Switzerland, you'll need a Swiss Permanent Resident Permit (also known as a C Permit). Among the requirements for this permit are at least Level A2 of language skills in the official language of your canton and proof that you are well-integrated into Swiss society (good relations with the local population or connections to a local association).
You'll be able to understand official documents: If you need to take care of any administrative work, like taxes or registration forms, all documents and info sheets you receive or submit will be in the Swiss local language. Your interactions with the staff at the city hall will most likely also be in the local language.
"Picking up" a language seldom works
Most newcomers to Switzerland are confident they can pick up the local language along the way and simply rely on English in the meantime. But picking up a language without having a good grasp of the grammar isn't practical. It might work when you're at the grocery story and you're looking for a specific item, but it won't help if you're trying to participate in a conversation with your neighbors.
To truly learn a Swiss local language, sign up for a language class. Work on not only your speaking and listening skills, but reading and writing skills as well. And as soon as you have a foundation of basics, you'll be able to fully immerse yourself in your new home.