The Rise of English in Switzerland

English in Switzerland: From Foreign Language to Lingua Franca?
Urs Dürmüller University of Bern

Since World War II English has been spreading all over the world in (sic) an ever increasing tempo. Like so many other countries in which English was once nothing but a foreign language, Switzerland, too, has allowed English to acquire a more dominant place within the national language repertoires. Before World War II the presence of English could be felt only where the citizens of the Anglo-American countries - then above all Britain - came into contact with Swiss citizens. In Switzerland borrowings into the Swiss national languages - German, French, Italian and Romansh - were made in the domains of sports, entertainment and other leisure time activities. These borrowings were mainly terms that could easily be integrated into the Swiss languages and did not change them structurally. Sport, corner, foul, jazz, charleston, fox-trot, star and many others were taken up in the same way as the Italian spaghetti and gelati or the French parfum and jupe. The average Swiss citizens did not have any fluency in English; typically they would acquire an English language competence only if in contact with English speaking foreigners, as in tourism. In the Bernese Oberland the English speaking Swiss wanted to accommodate the British mountaineers and skiers in every way possible, thus also linguistically. No doubt, there existed Swiss citizens who were able to converse in English, but they would make use of that language only because they had to communicate with English speaking foreigners. The idea that English might also be used for intra-Swiss purposes, if it had occurred to them at all, would have been judged utterly absurd. English was generally and doubtlessly identified as a foreign language. To the average Swiss English was much farther removed from their mother tongue than any second national language. In German-speaking Switzerland the name of the legendary comedian Charles Chaplin was made familiar not in its English phonological shape, but in a French form, not as [t*æplin], but as [*aplæ] . [Now, that's odd: my fellow French pronounce that name "shapleen"--Unfrench Frenchman] Equally, the generation born before World Word II would call the trendy Levi‘s pants becoming fashionable among the young from the fifties onward [blu*㶶a] according to a French pattern, not [blud*in]. [Is it so? In France "jeans" is pronounced "jeen", in Germany, "cheence". Maybe a Swiss reader could enlighten us?--Unfrench] What is interesting about these two cases is that everybody knew that the Chaplin movies and the jeans came from the USA, not from France; nevertheless, the names in question were pronounced in French, not in English, i.e. in the non-native language most familiar to the German speaking Swiss. (cp. Dürmüller 1992) Although it is difficult to obtain any data on the language competence of speakers in the past either qualitatively or quantitatively, it is assumed quite generally that second-language (L2) competence was fairly good. On the other hand, third-language (L3) competence seems to have been scant, except maybe in Italian-speaking Switzerland where the German influence had become more and more important already from the beginning of the century onwards. More recent data confirm this impression by indicating that the population of those over 65 years of age in German-speaking Switzerland still show a positive attitude toward French, their L2, while all the younger ones show a preference for English. (Dürmüller 1986) People‘s language repertoires in the past consisted of the native languages - German, French, Italian or Romansh - plus a second national language, and, maybe, a third national language. English was definitely not part of these repertoires. It was a foreign language only and because of its fringe status, would not appear in the language repertoires of the Swiss.

Since the end of World War II, particularly since about 1960, the situation regarding the place of English among the languages used in Switzerland has drastically changed. The worldwide spread of English has not stopped at the Swiss border. Today, it is estimated that about a third of the world population has at least a marginal knowledge of English; and a third of that third is said to be able to use English as L1 or as an additional language of coherent and fluent communication. This is what can also be observed in Switzerland. Indeed, everyday life is full of objects, processes and phenomena that are defined and referred to in English. In domains like economy, science, technology, entertainment, leisure time English is present in Switzerland to a degree that has evoked defensive measures by people who fear that what they consider to be the "true" culture of Switzerland - which includes the Swiss national languages - might be endangered. (Dürmüller 1993) Up to 20% of the language of presentation in some music radio programs is in English; up to 50% of the language used in public commercials and in graffiti texts is in English; names for Swiss products tend to be anglicized, etc. (Dürmüller 1986) English has quite definitely become part of Swiss life. People in Switzerland are now often more familiar with English than with the languages of their compatriots. English has definitely changed its status, it has moved from the fringe to the centre, from the status of a foreign language to that of an additional language with lingua franca functions, i.e. a language that can be used for special purposes and for wider communication. As regards the language repertoires built up in the schools, where the languages are numbered according to the weight they are given, Switzerland has officially admitted English only as L3 (L4 in the Italian-speaking area), unofficially, however, English has now won the L2 position, at least among the young. There has therefore been a split status for English in Switzerland in recent years, an official one and an unofficial one, or, to put it differently, a de iure status - English as L3 - and a de facto status - English as L2. This parallel existence of a de iure and a de facto status for English in multilingual Switzerland has encouraged two types of model repertoires:

1) a repertoire with English as a foreign language in third position

German-speaking Switzerland French-speaking Switzerland Italian-speaking Switzerland

L1: Mother tongue German French Italian

L2: National language French German German/French

L3: Foreign language English English English

and 2) a repertoire with English as a national lingua franca

German-speaking Switzerland French-speaking Switzerland Italian-speaking Switzerland

L1: Mother tongue German French Italian

L2: lingua franca English English English

There appears to be some competition between these two models. In everyday life it has been observed that occasionally English is preferred as the vehicle of communication to one of the national languages when people have to talk to someone not able, or not willing, to speak their own language. This is possible if both partners have sufficient competence in English, i.e. if in their individual repertoires they have shifted English up to the L2 slot.

It is especially the young who prefer to make use of English in this way. That is to say, they are replacing the traditional Swiss language repertoire consisting only of Swiss national languages with one that conforms to their wishes, needs, and competences. (Dürmüller 1991) In response to this trend, in the 1990s, the education authorities in several cantons began to give in to the clearly articulated wishes of the young and also the apparent needs of employers for personnel with good English language skills. Language learning at Swiss state schools is now seen in a more global perspective. Rather than insisting on the various types of Swiss bilingualism (or trilingualism), the cantonal Departments of Education have begun to accept the idea of helping the young to build up language repertoires in which English always occupies a central place. These repertoires comprise one of the local national languages (mostly, but not always, identical with the pupils‘ first language), a second national language, and English. This means that English is now quite generally available to Swiss teenagers. In the Canton of Berne, for instance, 99% of eighth grade secondary school students are taking English lessons (1999). In the Grisons, the authorities are giving the L2 slot, which before was occupied by French, over to English or Italian. The discussion in Switzerland is no longer about whether to offer English classes or not, but about when to do so: already at the primary school level? already before the second national language? There is no doubt that English now belongs to the language repertoire of Swiss people and to the language repertoire of the nation. In spite of such readiness to accept English into the national language repertoire, public opinion does not support the idea of introducing English officially as a lingua franca into multilingual Switzerland. Even the young, by whom English is favored most, would not like to see English become an official Swiss language. (Dürmüller 1991) English is a language that is useful to them, but it is not their home tongue.This means that there is a split attitude towards English. On the one hand there is agreement that English, being a foreign language, should not become an official language of Switzerland; on the other hand, people seem convinced that English cannot be removed from everyday Swiss life any more and that some knowledge of English is necessary if one wants to go through life profitably. In their everyday activities, they are turning more and more towards English as an additional language for many purposes, preferring that language over the other Swiss national languages in situations where English can compete with these, and thereby gradually moving English to the L2 slot in their individual language repertoires. The embedding of Switzerland in a world dominated by English indeed creates needs for English also inside the country, as is well illustrated by the increasing use of varieties of English for Special Purposes in various professional domains.

A look at Swiss universities can show how such varieties of English for Special Purposes are gradually occupying territory formerly covered by the Swiss national languages. Science and research have long been singled out as fields within which English has attained a commanding presence world-wide. That is why, in Switzerland, too, the language of science tends to be English. English has definitely become the language of and for research in Switzerland, too. As research is an integral part of graduate and especially postgraduate education, English quite naturally also is the language used for presentations, for discussions, and for written reports. This means that, quite often, English is also used for prescribed work, such as the writing of theses and dissertations, and, more rarely, in oral examinations, and it means that where a course is devoted to the discussion of research, particularly ongoing research, the language chosen is English as well. (Dürmüller to appear) The academic disciplines in which English is used in this way are first of all the medical and natural sciences, then disciplines like psychology, and parts of the social sciences and economics; while theology, law, and most disciplines in the humanities, apart from English studies, can still do without English most of the time. The use of English at Swiss universities differs from discipline to discipline. It depends on whether English is already established as the language of that discipline outside Swiss universities. Where it is and where there is a need to participate in the international scientific discussion, English will be used without reservation. Where English is only one among several languages serving a discipline, as in history, e.g., the pressure to use it is much smaller. Although, in Switzerland, the universities are state institutions, they do not appear to be under any obligation to follow a particular state policy regarding the use of languages. All of them have accepted the language of the territory within which they are situated as their prime language. However, they do not control whether the local territorial languages are used by all the departments and institutes without exception. That is why the languages of web pages, of courses, examinations, and publications depend on whoever takes the responsibility in these departments and institutes. There are, however, certain attitudinal differences with regard to [the] use of English. In German-speaking Switzerland, there are hardly any reservations with regard to using English. Pragmatism rules, what counts is easy exchange of information and the productive dialogue across language boundaries. English is accepted as a lingua franca, and as the language of the club. If you can express yourself in Scientific English, you belong. In this way, English has the same function as did Latin in the Middle Ages, giving access to the community of scholars and maintaining partisanship within it. In French-speaking Switzerland, on the other hand, and especially, in Italian-speaking Switzerland, there is more hesitation to adopt English, or, to put it differently, the bond between the universities and the territorial languages is stronger there. One is tempted to establish a correlation between the relative openness towards English and the minority/majority status of the territorial language: the larger the language territory is and the more speakers of the national Swiss language it has, the more open it is to allow English in. And the smaller the territory is, the less likey it is that English will be used. For publications and research proposals, however, this correlation is not valid. Nor is it for teaching graduate and postgraduate students in in the medical and natural sciences. Where the goal is to reach the international community of scholars, even the representatives of French speaking Switzerland will use English; and where students and scholars meet to discuss research written up in English, even the French speakers will switch to English. (Dürmüller to appear)

When people are used to reading, writing and talking English in their professional lives or/and when they engage in leasure time activities that are characterized by English, it is only a small step for them to also try and use English for general communicative purposes. Swiss people, on the whole, cannot be considered truly multilingual, often they are not even functionally bilingual. (Bichsel 1994, Dürmüller 1997) Polyglot dialogue within multilingual Switzerland is the exception rather than the rule. It may be practiced by the educational elites, but is not generally popular. (Girod et al. 1987) It seems much easier to make communication possible by means of a shared lingua franca, i.e. a foreign language used for wider communication. That is why it is possible to consider the spread of English in the world and in Switzerland as a chance for a better understanding not only between one Swiss language group and another, but also between Switzerland and the world. At the end of the twentieth century English is the principal language of Western culture and civilization. Traces of English are visible wherever that culture has been allowed in; they are certainly visible in Swtzerland, and in all of the Swiss language areas quite in the same way and to the same degree. Bike, Body, Stretching, Jogging, Cool, Acid, Rock, Non-food, Fashion, By-pass surgery, Heart attack, Compact discs, Sorry, Hi and All you need is love mean the same to all the Swiss, whatever their L1. English vocabulary, whether for leisure time activities or special science branches, is at the disposal of Swiss speakers everywhere. The English language as it appears in such domains does not make communication among the Swiss more difficult, but, actually, makes it easier. As a matter of fact, it is in domains where English jargon has already become dominant that Swiss people of different L1 backgrounds, sometimes even from one and the same L1 background, may be heard talking to each other in English: in medicine, physics, management, business administration, product planning, computer programming, film distribution, banking, trading, defence strategies, etc., etc. English facilitates the contacts of all these groups and their members both across the borders of the nation and across the linguistic barriers within the country. English is an ideal lingua franca for Switzerland. For one thing, it is not one of the Swiss languages, it is not the L1 of any of the four language groups, but a foreign language for all and everyone. The other reason why English has good chances of being used within the Swiss multilingual community is its „general acceptancy", a term introduced into the language discussion by public opinion (Dürmüller 1993). It indicates that the public is ready to accept English and that English is generally welcomed as a language one might take up into one's repertoire.

In 1989 a government report on the linguistic situation of Switzerland acknowledged certain trends working in favour of English. It noted that Switzerland was more and more exposed to economic and cultural influences from abroad, and that the economic concerns had generally become more dominant. Both the cultural and linguistic influences from abroad and the use of language(s) in economic domains defied control, it said, and did not respond to measures in language policy. The report also noted that the linguistic behavior of a large part of the population was changing - helped on by modern communications technologies. There was, the report regretted, a tendency away from "languages of culture" towards a language which is "merely functional and communicative". This development, the report said, would lead to "a loss of esthetic values, of cultural diversity and expressiveness"; to "a general levelling" which would find "its adequate instrument" in the English language. While the competences in the traditional languages of Switzerland, even in the citizens' own L1, were being diminished, a compensatory competence was being built up in English. People's motivation to learn a second or third Swiss language was falling, but Swiss people seemed keen to learn English. This observation the report linked to the utilitarian thinking of the Swiss and their acceptance of a world-wide culture transported by the English language. As a consequence of all these trends, the state of Swiss multilingualism was appraised rather soberly: the four-language repertoire of Switzerland had been reduced to a repertoire of two and a half languages, the report said. For, as the country as a whole was concerned, only German and French could count as full languages. Italian, the report commented, might be an official language, but on the national level it had, at best, the significance of half a language. And Romansh, which is L1 not even for one percent of the Swiss, should not be counted at all. The report went on to say that the distribution of languages according to their relative importance could also be seen differently, especially if one looked ahead into the future. The quadrilingualism of Switzerland might then be reduced to the bilingualism of German and French. English might then be the language to join these two national languages in the repertoires of the citizens, where it would probably occupy the L2 slot, leaving the second national languages to the uncomfortable L3 slot, where they would be no more than "half languages". (Eidgenössisches Departement des Innern 1989) The spread of English in Switzerland and the apparent status change of English from a foreign language to a language of wider communication have been described and documented (see references). As suspected by the government report quoted, the attraction of English lies mainly in the economic benefits that come with the acquisition of English and the share in a modern Western, mainly American, culture that English gives access to. While material gains and cultural affiliation are strong factors promoting the spread of English in other nations, too, in Switzerland English also [benefits] from the factor of linguistic diversity. As English is entering competition with the traditional Swiss languages for a key position in the national language repertoire, its international prestige and the promise of world-wide understanding it carries, as well as its other assets make it look like a winner. Of course, English cannot replace German, French or Italian where these are L1, but it is replacing them where they are L2 in people's individual repertoires. It seems that a distinction has to be made between the individual repertoires of Swiss citizens, in which English may indeed be advancing to the L2 position, and the language repertoire of the whole nation, which continues to be dominated by German and French. Yet, for communication across language borders, from one language community to another, the shape of the individual speaker repertoires are decisive. It matters which language(s), apart from their L1, speakers are able and willing to use. In this respect, English has some advantages not only over Italian, but also over French.

This apparent change in the status of English has not gone unnoticed. During the eighties self-appointed language purist groups were writing letters-to-the-editor complaining about the increasing use of English inside Switzerland; they also published newsletters urging that the spread of English be stopped by measures of a kind similar to those that had been adopted in neighbouring France. In France the "purity" of the language is indeed an age-old concern. Unlike Switzerland, France has a long tradition of language planning. That is why it was possible in France to take steps against the increasing use of English by French speakers. From 1959 onwards a language policy with an anti-Anglo slant can easily be detected. Ministers of Culture, like André Malraux and Jack Lang, and even French Presidents themselves, voiced their concerns about the permeation of French by Anglicisms. Anglo terms were banned from the French language, and people were challenged to join a crusade against the "sprititual imperialism of the USA" as it appeared in TV serials like "Dallas" or "Denver". (cp. Goudailler 1976) In multilingual Switzerland there is no such easy equation of language and culture. If the authorities wanted to battle the foreign elements intruding into the national languages, they would find themselves in a difficult and complex situation. The influence of English is felt in the same way in all of the linguistic regions of Switzerland. The domains concerned are more or less the same in Italian-speaking Ticino, in French-speaking Western Switzerland and in the dominant German-speaking part. Taking measures against English would be easiest in French-speaking Switzerland because it would be possible to simply follow the example set by France. Since neither Italy nor Germany have taken comparable measures against the intrusion of English into their national languges, the Italian- and German-speaking parts of Switzerland would find themselves in quite a different situation from their French-speaking compatriots. Indeed, the French language policy of fighting off English is unique in Europe. It must be assumed that the difference in mentality reflected in the language policies regarding English among the neighbouring states of Switzerland would also be reflected among the Swiss population groups. That is to say, a Swiss language policy following the French example would probably not be well supported in the German- and Italian-speaking parts of the country. In addition, such an anti-Anglo language policy would solidify the language barriers already existing inside Switzerland rather than weaken them. For every language region would have to enlarge its vocabulary quite drastically. Again there would be an inequality in these efforts because the French group would be able to use the newly created terms with their French neighbours, while the German and Italian groups would lack that advantage, since in Italy and Germany the anglicisms seem to be acceptable. These appear to be some of the reasons why officially nothing is done to stop the spread of English in Switzerland. Gradually, therefore, English is allowed to acquire a more prominent place in the language repertoire of the country, even one with a communicative function for the Swiss themselves: i.e. that of language of wider communication or lingua franca.


Bichsel, Reinhard, 1994. Individueller Multilingualismus. In: Mehrsprachigkeit - Eine Herausforderung. Hans Bickel & Robert Schläpfer, eds. 247-279. Basel/Frankfurt a.M.: Helbling&Lichtenhahn

Dürmüller, Urs. 1986. The Status of English in Multilingual Switzerland. Bulletin CILA 44 : 7-38.

- 1991 Swiss Multilingualism and Intranational Communication. Sociolinguistica 5: 111-159

- 1992 The Changing Status of English in Switzerland. In: Status Change of Languages. Ulrich Ammon and Marlis Hellinger, eds. 355-370.Berlin-New York: Mouton de Gruyter

- 1993 Themen der Schweizerischen Soziolinguistik m Spiegel der öffentlichen Meinung. In: Schweizer Soziolinguistik - Soziolinguistik der Schweiz. Iwar Werlen, ed. 79-92. Bulletin CILA 58

- 1997. Changing Patterns of Multilingualism. From quadrilingual to multilingual Switzerland. Zürich: Pro Helvetia.

- to appear. The Presence of English at Swiss Universities. In: The Effects of the Dominance of English as a Language of Science on the Non-English Language Communities. Ulrich Ammon ,ed. Berlin-New York: Mouton de Gruyter

Eidgenössisches Departement des Innern. 1989. Zustand und Zukunft der viersprachigen Schweiz. Bern: EDMZ

Girod, Roger et al. 1987. L‘eventail des connaissances. Aarau/Frankfurt a.M.: Sauerländer

Goudailler, Jean-Paul. 1976. Sprache und Macht. Dialekt 6(1): 28-51


Hat tip: Edward J. Cunningham

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