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Federations Magazine Article
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Swiss cantons bear brunt bear brunt multilingualism

our languages appear on Swiss franc bills and
the country’s name in Latin – Helvetica – appears on
its coins and postage stamps. The four languages –
German, French, Italian and Romansh – appear on
franc bills because they are the languages of the
Swiss Confederation. Helvetica alone appears on
coins and stamps as a concession to size constraints. In making
these choices, the unity of Switzerland is challenged by its
underlying diversity. The official response has been to seek
their accommodation. Governments have sometimes
attempted to encourage – and sometimes to downplay –
How effective has the Swiss approach
been? It’s not easy to preserve harmony and
encourage understanding and exchange
between different linguistic communities,
especially while maintaining and promoting
the less-used Italian and Romansh languages.
The canton of Grisons, officially
trilingual, has often been described as
“Switzerland in miniature” and offers insights
into what Swiss linguistic politics has achieved.
Switzerland is above all marked by its diversity, which has
defined its politics throughout its history and has been characterized
by efforts to overcome divisions, fragility and internal
conflict. Diversity motivated the choice of a federal system of
government in 1848 and is the reason for the existence of 26
cantons and about 2,728 municipalities in a land with just over
7 million inhabitants and 40,000 square kilometres. Switzerland
is not a nation in the traditional ethnic sense because it is not
based on a common language, religion or culture. It is what
German speakers call a Willensnation – a country based on the
desire of citizens to live together peacefully in diversity. The
challenge for political institutions has been to facilitate coexistence
of linguistic or other communities and development of a
common Swiss society.
Language and the law
According to the Federal Census of 2000, German is spoken by
72.5 per cent of Swiss citizens, largely in the north and centre of
the country, French by 21 per cent, to the west, Italian by 4.3 per
cent, in the south, and Romansh by 0.6 per cent, in the southeastern
canton of Grisons. Article 4 of the Federal Constitution
states that the national languages are German, French, Italian
and Romansh, and confirms that linguistic diversity and the
desire to live together are the political and
conceptual foundations of the nation. In particular,
Romansh is not to be considered a
relic, but rather a living language, with its
well-being, like that of German, French, and
Italian, a matter of concern and a prerequisite
for linguistic harmony. The Constitution
does, however, make a concession to practical
constraints: while Romansh speakers
must be able to communicate with the Federal administration
in their language, not all federal legislation must be translated
into Romansh.
Switzerland’s multilingualism is ensured through the individual’s
right to linguistic freedom (Article 18) and protection of
the linguistic communities’ integrity and homogeneity (Article
70). These potentially conflicting principles are implemented
through the nation’s federal structure.
According to Swiss jurisprudence and legal doctrine, the
principle of “linguistic freedom” means the right to use any official
language in communications by private parties with the
state and between themselves.
The protection of this constitutional right is, however, qualified
by the territorial principle, which permits linguistic
Swiss cantons
bear brunt
of nation’s
swit z erland
German, French, Italian,
Romansh – and now English?
Malcolm MacLaren is a research fellow at the Institute for Public
International and Comparative Constitutional Law of the University
of Zurich, Switzerland.
Four official languages grace Swiss franc notes – French, German,
Italian and Romansh. The cantons in Switzerland have a larger
multilingual task than the federal government because schools
and hospitals are located in bilingual areas of many cantons.
© istockp hoto .com /Gabriela Schaufelberger
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
• “Unofficial” languages. Switzerland is faced with two new
linguistic challenges. First, one-tenth of its population –
mainly foreign residents and temporary foreign workers –
speaks a non-official language, with the largest group
speaking Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian. Second, the onslaught
of English poses a challenge to policymakers. With English
becoming the lingua franca globally, and most Swiss more
fluent in it than in another national language, some commentators
propose adoption of English as Switzerland’s common
Governing a trilingual canton
The experience of trilingual Grisons canton illustrates how different
languages can cause cultural problems as well as
richness. The official languages of Grisons are German,
Romansh and Italian. However, little Romansh is spoken in
Grisons or elsewhere in Switzerland. Among Swiss inhabitants
of Grisons, 73.5 per cent are German-speaking, 16.9 per cent
Romansh and 8.4 per cent Italian. There are fewer than 27,000
Romansh speakers there and Romansh is used infrequently in
administration or court matters.
Article 3 of the Grisons Constitution tries to reconcile linguistic
variety with linguistic territories and to preserve
linguistic harmony in policy-making. It provides that the canton
and municipalities are to take necessary measures for
maintenance and promotion of Romansh and Italian, and to
encourage understanding and exchange between the linguistic
communities. Municipalities and communes are to
determine administrative and school languages with the
For over 25 years, the cantonal government sought to pass a
language law to implement Article 3. Citizens of Grisons finally
approved the law in June 2007 after heated debate. The new
law sets one threshold for percentage of native speakers to designate
a municipality as officially unilingual. The law sets a
lower threshold for a second language when designating a
municipality as officially bilingual. Each language must be one
of the official languages. The law also prefers speakers of
minority languages in hiring for the cantonal administration
and provides that as a rule the language of court proceedings is
to be that of the defendant. The law met with stiff opposition
from German speakers in Grisons who felt disadvantaged.
The future of the Swiss model
The Grisons language law has been greeted by some linguists
and legal experts as “a model for the whole of Europe.” Not
everyone agrees. Certainly, a state with a culturally diverse
population will only remain united if its communities consider
the state as their own. While Switzerland has managed to survive,
it has not perhaps grown together as its founders
intended. Provision for powerful, homogeneous cantons may
have reduced conflict but has not furthered integration.
The Swiss experience with diversity also suggests that the
ability of a constitution to prevent conflict and promote
understanding and exchange between linguistic communities
is limited. Switzerland remains less multilingual than plurally
unilingual. Multilingualism cannot be imposed from
outside; it must be nourished by a collective desire from
within society.
freedom to be limited to preserve the traditional makeup,
boundaries and homogeneity of linguistic territories. By ensuring
that linguistic communities have the space they require,
the territorial principle recognizes that an individual can only
realize himself or herself as a member of a linguistic
Linguistic territories are not protected for their own sake.
Rather, this determination is made at the cantonal level. While
the federal government must take certain measures on behalf
of Italian and Romansh, as well as of linguistic harmony generally,
its role is secondary to and supportive of that of the
cantons. Language, like culture and education, is a cantonal
matter. The cantons enjoy considerable discretion in designating
the languages of cantonal administration and schools, and
determining how use of language should be regulated. They
bear the main responsibility for realizing – and where necessary,
reconciling – obligations relating to linguistic rights and
Linguistic territories vs. multilingualism
Swiss policy on language has maintained the desire of citizens
to live together peacefully. However, tensions between linguistic
communities remain and minority languages continue to
be threatened:
• Federal multilingualism, cantonal unilingualism and bilingualism.
Federally, the Swiss government is quadrilingual.
Cantonally, governments operate in fewer languages. Most
cantons have only one official language. Officially bilingual
cantons are Bern (German-speaking majority, French-speaking
minority), Fribourg (French majority, German minority)
and Valais (French majority, German minority). The only officially
trilingual canton is Grisons (German majority,
Romansh and Italian minorities).
• Language linked to territory. The attempt to realize “linguistic
freedom” and the territorial principle simultaneously has
led to frequent legal disputes. Article 70 of the Constitution,
which seems to promise protection for linguistic minorities,
has been used on occasion by cantonal and municipal
authorities to require their children to attend public school in
the majority language. The Federal Supreme Court is called
upon frequently to reconcile these two constitutional principles
in areas of the country where different linguistic
communities are thoroughly mixed.
• Creating a new canton. One way Switzerland has “solved” an
internal conflict involving language is through creation of a
new canton. The officially French-speaking Jura canton was
split off from the officially German- and French-speaking
canton of Bern in 1978 after a protracted process involving
complex negotiations and popular votes at all levels. But the
status of French-speaking districts of Bern canton remains a
concern. The canton recently granted them limited autonomy,
and groups in Jura canton want Jura to annex those districts.
• Multilingual advantage. Switzerland has found it especially
difficult lately to have a productive dialogue between linguistic
and other cultural communities and to use the great
potential of its heterogeneity to its advantage. This prevailing
inability has manifested itself in stark disagreement between
French-speaking and other areas over initiatives to open
Switzerland to the wider world.