Switzerland has four national languages but most of the population is fluent in only one of them. When politicians come together in Bern they generally speak in their home language assuming others present understand them, even if they cannot really speak the language spoken. This week, Pierre Nebel, a reporter at RTS, explored the level of French comprehension among non-French speakers in the Federal Palace.
The most widely spoken language in Switzerland is German along with some regional dialect of it. The written language used in official documents is standard German – see Swiss German study. German and its Swiss dialects are the local language for 63% of the population. French (23%), Italian (8%) and Romansh (1%) trail well behind.
Switzerland’s Languages Act ensures that each language group has the right to communicate in its own language. However, this does not ensure they will be understood.
This week, Pierre Nebel roamed government buildings in Bern to see how well French was understood.
His first observation was the use of German by some French-speakers. Both Roger Nordmann (Socialist Party) and Olivier Feller (PLR/FDP) use German during their political exchanges in Bern. When asked why, Feller explained that the use of German helped him to convince two German-speakers from the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP) to support the wine sector in his region. Roger Nordmann said that if he senses German-speakers are not understanding him he switches to German.
When asked whether German speaking politicians always understand French, Bilingual Green Party member Balthasar Glättli, responded with an immediate “non”. Another, Pierre-André Page, explained how Guy Parmelin, a French-speaking Federal Councillor, nearly always speaks German among the German-speaking majority in Switzerland’s seven-person executive.
Nebel then confronted a number of German-speakers in the corridors of the Federal Palace (Bundeshaus/Palais fédéral) to test their French comprehension. The two he spoke to in French both hesitated before responding in German.
Another French-speaker when asked if it was necessary to switch languages hesitated and said it was undeniably an advantage. Another, State Councillor Marianne Maret from the bilingual canton of Valais, recommended speaking slowly and choosing simple words, before saying that she would never switch to German.
The extent to which French speakers understand German was not explored. And no mention was made of the possibility of using translators and headsets as they do in Brussels or promoting school language exchanges to improve the mutual comprehension of future generations of Swiss federal politicians.