Language policy is a central issue in the Swiss political debate surrounding social and national cohesion. The nation has four official languages (German (62% in 2019), French (22.8%), Italian (8%) and Romansh (0.5%)), which correspond to different linguistic regions (three Cantons are bilingual; Graubünden is trilingual). At school, all children in Switzerland must learn at least one of the other national languages.
According to the Federal Statistics Office (FSO), 68% regularly use more than one language (2019) and English is the most widely used non-national language. The survey also shows the myriad of cultural backgrounds of Swiss residents: Among the youngest generation (under 15), in addition to the national languages and English, Albanian (6.7%), Portuguese (4.9%), Spanish (4.9%), Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian (3.8%) and Turkish (2.8%) are spoken at home, as well as over 70 other languages.
An interesting source of information on Swiss language policy are the reports of the Federal Council for the attention of the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe on the application of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (SR 0.441.2).
Ensuring this diversity and the exchange between linguistic communities is a main goal for social cohesion. The main tasks of the corresponding Languages Act (2010) are to develop guidelines on the use of the official languages in the federal administration, to support student exchanges, to establish a scientific institution for the study of multilingualism, to support multilingual cantons, and to promote the Romansh and Italian languages in Switzerland, including the media (for further information, see chapter 4.1.8).
The Languages Act (2010) calls for the implementation of the following key tasks:
- to form guidelines on the use of the official languages in the federal administration;
- to support student exchanges;
- to establish a scientific institution for the study of multilingualism;
- to support multilingual cantons; and
- to promote the Romansh and Italian languages in Switzerland.
The Federal Office of Culture is responsible for adopting measures designed to promote multilingualism in society, specifically those areas concerning the promotion of mutual understanding and exchange between the various language communities, lending support to multilingual cantons, and safeguarding and fostering the Italian and Romansh languages and cultures.
The promotion of minority languages includes, among other things, the preservation and promotion of the Romansh and Italian languages and culture. In 2021, the Federal Office of Culture (FOC) signed a performance agreement with the Canton of Graubünden for the period 2021-2024 (a total of around 22 million CHF from the Confederation). With prioritisation based on, among other things, the evaluation results of the 2016-2020 funding period, federal support will be provided for projects to promote multilingualism, organisations, institutions, publishers, media or translation services. New for 2021-2024 is, among other things, a funding programme to support projects in the Romansh “diaspora” with 400 000 CHF annually. This funding format aims to support Rhaeto-Romanic children and young people outside their traditional language area, both in the canton of Graubünden and outside the canton, to “learn and live” the language and culture, as the FOC writes.
Pro Helvetia and other organisations (e.g. the Swiss Series of the Swiss Foundation for Federal Cooperation) support the translation of literary and other works (for example visual arts and theatre) from one national language into another. At the international level, for instance, Pro Helvetia offers literary translation residency grants jointly with the Europäisches ÜbersetzerKollegium (EÜK) in Straelen and the Collège International des Traducteurs Littéraires (CITL) in Arles. In order to take account of Switzerland’s multilingualism beyond the four national languages, Pro Helvetia 2021 broke new ground in its literary funding: It expanded its support for literary creation to texts in all languages: Swiss authors who write in languages other than the national languages can now also apply for a literary creation grant (formerly literary work grant).
Furthermore, there are also various private initiatives, like “TransHelvetia”, which organises cooperation and exchanges between theatre companies in the German and French-speaking parts of Switzerland. A private foundation finances TransHelvetia.
School exchanges between linguistic regions are also of great importance, and in the policies to come, there is a focus on ensuring they continue. The programme Movetia, developed in 2017, supports the exchange programmes set by the Confederation. In 2017 as well, the Confederation along with the cantons, adopted a strategy of “Exchange and Mobility”. Both initiatives have found great success and require further funding, to which measures and further propositions are addressed continuously.