Is Italian in
Olatz Oñate Muzás
Is Italian in Switzerland an endangered
Switzerland is a multilingual country situated in Western Europe where there are 4 recognised
national languages spoken along the country. Nevertheless, it’s important to highlight that the
number of speakers is more elevated in German and French rather than in Romansh and Italian and
this fact affects directly to the status that the languages have in education, the administrations or even
in the public life in general.
In this essay I will focus on the situation of Italian, the only official minority language spoken by the
6.5% of the population. But first, in order to know when the country became renowned for its
multilingualism, I will give a brief overview of the historical situation of the national languages up to
nowadays. Then, I will concentrate on the situation of Italian’s importance outside and inside the
Italian-speaking area. I will finish with the conclusions and personal feelings of the grade of
endangerment that this minority language suffers inside and outside the boundaries of this
2. HOW DID SWITZERLAND BECOME MULTILINGUAL? OVERVIEW OF THE LANGUAGE
According to Jud, author of All about Switzerland website, Switzerland has never been an ethnically
homogeneous nation. Marcus suggests that the present linguistic situation in the country is because
various European linguistic groups have been settled in the Country during 2000 years leaving part of
their own language and culture until nowadays.
However, as it is stated in the European charter for minority languages focused on Switzerland
(2006), the country didn’t become consciously multilingual until the agitations of 1798 which
motivated a trilingual legislation (1798-1803) written in German, French and Italian. There was still
another language spoken in Switzerland, Romansh, which in 1938 was accepted as a national
language. Therefore, German, French, Italian and Romansh became the 4 national languages of the
Country but only the first three were considered official languages (Council of Europe, 2006).
Nowadays, even among the three official languages are clear distinctions being German the strongest
language of the country and Italian the weaker. As we can see in the map below German is the main
language in 17 of the 26 cantons that form the country, French is the main language in 4 cantons,
there are 3 French-German bilingual cantons, and Italian is spoken principally in the canton of
Ticino and 4 valleys of the canton of Grisons (Council of Europe, 2006). Italian is thus considered to
be the only official minority language and the cantons where it is widely spoken have therefore,
signed the European charter for minority languages in order to protect it. But this is not something
new due to the fact that Italian and Romansh have been protected and promoted since the World War
II through various language policies. The interest posed by the cantons for protecting the four
national languages is the reason why multilingualism has became a key element of the culture of
Languages in Switzerland in 2000 Speakers
Other non national languages 9 %
Adapted from the recensement fédéral de la population 2000, OFS
Another factor that contributes to the Confederation’s multilingualism is that the number of foreign
languages spoken in Switzerland is higher than the number of Romansh and Italian speakers together
(Lüdi, et al., 2005). (See the table below)
3. THE SITUATION OF ITALIAN IN SWITZERLAND
As it has been stated before, Italian is the weaker official language of Switzerland since it’s only
official in 2 of the 26 cantons that conforms the confederation. Ticino and 4 of the valleys of the
canton of Grisons (Mesolcina, Val Calanca, Val Bregaglia and Valposchiavo) are considered to be
the traditionally Italian–speaking areas and the people who have been living there for a long time are
thus addressed as autochthonous (Gunther, 2001). They have been named “autochthonous” to make a
distinction between Swiss Italian-speakers and those who have emigrated from Italy to other regions
of the Country. According to the Federal Office of the Statistical (Lüdi, et al., 2005), the 83.1% of
the population of the monolingual Ticino speaks Italian and, taking the canton of Grisons as a whole,
the 10% of its citizens are Italian speakers. It’s important to bear in mind that, Grisons is a trilingual
canton where Italian is not spoken all around the region but mainly in 4 valleys.
But what happens outside the Italian-speaking regions? May we find Italian-speakers living in other
regions? Surprisingly, in 1999, the number of Italian-speakers in the French-German speaking
cantons outnumbered those living in the Italian areas due to the high number of Italian citizens who
emigrated and settled in Switzerland. Nowadays, the numbers have been inversed but yet the 43.40%
of the speakers reside outside Ticino and the four valleys of Grisons (Lüdi, et al., 2005). Taking into
account that Switzerland is just one multilingual country and that nearly half of the Italian-speaking
population lives outside Ticino and Grisons, we might think that all have the same opportunities to be
fully educated in their own language or to communicate in the administration in their mother tongue.
There’s nothing further from reality.
On the one hand we have to bear in mind that Switzerland’s constitution gives considerable
autonomy to the cantons in both educational and linguistic matters. So, it’s the government of the
canton who determines how the school curriculum is going to be designed, how long is going to take
the scholar year or which official language is going to be used as a medium of instruction (Gunther,
2001). Hence, there are 26 educational systems in the country which attend to each cantons
majority’s main language. Therefore, as Ticino and the 4 Italian-speaking valleys of Grisons are the
sole regions where italophones outnumber other speakers, they are the only regions which have
chosen to teach in Italian.
On the other hand, education and language policies can change only if a popular referendum support
them (Gunther, 2001).This means that it would be needed a majority of Italian speakers concentrated
in one area to obtain changes in education and language policies that regard Italians situation.
Table: Connection between the main language and the Language spoken in the family
As we can see in the charter above designed by the Swiss federal statistical office, more than the 10%
of the total population of the country speak Italian at home. However, only the 6.5% of them use it as
the main language outside the family context (Lüdi, et al., 2005). If we keep in mind that we are not
talking about the Italian speaking area but about Switzerland as a whole, we can see that the
foreigners speak more Italian at home than the Swiss. Their first language is still spoken at home but
their main language of a is usually that of the majority of the region where they live and where they
are educated; this means that Italian immigrants may speak Italian at home but they consider German
as their main Language.
It can be hence deduced that, the independence given to the cantons in education and linguistic
matters by the Swiss constitution, reinforces regional identities and ensures each cantons majorities’
multilingualism but, conversely, it tends to ignore the languages spoken by the minorities in each of
the areas ( Gunther, 2001). Therefore, the position of Italian in the school systems other than Ticino
and Grison is very precarious even if 204,231 people use it as their main language (Lüdi, et al.,
The freedom that the constitution gives to the cantons in linguistic and educational matters is
balanced with the high cooperation through the different cantons (Bochsler, 2009). It may be thought
that the collaboration with other cantons may contribute to the development of every official
language around the country. However, once again, Ticino remains apart due to both the linguistic
and geographical isolation that it suffers. This isolation leads the canton to have few partners for co-
operation so Ticino accepts partners and projects that other cantons would not admit because,
otherwise, it would not be even part of the inter-cantonal co-operation (Bochsler, 2009).
Despite the difficulties, Ticino has tried to expand Italian outside its boundaries through courses and
education. The canton has, for instance, organized “courses in Italian language and culture” since
1970. These lessons have been taught in the German-speaking canton of Aargau and have been
addressed to teachers of all levels. According to the European charter of minority languages, around
1000 teachers have learnt in these summer schools since they started (Council of Europe, 2006).
The introduction of Italian in the compulsory schooling of the canton of Uri has also been possible
thanks to the technical assistance and financial support offered by Ticino; The Italian-speaking
canton has not only produced teaching materials but has also organized teaching and language-
training courses for teachers since 1991. These intensive Italian-language courses for 190 teachers of
Uri lasted two-four weeks and were given during the summer. The main aim of the courses was to
motivate the tutors to teach Italian as a second language in their German-speaking canton of Uri.
However, nowadays, the schools from the canton of Uri don’t choose teaching Italian as a second
foreign language because they have considered the English a more important issue for their students.
In fact, the growing importance of English is another factor that difficulties the promotion and
development of Italian in the confederation (Council of Europe, 2006).
All in all, despite the struggle of Ticino to promote the language, it’s palpable that the expansion of
Italian comes across several obstacles and these linguistic troubles may also affect the speakers’
feelings towards other linguistic communities inside the country. As a matter of fact, according to a
poll carried out in 1989, the 43.9% of the population thought that there was coldness between the
language regions (Gunther, 2001). However, only the 21.6% of the German-speakers felt distantness
between German- and Italian-speaking regions while the 70% of the inhabitants from Ticino who
answered the poll experienced that the language divided them from German-speaking regions (Neue
Zürcher Zeitung, May 25, 1989). Clearly, the language issue is seen as more problematic by the
linguistic minorities rather than the German-speaking majorities of Switzerland.
3.1 The Canton Of Ticino
As we have seen before, even if there is high number of speakers outside Ticino and the 4 valleys of
Grisons, the status of the language is not similar to other official languages of the confederation.
Thus, we’re going to see what happens inside Ticino, the canton where Italian is not only widely
spoken but it is also a crucial component of its identity.
Ticino is bordered by three mainly German-speaking cantons (Grisons Uri and Valais ) but the high
mountains that are around the Italophone canton have isolated it until the 19th century when they
constructed the first of the 3 tunnels that nowadays join Ticino with other cantons (Felicity Rash,
According to Hans Bickel (1994) internal migration is the factor that may affect the most to the
maintenance of Italian in Ticino for two reasons. On the one hand, German-speaking tourists
invading Ticino during the summer menace the language of the local citizens. On the other hand,
German-speaking businessmen are the ones who control some of biggest businesses in the area even
if the canton is working to avoid German expansion.
The school and the family have been considered sharp tools to avoid the endangerment of a language,
but is education in Ticino strong enough to fight against this threat? In fact, it seems that from 2012
the cantons will not have as much autonomy as nowadays and more coordination in education will be
Italian in education
Swiss electorate and all the cantons voted, ( 21st May 2006) by a majority of 86% to accept a new
educational plan that claims that from 2012, the federal government and the cantons will be required
to work together and define key nationwide parameters (Swiss Confederence of cantonal ministers of
education, 2008). The new law includes agreement among the regions to decide the school entry, the
goals of the educational levels, their duration and structure, the transitions in the education system
and the degrees awarded. The Confederation and the cantons will also manage universities together.
Before imagining what may happen from the next year onwards, we are going to analyze how
Ticino’s educational system works nowadays.
In pre-primary and secondary education, as a rule, all non-language subjects in all schools are taught
in Italian, which is the mother tongue of 80.6% of the pupils attending Ticino schools. Italian as a
subject is taught at all levels of education; thus, during primary school they attend 5 hours of Italian a
week in lower primary and 4 hours in upper primary. During the four years of lower secondary
school they have 6-5 weekly lessons in the first stage and 5-4 weekly lessons in the second stage
(Council of Europe, 2006).
The law bears in mind the situation of those students whose mother tongue is not Italian and there are
especial measures for them to learn the language. As it is said in the Schools Act of 1 February 1990
“In schools of all levels and all standards it shall be possible to organize Italian-language classes for
pupils speaking another language who are unable to keep up with classes normally; steps may be
taken in particular to encourage mainstreaming of pupils from non-Italian-speaking countries whilst
safeguarding their cultural identity.” The pupils attending these classes must also follow the regular
Italian lessons with their classmates. It’s important to remark that these lessons are only for students
who have arrived recently to the canton and have, therefore, a little knowledge of the language
(Council of Europe, 2006).
There are also classes of Italian as a foreign language for youth that are over 15 years old so that they
can have contact with the language and the culture of the Canton. In addition, the Department of
Education and Culture organizes between 10 and 15 adult-education classes a year in Italian as a
foreign language (Council of Europe, 2006).
The consulates usually take care of the immigrants mother tongues other than Italian and they offer
the possibility to foreign nationals to attend language and culture courses in their native language.
Many schools primary and lower secondary schools encourage contacts between teachers in State
schools and teachers giving classes organized by communities of foreign nationals or by consulates.
These foreign students, have sometimes the opportunity, to replace French or German classes by
English classes in order to facilitate them the incorporation in the school system but the decision shall
depend on the board of governors.
Multilingualism has become an essential issue in Ticino’s education system, especially since 2002
when the state council accepted a reform on education that was establishes in all the schools from the
2006/2007 scholar year.
Language Compulsory beginning Scholar year Minimun numbers of teaching
French Primary 3 7 years
German Secondary 2 3 years
English Secondary 3 1 year
Adapted from the Charter of Minortiy Languages ( Switzerland 2006)
Hence, Ticinese kids have French compulsory lessons from the third year of primary school to the
second year of secondary school; there are immersion courses or exchanges with other students
available in the third and fourth years of secondary education and there’s also the possibility of
studying French in post-compulsory education as well. In the second year of secondary education
they start with compulsory German lessons. English, the language who is becoming an essential
subject in nearly all primary schools of Europe, is introduced later in Ticino, where the students have
to learn English compulsory from the third year of secondary school.
Not only primary education but also adult education emphasizes the magnitude of learning language
since they offer around 250 annual language courses in English, German, advanced Italian or even
Russian (Council of Europe, 2006).
In higher education the official language of the University is Italian. Nevertheless, the University of
the Italian Switzerland (USI, Università della Svizzera Italiana) in Lugano is the only Swiss
university teaching in Italian. The University Of Applied Sciences Of Italian Switzerland has even
the web page in English.
Education is a mirror to see which language is important to a determine community. As it has been
stated before, Italian is the vehicular language in primary and secondary education, however there is
only one university that teaches in Italian. So, what’s going on outside the scholar system? Let’s
make a short overview of what occurs in the administration, the media as well as the economic and
Italian outside the school
If we focus on the administrative level, it can be noticed that, despite the spread of the language
around the area, language discrimination in federal administration job offers is a delicate issue that is
becoming difficult to overcome. It seems to be an economical matter and the canton is worried
because the administrative services are demanding less Italian-speaking employees and this measure
affects directly to the postponement in the translation of official documents into Italian (Council of
Europe, 2006). In addition to this, the internet web pages of national interest generally only exist in
German, French or English even if Ticino is making a great effort in order to find more web pages
translated into Italian.
The media are another important tool to see which the widely held language of an area is. And, in
Switzerland, the a the majority of newspapers are distributed on a regional basis . Thus, we can see
that since 2002 there are 4 newspapers written in Italian. Actually, Ticino is one of the European
regions with the highest press density and there are very few tittles published in other languages than
Italian. There's also the Italian Swiss Radio and Television which is broadly watched by Ticino's
population (Council of Europe, 2006).
If we take a look to the streets of this canton we may find outside the restaurant’s the prize list for the
main dishes and the signs in Italian and no in other languages. This is because there is a law that
establishes that the signs might only be in Italian. It’s important to underline that this is not only a
law but also a practice by the majority of the restaurant and shop owners. Traffic signs may be shown
in other languages than Italian; however, they have to be written with letters to show that it's a
So, is Italian an endangered language in Switzerland? There are some facts such us, the new
educational system for 2012, the big German-Speaking arrival to Ticino during the summer time or
the few number of italophones compared to the other official languages, that main point to its
disappearance but, from my humble point of view, Italian in Switzerland is a language that it's not
really endangered, due to different factors:
Firstly, I feel that inside the Italian-speaking Switzerland there is a high identification with the
language and culture, that they feel proud of their ancestor’s legacy. I agree with Weinreich when he
says that if a whole community senses a strong affinity with the mother tongue, which is, besides,
endangered, they might fight harder for its maintenance.
It’s clear that the German-speaking cantons surrounding Ticino is a risk for the development of the
language. But, if we bear in mind Weinreich's studies in linguistic borders (1966), it is not only the
status of the receiver language but also the grade of language loyalty that will determine how much a
language will influence in the other. I feel that this is the case of Ticino inhabitants whom, seeing the
risk of their own language to be minorizated, have fought to maintain it inside their borders and also
outside them. Thus, Italian is not only largely spoken at home but it's also taught and used as a
vehicular language at school until secondary education. The new reform on education asking for
coordination among the cantons, may appear as a risk for this minority language but, according to the
EDK (Swiss Confederence of cantonal ministers of education, 2008), the vehicular language for
teaching in the schools won’t be affected by the reform. This means that the regions will continue
choosing the language of the majority of the inhabitants inside their boundaries.
Secondly, there are media in Italian that are widely used by the Italian-speaking population. The
media play an important role in reinforcing the languages in Switzerland. The majority of newspapers
are distributed on a regional basis, so even if the Italophones outside Ticino won't have the
opportunity to read the newspaper on their own languages, the written media distributed in the
Italian-speaking areas are only on the majority’s mother tongue. I have to point out that, with the
development of technologies, the Italian-speakers of other regions have anymore this problem.
Nowadays you can surf on the net and find a newspaper on the language of your wish.
Thirdly, the geographical situation of the region really helps to the conservation of the language.
Hans Bickel claims that the vast amount of tourist that come during the summer risk the stability of
the language and Weinreich states that when two languages coexist there's always a dominant
language and the minority language speakers may voluntarily swift to the strongest language
adopting characteristics from the dominant language (Weinreich, 1966). I don’t think that tourism
may affect that much to a language whose family transmition chain is not still broken.
Charles Russ goes even further, showing how Italian has influenced on spoken German grammar in
the island of Bosco-Gurin (Russ, 1990). Moulton has paid attention to the accent of the German-
speaking Wallister, where the influence of French and Italian is evident in their accent as it seems to
be similar to Italian or French learners of German (Moulton, 1941).
All in all, I think that the Canton of Ticino is working for the maintenance of the language and the
new generations have taken the baton of the language with proud.
As somebody said:
A language doesn't get lost because foreign people don't want to learn it but because people who
know it don't want to practice it.
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