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In the European union parliament, armies of translators translate every word into all other languages.

Switzerland is a country with 3–4 official languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansh. In an item in the Swedish news tonight about the Swiss parliament not deciding to finance the Jas Gripen plane, the parliament president was speaking Italian, an opponent French, and a proponent Swiss-German.

Does everybody simply speak their own language and do they all understand each other, or does the Swiss parliament have a system similar to the European parliament? Or is it different yet?

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Traditionally, in politics, French and German-speakers use their own language and are expected to have at least a passive knowledge of the other. Top-level politicians frequently talk to the media in both languages, no matter where they come from. Italian can be heard in official contexts but Italian speakers are very often fluent in one or both other official languages and have a kind of (unofficial) “junior” position in Switzerland.

A recent anecdote illustrates how this system works: In 2015, the nomination of Guy Parmelin as a candidate for the Federal Council by the UDC/SVP created a lot of debate due to his perceived lack of knowledge of German, to the point that many thought the party deliberately chose two unelectable candidates (Norman Gobbi was unacceptable for other reasons) to force the other parties to elect Thomas Aeschi (Parmelin was elected nonetheless).

That's basically how it has worked for a long time even if there is now a live interpretation service for the lower house of parliament. But not for the upper house nor for the local parliaments in bilingual areas or, to my knowledge, for meetings and other events.

Interestingly, Swiss-German MPs do not use “Swiss-German” (i.e. one of the dialects spoken at home and in other informal contexts in the German-speaking part of Switzerland) in parliament but standard German (in German: Schweizer Hochdeutsch, a slightly different and accented version of formal German).

Finally, Romansch has, as you probably noticed, a somewhat peculiar position. Since a 1938 initiative it was, in the words of the constitution, a “national language” but not an “official language”. It's not used much at the federal level, although its role has actually been increasing just as the language appears to be under threat (cf. e.g. its presence on passports or the 1996 referendum). Virtually all Romansh speakers also know German.

Incidentally, note that in the EU, public parliament sessions and, of course, official documents are indeed interpreted/translated in all 24 official languages but other things (preparatory documents, meetings, work at other institutions, court audiences) are translated in a much more ad hoc fashion.

  • Why not just do it the English way? – Pacerier Aug 4 '17 at 8:30
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    @Pacerier What is the English way? England does not have any significant indigenous minority language. – Relaxed Aug 4 '17 at 9:43
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    @Pacerier Note that the Standing Orders of the UK Parliament seems not to have mentioned anything about the language of debate. Although it seems that no one has challenged the de facto use of English, though... I would be curious what would happen if some MPs decide to use Welsh in Parliament. – xuq01 Jun 27 '18 at 6:57
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Romantsch is a National Language but not a Language of the Confederation. It is therefore not used in the Parliament. Debates are translated simultaneously into German, French and Italian. (source)

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It seems after browsing information, that the Swiss parliament, they use mostly French and German languages, check up for the speeches, there is an archive, random browsing by years I found only one Italian, and I am not sure I would recognize Romansh, I am not a linguist. Anyways I wouldn't be surprised if there would be documents in Romansh as well in the depth of other documents. So to say I saw that at least speech level, the most common is German, then French, then Italian.

I found it hard to get any information on spoken (not just native) languages, but by this source they say most of non-Italian native speaker pupils learn Italian at basic level, but they rarely use the language so even if we can call the population trilingual, most of people have strong preference on one language around the country.

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