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The Swiss secret that could keep Britain together

Flying the flag for languages.... a Swiss flag is seen floating at sunset above Lake Geneva - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The promotion of languages is a key way of keeping the disparate Swiss nation together, says PETER TRUDGILL. There is much Britain could learn from its example.

If our government truly believed in the United Kingdom as a “sacred union”, they would do well to study the example of another union, the united republic of Switzerland. The Swiss Confederation has survived, in spite of great religious and linguistic diversity, for very many centuries longer than the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (as it originally was).

Switzerland has four indigenous linguistic communities. About 63% of the population are German speaking, 23% French speaking, 8% Italian speaking, and 1% Romansch speaking.

The federal government has for many decades had a policy of encouraging French speakers to learn German, German speakers to learn French, and so on. The goal has been that everyone should learn at least one of the other national languages: there are many people in Switzerland who are native speakers of Swiss German but also speak, write and read fluent High German; speak French very well indeed; have brilliant English; and apologise for their very workable Italian.

The Swiss Federal Statistical Office is a magnificent organisation which kindly publishes its findings in English for the benefit the rest of the world. In Switzerland, the Office is officially called the Bundesamt für Statistik, and Office Fédéral de la Statistique, and Uffizio Federale de Statistica, and Uffizi Federal da Statistika.

It has recently published, in all five languages, figures which show that almost 70% of Swiss people over the age of 15 use more than one language on a regular basis – and the percentage is increasing year on year. Large numbers of Swiss people who are not mother-tongue speakers of Italian use the language regularly, and the same applies to French and German.

The indigenous languages of Britain are English, Scots, Welsh, and Scottish Gaelic. To that list we could add the recently revived Cornish language, which lost its last native speaker 200 years ago. And even though they are not part of the United Kingdom, we might also include the language of the Channel Islands – Insular Norman French; and the language of the Isle of Man – Manx Gaelic, which lost its last native speaker more than 50 years ago but which is also undergoing a revival.

Of the non-English UK languages, Scots has the largest number of speakers, with 1.5 million. Next in size comes Welsh, with the latest government figures showing that nearly 900,000 people in Wales can speak Welsh, and nearly a million understand it.

There are also about 110,000 people in England who speak Welsh, mostly in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Liverpool. If we then add to those numbers the nearly 5,000 Welsh speakers in Patagonia, then there are probably more than a million speakers of Welsh in the world today, making it one of the world’s biggest languages – Professor David Crystal has put it in the top 7%. So why shouldn’t English people learn Welsh, just as the Germanophone Swiss learn Italian.

Of course, while Welsh may have a million speakers, German, French and Italian have respectively 80 million, 75 million, and 70 million native speakers worldwide, and geographically these languages are spoken over extensive areas of western Europe. But for many Swiss people, their motive for learning the other Swiss languages is not by any means entirely utilitarian.

On the contrary, the Swiss statistics show that 84% of Swiss people believe that learning the other national languages is a very important factor for maintaining the cohesion of the Swiss nation.

What better way would there be for English supporters of a cohesive United Kingdom, such as the prime minister and his cabinet, to show how strong their desire is to remain in a union with Wales and Scotland than by learning Welsh or Gaelic themselves? At the very least, the minister of Education could set about encouraging the teaching of – or at least teaching about – the Celtic languages of Britain and their rich literatures, to pupils in all British schools.


The Romansh language has semi-official status in Switzerland, and is spoken in the Rhine valley region of the southeastern canton of Grisons, including in St Moritz and Davos. Like Italian and French, it is a descendant of Latin, and its closest relatives are the Ladin and Friulian languages of northeastern Italy.

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