top of page



Although the time of the biblical episode of the Tower of Babel is long gone, human beings continue to speak multiple languages. There are more than 14 thousand of them on a planetary scale. In Switzerland, according to the Federal Statistical Office, almost one million people today use an idiom other than one of the four national languages as their main means of communication. Are we therefore able to understand each other?

Following the principle of the Arabic telephone, BABEL consists of translating successively into the twenty-five most widely spoken languages of Switzerland a text on multiculturalism and multilingualism written by Mr Alain Berset, Federal Councillor and Minister of Culture. The translations are entrusted to ordinary Swiss and foreign citizens living in our country.

Alain Berset's text

Switzerland, a multilingual country at the crossroads of three major European cultural areas, is a singular state. Multilingualism and cultural diversity are characteristics of Switzerland. They are perhaps even the characteristics that distinguish it from its neighbouring countries. This has not always been the case. The current situation is the culmination of centuries of commitment and constant struggle.

The beginnings of the Confederation were marked by a predominantly German-speaking population. In the 15th century, our country began to expand to the south and west. In 1848, with the creation of the federal state, German, French and Italian were defined as the national languages, and in 1938 Romansh was defined as the national language. The maintenance and promotion of linguistic and cultural diversity were thus established as pillars of our national cohesion. However, it must be remembered that Switzerland's diversity and multilingualism are not a given but are regularly put to the test.

The cultural mix has accelerated in recent decades: international migration flows have increased, globalization has reduced space and time, and the telecommunications and media revolutions have blurred national cultural identities.

At the same time, intercultural tensions have increased, with the risk that language communities may become inward-looking. Examples of this are the recent debates on the status of Italian in language teaching in Switzerland, the use of Alemannic dialects in schools and in public spaces, discussions on the presence of Italian-speaking representation in the Federal Council, and the issue of asylum and the integration of foreigners in Switzerland.

All these questions and challenges should lead us to reflect on the notions of respect and solidarity and the value that our society intends to give them. Switzerland is seen as a model of a multilingual and multicultural state, tolerant and open to debate with others. Switzerland has much to pass on in terms of intercultural dialogue, but also much to learn from the life experiences of women and men from other parts of the world. Engaging in dialogue with what is different is a constant challenge, but it is also an immense source of enrichment, which leads precisely to making Switzerland what it is.

Current trends do not make our task any easier. English is becoming increasingly important, both in Switzerland and worldwide. Alemannic dialects are often perceived as an exclusionary factor and accused of hindering understanding between "Latin" and "Alemannic". Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it well: "People belittle what they cannot understand". Therefore intercultural dialogue must be encouraged, today more than ever. It helps to prevent religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions. It allows us to move forward together and to better understand the different identities that characterize the Swiss people. It enables us to engage in dialogue in a constructive and democratic manner, in a spirit of tolerance and respect for others, to guarantee in our country the maintenance of social cohesion and the foundations on which our democratic system is based. »

Alain Berset, Federal Councillor and Minister of Culture


FSO Statistics 2010 : German 4,276,097 speakers | French 1,457,311 | Italian 548,903 | English 292,094 | Portuguese 200,336 | Albanian 164,844 | Serbian/Croatian 160,731 | Spanish 136,692 | Turkish 75,300 | Romansh 36,472 | Arabic 28,993 | Tamil 22,207 | Russian 21,878 | African languages 14,608 | Polish 4,577 | Thai 13,738 | Dutch 12,639 | Hungarian 12,603 | Kurdish 11,180 | Czech 10,979 | Chinese 10,506 | Macedonian 10,223 | Swedish 8,203 | Greek 8,097 | Romanian 7,754

Presentations :  Bundeshaus, Bern, 2016; University of Fribourg, Fribourg, 2017; Museo Vincenzo Vela, Ligornetto, 2018; Médiathèque du Valais, Sion, 2019; Kantonsschule, Chur, 2019.

With the support of: Forum du bilinguisme, Biel-Bienne ; État de Fribourg ; Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council.



bottom of page