English as a Lingua Franca in Switzerland – by Lea Vaterlaus & Thea Breitenmoser


Have you ever been told that learning English will open up the gate to a successful career? In most businesses, a certain proficiency in English is the premise. Switzerland has a particularly rich linguistic environment, starting with four national languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh). Could the “common” language English bridge the linguistic difficulties and differences within Switzerland? When mutual comprehension in different languages gets hard, most people intuitively switch to English. I recently observed this in a business call between a speaker who was clearly French (or Swiss from the French-speaking part of Switzerland) and his conversational partner on the phone, whose language I couldn’t determine. After beginning the phone call in French, speaker A quickly switched to English, immediately sounding more serious and focused. English as a Lingua Franca but also as a prestigious language that shows off one’s skills as a business partner?

This example exemplifies Lüdi’s point he makes in his Paper English in the Workplace in Switzerland between Ideologies and Practices (2016). According to him the use of English has spread immensely around the world since the language suits our world economy and makes communication in multilingual settings much easier, most often the case in the context of business where often everybody speaks some English, but the levels of understanding and being able to communicate can vary very much.

The perks of this shift of using English not only on a national level but furthering on a corporate level is that it facilitates understanding and helps integrate people into a multilingual environment. English, nevertheless, has become very popular, even to the extent, that people in Switzerland wonder whether to make it a 5thnational language and start changing workplaces and the educational system. 

Lüdi discusses this point in his paper, arguing that everyone speaking the same language can minimize misunderstandings and facilitate communication it is not guaranteed to do so. Speaking only one language can also be contra-productive as people bring their values with their respective first language and do not necessarily adapt those to the English values when speaking English as a Lingua Franca. Additionally, as implied above, people might not necessarily feel too comfortable speaking another language and are therefore more reserved and cannot draw from their full potential, since they learned the respective vocabulary and meanings in their mother tongue. Thus, communication can happen but with reservations and hurdles to be expected.

By Lea Vaterlaus & Thea Breitenmoser

Lüdi, G. (2016). English in the Workplace in Switzerland between Ideologies and Practices. Cahiers du Centre de Linguistique et des Sciences du Langage, (48), 53-77.