There is plenty of observational and anecdotal evidence indicating that some foreigners never make an effort to learn one of Switzerland’s national languages, relying only on English for daily communication — no matter how long they have been living in the country.
But is this really feasible?
We recently asked readers to share their views and experiences on this very topic.
We put out two specific questions: Can you get by in Switzerland with just English? And, Is it possible to find jobs and work in Switzerland without speaking a local language?
Most of the answers indicated that, yes, both are possible under certain circumstances. But, there is a…”but”.
English is the ‘language of business’
Karen Rasmussen from Basel found that “there are three types of people: those who don’t speak English; those who are eager to practice their English; and those whose English is actually quite good despite their shyness about speaking it.
“The later two categories represent probably 80 percent of people I’ve encountered.”
Because of the prevalence of English in Switzerland, finding a job should not pose a problem, Karen said. “If you’re working for a big multinational company, English is the language of business.”
‘It depends on where you live’
“In the bigger cities and in the German speaking parts, English is much more widely understood”, said Kathryn from Vaud. “I have not found this to be the case in the French speaking region.”
She also believes that finding an English-only job is feasible, “but it is the non-working part of life that is difficult with only English, at least that is the case in the French speaking areas. I have even had doctors who can barely communicate in English.”
German is ‘nice to have’
“In Zurich, it is pretty easy. Everything important is solved in English. The only time I speak German is with my neighbours. But that I would not need for survival,” said Brian Holinka, adding that “in my job English is necessary, German is nice to have”.
For Lynette Haeuselmann from St. Gallen, who is an English teacher for adults, “one can get by with just English, but it will be a limited social existence.
“As a foreigner, I learned German and that made things a lot easier for me. Being able to communicate with locals is a big help towards integrating into one’s new ‘Heimatland’.
‘Possible to get by’
Some respondents said you can function without an official Swiss language.
“I think that the two biggest factors that affect how much you can get by with just English in Switzerland are: where you live, and what job you have,” T. B. from Zurich pointed out.
“Living in a big city makes it easier to get by with just English, and working in companies where the majority of employees are not Swiss and English is established as the working language, “makes it quite possible to get by”, said the respondent.
“Having said that, I think that you just ‘get by’ though. You probably cannot experience the country in its fullest, and cannot feel integrated, in order to be able, at some point ‘n the future, to call this place ‘home’ (if this is of course your goal).”
Whether or not you can work entirely in English depends on the job, T. B. says.
“For example, for engineers it is possible, for doctors most likely is not.”
Languages needed for socialising
For Sean Knox, who lives in Zurich but works in Baar (ZG), getting by with just English in these two international locations can be done.
“However, I realised that my German will need to improve if I want to progress from simply getting by to social integration,” he said.
While most people in Switzerland have a good proficiency of English, “in a group, especially in social situations, Swiss people will generally speak a local language, which is totally fair but can be quite isolating.”
This has been the experience of Paul Hunt from Biel / Bienne, who also found that this is more of a challenge in the German speaking part than the French or Italian parts “because we learn high German in classes but can’t understand dialects”.
“Knowledge of high German has, however, been essential the longer I’ve lived here,” he pointed out, especially for official paperwork like filing tax returns or registering for unemployment benefits.
In terms of job opportunities, they would be more limited with just English and “there are many sectors where not speaking a local language would not be possible”.
Some respondents found that not speaking a local language definitely limits their job options.
One of them is George from Basel, who says that despite being a highly qualified professional in security business, “I am unable to find a job — not because I am not good but because my colleagues will not be able to understand me.”
“Switzerland remains old fashioned yet is in desperate need of workers, but only if they match their way of thinking,” he added.
Another reader, Luka from Lucerne, also found that lack of language skills has been a major hurdle on his career path.
“For me, in architecture, it is almost impossible in a long term if I want to have a well-paid position,” he said.
Some readers have pointed out what others have already observed as well.
“Sure, you can get by without a local language, but what a way to miss out on an amazing country,” said Jennifer from Montreux (VD).
A Geneva reader agrees that it is possible to manage with just English, “but to truly integrate and not feel like a foreigner it’s important to know the local language”.
And another respondent noted that “you can probably get by just speaking English, but it’s arrogant and incorrect to think that everyone should speak English” too.