Posted on by Peter Rettig

Bilingual in Fribourg, Switzerland

 (Updated February 2, 2017)

During our recent stay in Fribourg, Switzerland, we were again amazed by the mixture of languages we heard spoken in this small Swiss town of about 40,000.

Upper Town And Lower Town

Fribourg, (in German, called “Freiburg im Uechtland” to distinguish it from its German Black Forest cousin “Freiburg im Breisgau“) is the capital of the Canton Fribourg and located on the cultural border between German and French Switzerland. (see above picture of upper and lower town)

In the past, the language lines were drawn rather clearly: In the lower town, people spoke mostly a Swiss German dialect, in the upper town mostly French.

And while German was the prevailing language until around 1800, French gradually became more influential. By the year 2000 nearly 64% spoke French, only 21% German as their first language (Italian was third with about 4%).

An Impression: More Bilingual German Than French Speakers

In restaurants, cafes, and shops, etc. you hear a mixture of French, Swiss German, “Schriftdeutsch” (see also our previous blog post: Language Lessons in Gstaad), and other languages.

Swiss German children start to learn “Schriftdeutsch” in first grade, and French a couple of years later. That's about the same time that French children learn “Schriftdeutsch” as a second language. (We also understand that in many schools English is taught already in fourth grade.)

From discussions with acquaintances, friends, and relatives in Fribourg, we've gained the impression that there are more German speakers who are fluent in French, than French speakers who are also fluent in German.

Whether this is due to the fact that French speakers are now the majority in Fribourg, or whether learning French as a third language (after “Schriftdeutsch) is “easier” for Swiss German speakers, or whether Swiss Germans feel a more personal or economic need to be bilingual than their French speaking compatriots, we just don't know.

A visit of the local market provided a (not representative) sample, as most of the Swiss German speaking farmers did easily switch to French, while the French speaking bakers and butchers had more difficulty in speaking German (see picture above). 

Language still a divisive issue...

While the casual observer may be pleasantly surprised by the the city's apparent bilingualism, language in Fribourg - as in other Swiss cities and towns that are located on a language and cultural fault line - is often still a divisive issue.

Not much has changed since swissinfo.ch covered this issue in in 2004, citing both Biel (where French speakers are the minority of the population, with 28 %) and Fribourg as examples. Family connections, social status, school locations, etc. all influence parents' decisions which language path their children should pursue.

It certainly seems that in a small country like Switzerland (about 8 million inhabitants) being bilingual, or at least fluent, in two of the major languages, German and French, should have great professional and personal benefits.

Postscript

Just as we were leaving Fribourg, the local Newspaper, La Liberté, reported that local film makers had adapted Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" from the movie "Despicable Me 2" to Fribourg, similar to what other Swiss cities have done. You can watch the YouTube video which shows many images of Fribourg.