The French flair in Switzerland enriches the country’s multicultural aspects together with the harmonious coexistence of the official languages of German, Italian, and Romansh. La Suisse Romande or Romandy—the French-speaking part of Switzerland—is a geographically and culturally rich region that is definitely worth visiting. Here is everything you need to know about French-speaking Switzerland, from the history of this language in the multilingual country, the French-speaking cantons and cities, travel tips, and more.
Why Is French Spoken in Switzerland?
French was first introduced in Switzerland around the 15th century through books and, of course, its proximity to France. The language progressed gradually, first through Franco-Provençal dialects and then expanded at the beginning of the 19th century. French was then recognized as an official language together with German and Italian since the foundation of the Swiss Confederation in 1848.
How Much of Switzerland Speaks French?
The number of the French-speaking community in Switzerland makes up almost a quarter of the entire population. As of 2018, 22,9% of the Swiss population speaks French, which is around 1,912,135 citizens. Multilingualism and cultural diversity are promoted and protected by law in Switzerland, which might be why the French-speaking community has been increasing even.
Which Part of Switzerland Speaks French?
The French-speaking population is dispersed into several cantons of the country. French is the official language in the cantons of Geneva, Neuchâtel, Vaud, and Jura (with the exception of the municipality of Ederswiler, where German is spoken). These cantons make up the region of Romandy, which is the French-speaking part of the country, whose population is mainly situated in the Western part of Switzerland. Additionally, there are three bilingual cantons: Bern, Fribourg, and Valais, in which both French and German are official languages.
French-speaking cities in Switzerland
From the cantons that make up Romandy, let’s take a quick tour of some of the most famous French-speaking Swiss cities:
The city of Geneva, the capital of the canton of Geneva, is the second most populated city in Switzerland with 203,951 residents. Geneva lies in the South-Western end of Lake Geneva and is surrounded by magnificent views of the Jura mountains. It is a global city, home to many headquarters of international organizations, including the European headquarters of the United Nations. Geneva is rich in culture and as diverse as a city gets.
Lausanne is the capital of the canton of Vaud and the fourth most populated Swiss city, with 140,000 inhabitants. The Olympic Swiss capital is situated on the shores of Lake Geneva and offers spectacular views both of the lake and the Alps. Fun fact: this small but very charming city is home to 25,000 students from 125 different countries.
Biel/Bienne is a bilingual town in the canton of Bern. Biel is the German name for the town, whereas Bienne is the French version. Bienne has a population of 55,602 inhabitants and lies on the eastern end of Lake Biel, at the foot of the Jura Mountains. Known as the city of watchmaking—Swatch, Rolex, Omega, Tissot, Movado, are all located here— this bilingual town is a touristic gem as well.
Fribourg is another bilingual city right on the border that divides the French-speaking and German-speaking regions. This capital of the region with the same name has a population of 38,197, two-thirds of which account for French speakers. The city’s history dates back to the 12th century and offers such a plethora of architectural sights, together with plenty of cultural diversity.
La Chaux-de-Fonds is a French-speaking Swiss town in the canton of Neuchâtel. The town of 37,494 inhabitants is located in the Jura mountains at a 1000 meters altitude. Its cityscape was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its characteristic design.
Sion is a town of 34,710 inhabitants and the capital of the French-speaking canton of Valais. This town is uniquely situated in the middle of the Rhone valley and surrounded by hills. It is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, with many medieval buildings and beautiful sights.
Neuchâtel is the French-speaking capital of the canton with the same name and is inhabited by 33,493 people. This culturally and architecturally rich town lies on the northwestern shore of Lake Neuchâtel, between the Jura mountains and the Alps. Neuchâtel is smaller in population but offers quite a vibrant and cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Yverdon-Les-Bains is a town of 30,156 residents which is located in the canton of Vaud. The French-speaking municipality lies between the Jura mountains, the hills of the Broye, and the shores of Lake Neuchâtel. Apart from its enchanting natural scenery, the town is also well known for its relaxing thermal springs.
Montreux is a French-speaking town in the canton of Vaud, situated on the shores of Lake Geneva, at the foot of the Alps. The place of 25,984 inhabitants is a traditional resort town, known for its riviera and its annual Montreux Jazz Festival.
Vevey is another beautiful town in the canton of Vaud, in which French is spoken. It is a place of 19,824 residents, located on the northern shores of Lake Geneva. Vevey is known for its mild climate and its spectacular views of the Alpine sights. The town is also home to the world headquarters of the famous multinational company Nestlé.
Swiss-French Vocabulary and Expressions
If you’re planning to live in one of these beautiful French-speaking regions of Switzerland, what better way to immerse yourself in its culture than to learn some Swiss-French expressions to get you by. Here are some of the basics you will need to know:
The French-speaking part of Switzerland and its cantons may each have their own manner of speaking, with unique vocabulary and expressions, however, the written and spoken French is quite the same as standard French and there are very few differences between the two. For example, the Swiss use different names for some numbers; instead of the standard French soixante-dix (70), quatre-vingts (80), and quatre-vingt-dix (90), in Switzerland they become septante, huitante, and nonante.
Another difference is how the French speakers in Switzerland call their meals. Instead of France’s version of the word for breakfast: petit déjeuner, they call it dejeuner. Respectively, déjeuner(lunch) becomes dȋner in Switzerland, and France’s dȋner (dinner) becomes souper.
You may also encounter several differences in vocabulary such as ‘natel’ instead of ‘téléphone/portable’ for mobile phones. Then there is the phrase “ça joue” for “it’s going well” (in France it is “ça marche”, “c’est bon” or “ça va”), the phrase “sans autre” for “no problem” which in France is “pas de problème” and so on.
Travel Tips for French-speaking Switzerland
We all know the struggle of not knowing how to get by in a totally new country or city, therefore we have compiled some tips to guide you through your travels or if you’re new to living in one of the French-speaking regions of Switzerland.
English is taught in schools as a foreign language and it is also widely spoken in Switzerland considering its tourism industry. Therefore, if you are not a French speaker, you will manage to get by just well.
Transport and sights
Public transportation is very widespread and reliable in the French-Speaking part of Switzerland, so if you are traveling there, make sure to check the options depending on the place you are visiting. Most bigger cities offer 1 to 3-day city passes with discounts on transportation and access to tours, museums, and other attractions, so don’t forget to check them out as well.
There are several options for traveling to Romandy. The busiest and biggest airport in the region is the Geneva Airport. The Sion Airport and Lausanne Airport also offer international flights. Closer to the French-speaking side is the Airport of Bern as well. The Lyon Airport in France is also a great alternative from which you can then travel to the French-speaking side of Switzerland (the train ride to Geneva takes approximately 2 hours).
The French-speaking region of Switzerland offers magnificent landscapes, countless attractions, and a perfect merge of the French language and Swiss culture. All that it is missing is for you to explore it!