Switzerland has four official languages at federal level, namely German, French, Italian and Romansh, and the main language spoken depends on which part of the country you are in. The cantons are free to choose which official language they want to adopt, and some cities such as Biel and Fribourg (Fribourg) or Murten (Murten) are officially bilingual. In all parts of Switzerland, people speak languages other than the national language at home, with English, German and French being the second most widely spoken. You are unlikely to hear Rhaeto-Romanic – except in some valleys in Graubünden – as almost all of the 65,000 people who speak Rhaeto-Romanic also speak German, and there are even more of them in Switzerland than native English speakers, as well as Portuguese, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian immigrants.
About two-thirds of the population of Switzerland is German-speaking, especially in the centre, north and east of the country. Swiss German is not an individual dialect, but a general term for the dialects of German spoken in Switzerland. These dialects differ so much from standard German that they can hardly be understood by native German speakers. All German-speaking Swiss learn standard German at school, so almost everyone in the large German-speaking cities (e.g. Zurich, Bern, Basel) and many people in the countryside can speak standard German. The many dialects of Swiss German are primarily spoken languages, colloquial languages, and Swiss German speakers write almost exclusively in High German, even though they speak Swiss German. Dialects of Swiss German are highly valued by all levels of society and are widely used in the Swiss media, in contrast to the general use of standard German on television and radio in other countries, although news broadcasts are usually in standard German.
The second most widely spoken language is French, which is spoken mainly in the western part of the country, which includes the cities of Lausanne and Geneva. People who speak standard French will generally not have much difficulty understanding Swiss French, although some words are specific to Swiss French. The most noticeable difference is the number system, where seventy, eighty and ninety (70, 80 and 90) are common instead of seventy, eighty and ninety in Standard French. All Francophones understand “standard” French.
Italian is the main language in the southern part of the country, around the city of Lugano. Swiss Italian is widely understood by speakers of Standard Italian, although there are some words that are specific to Swiss Italian. Standard Italian is understood by all speakers of Swiss Italian. North Lombard Italian is also spoken by some.
All Swiss are required to learn one of the other official languages at school, and many also learn English. English is widely spoken in the major German-speaking cities, so English-speaking tourists should have no problem communicating. On the other hand, English is not so widely spoken in the French- and Italian-speaking regions, with the exception of the city of Geneva, where English is widely spoken due to the large international population.