Keyvisual der Ausstellung «Sprachenland Schweiz».

Multilingual Switzerland

Exhibition | accessibility.time_to


Languages are more than merely a means of communication, they also shape our daily lives, are a part of our culture, touch us directly and connect us with other people, or set us apart from them. In Switzerland, in addition to the four national languages, countless dialects, accents, slangs and languages of immigrants can be heard. Visit the National Museum Zurich for a sensory journey through Switzerland’s language areas. Learn through interactive sound technology how the predecessors of our languages were born, how they evolved or died out, how new linguistic and cultural borders arose and how they caused disputes in the past, and indeed still do. Returning to the present, the exhibition dives into the linguistic diversity of an ordinary day, where language can be a resource as well as a hindrance or sometimes simply goes unheard.

The majority of the exhibition content is conveyed via headphones. Aids are available for the hearing impaired. Please contact our staff on site for assistance.


School material

The school materials serve as preparation for and follow-up of the visit to the exhibition. Among other things, they contain a suggestion for an interview project; excerpts from the interviews can be submitted to the National Museum for publication on its website.


Swiss society is multilingual. More than twenty percent of the population have as their first language a language that is not one of the four national languages. In the following video interviews, we get to hear people who have a special relationship with language and who, each in his or her own way, contribute to our country’s rich linguistic diversity. 


German, French, English, Bernese dialect


French, Portuguese, English


French, English, Italian, German


Swiss-German sign language, German spoken language


Albanian, German, Serbo-Croatian, Russian


Arabic, German, English


English, Arabic, German, Dutch, French


Blin, Tigre, Tigrinya, Amharic, English, Arabic, French, German


Italian, Ticino dialect, English, French, German

Blog articles


Multilingual Switzerland

National Museum Zurich | 15.9.2023 - 14.1.2024
published on 14.9.2023

Languages are more than merely a means of communication, they also shape our daily lives and are part of our culture. The National Museum Zurich takes visitors on a sensory and entertaining journey through Switzerland’s linguistic landscape.

Anyone passing through one of Switzerland’s major railway stations will immediately notice that, in addition to the four national languages, countless other languages, dialects, accents and types of slang can be heard. Language is subject to constant change and closely linked to the history of humankind and contemporary history. Historical events, such as the Reformation, have decisively shaped the evolution of language: the ‘Zurich Bible’ based on a translation by Zwingli and first printed in 1524 was composed in the ‘Landspraach’, a written variant of the branch of German spoken in the region. However, the Reformers at the other end of what is now Switzerland did not adopt the regional patois, but the French spoken by the haute bourgeoisie of northern France. Today, centuries later, local dialects are dying out fast in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, whereas Swiss German continues to dominate everyday life from Brig to St. Gallen. What happened in the language regions in the intervening period is a story of displacement, prohibition, romanticising, demarcation and mythologising. And language remains highly political to this day. Whether it’s the ‘Röstigraben’ linguistic divide between French- and German-speakers, the Jura issue, teaching English in schools or teenage slang: how we speak is guaranteed to trigger a wealth of emotions. Welcome to Multilingual Switzerland!

The exhibition at the National Museum Zurich presents these topics in an innovative way. Visitors don headphones and move freely through an immersive soundscape. Depending on where they stand, they will hear various acoustic items, including explanations of objects, sound documents and audio tracks from videos, as they follow two fictitious characters through the exhibition: a tour guide (voiced by Cyril Jost in the English version) accompanied by Beat (played by actor and comedian Vincent Kucholl). The two discuss the contents of the exhibition in entertaining dialogues. Guest appearances by Patti Basler, Flavio Sala and Claudio Spescha add to the experience. And people who live in Switzerland but count Albanian, Arabic, Portuguese or sign language as their mother tongue, rather than one of the country’s official languages, are also given a chance to speak. The insights they provide demonstrate that language can be a resource as well as a hindrance, or show that it sometimes simply goes unheard.

The exhibition was realised in collaboration with the Basel-based company idee und klang audio design, which designed the sound scenography using game technology developed by iart. The script for the audio guide was written by Vincent Kucholl. The audio guide is available in German, French, Italian, English and Romansh.


“Zürich HB Flap”

The former analogue departures board from Zurich's main station has been reprogrammed especially for the exhibition at the National Museum Zurich. The display board forms part of an acoustic meeting place featuring many different languages.

© Swiss National Museum

Pamphlet in patois

This pamphlet was put up by Jacques Gruet on the walls of Geneva's Saint-Pierre Cathedral in 1547. It is written in patois as a protest against the Calvinist pastors from France and their 'civilised language' French.

© Archives d'Etat de Genève

EEA: The rift

On 6 December 1992, Switzerland narrowly voted against joining the European Economic Area EEA. This caricature from the newspaper 24 heures refers to the deep rift between the German-speaking and French-speaking regions of Switzerland, known as the Röstigraben.

Reproduction BCU Lausanne © Tamedia Publications romandes SA

Divided Switzerland

This caricature from the satirical magazine Nebelspalter of 10 November 1917 shows Switzerland divided along language lines in the early 20th century. In the context of the idea of 'one nation – one language', multilingualism is seen as a divisive factor.

© Nebelspalter

Golden tour

Switzerland's multilingualism can also be seen in public areas, such as on this sign from the Pilatus Railway advertising boat trips in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Hindi.

© David Müller /

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

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Exhibition imprint

  • Overall management Denise Tonella
  • Project direction and Curator Thomas Bochet
  • Script Vincent Kucholl
  • Scenography Alex Harb
  • Sound scenography idee und klang audio design, Jascha Dormann
  • Scientific collaboration Maxi Weibel, Melanie Würth
  • Project coordinator Sophie Dänzer
  • Project support Heidi Amrein
  • Exhibition Graphic Büro4, Zürich
  • Advisory committee Günhan Akarçay, Heidi Amrein, Beat Högger, Markus Leuthard, Sabrina Médioni, Denise Tonella
  • Controlling of Project Sabrina Médioni
  • Cultural services and museum education Gerda Bissig, Lisa Engi, Vera Humbel
  • Technical management Ladina Fait, Mike Zaugg
  • Exhibition construction Ira Allemann, Marc Hägeli, Philippe Leuthardt, Sophie Lühr, Dave Schwitter
  • Conservation management Iona Leroy, Ulrike Rothenhäusler
  • Conservation and montage of objects Véronique Mathieu, Tino Zagermann, Stahl und Schweiss: Christian Alder
  • Lending and logistics of objects Christian Affentranger, Reto Hegetschweiler, Simon d’Hollosy, Markus Scherer, Claudio Stefanutto, Samira Tanner
  • Interactive audio system iart – studio for media architectures
  • IT | Web Alex Baur, Thomas Bucher, Ueli Heiniger, Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
  • Video installations Torero Film: Teresa Renn und Rouven Rech, Pasquale Pollastro
  • Installation of analogue display screen Andreas Gysin und Sidi Vanetti
  • Texts and voices, sketches Patti Basler, Paolo Guglielmoni, Vincent Kucholl, Flavio Sala, Claudio Spescha
  • Voices, audio guides Margherita Coldesina, Cyril Jost, Vincent Kucholl, Julia Leitmeyer, Olivia Spinatsch, Vincent Veillon, Thomas Bochet
  • Marketing and Communication Andrej Abplanalp, Anna-Britta Maag, Sebastiano Mereu, Carole Neuenschwander, Alexander Rechsteiner
  • Advertising graphic Klaas Kaat
  • Translations Nicola Brusa, Cyril Jost, Marco Marcacci, Laurence Neuffer, Nigel Stephenson, Inter-Translations SA, Rätoromanischer Sprachdienst der Bundeskanzlei: Giuanna Caviezel, Übersetzungsdienst der Standeskanzlei Graubündena

Items generously loaned by

  • Archives d'Etat de Genève
  • Bibliothèque publique de Neuchâtel (BPUN)
  • Centro di dialettologia e di etnografia, Bellinzona
  • Città di Lugano
  • cultura ballape rumantsch, Ruschein
  • Fonoteca nazionale svizzera, Lugano
  • Glossaire des patois de la Suisse romande, Neuchâtel
  • Institut dal Dicziunari Rumantsch Grischun, Cuira
  • Kantonsbibliothek Graubünden, Chur
  • MuDA, Museum of Digital Art, Zürich
  • Museum für Gestaltung Zürich / Designsammlung / Zürcher Hochschule der Künste
  • Phonogrammarchiv der Universität Zürich
  • Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse, Zürich
  • Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, Basel
  • Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek, Bern
  • Staatsarchiv Freiburg
  • Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen
  • TV Interlaken
  • Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Scientific consulting and support

  • Centro di dialettologia e di etnografia (CDE): Paolo Ostinelli, Dario Petrini
  • Osservatorio linguistico della Svizzera italiana (OLSI): Laura Baranzini, Matteo Casoni, Sabine Christopher
  • Dicziunari Rumantsch Grischun (DRG): Silvana Derungs
  • Glossaire des patois de la Suisse romande (GPSR): Dorothée Aquino, Julie Rothenbühler
  • Schweizerisches Idiotikon: Christoph Landolt

  • Universität Basel: Walter Leimgruber, Georges Lüdi
  • Universität Bern: Adrian Leemann, Erez Levon, Bruno Moretti, Silvia Natale, Christoph Neuenschwander, Olivia Schär, Ella Spadaro, Carina Steiner
  • Universität Fribourg: Renata Coray, Alexandre Duchêne, Christina Späti
  • Universität Zürich: Noah Bubenhofer, Christa Dürscheid, Christoph Hottiger, Daniel Knuchel, Stefan Schmid, Larissa Schüller, Dieter Studer-Joho, Rico Valär
  • Nicole Bandion, Marine Borel, Helen Christen, Felix Graf, Walter Haas, Sybille Hauert, Mevina Puorger, Daniel Reichmuth, Selina Stuber, Rea Vogt

The Swiss National Museum would like to thank the Willy G. S. Hirzel Foundation for its support.