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I am visiting Zürich and I don't speak any German. I do speak though both English and French. Which one should I use to communicate with the locals? How about the rest of German-speaking Switzerland?

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    What about asking the locals themselves which language they would prefer? – Neusser Jun 12 '17 at 15:46
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    Trying to avoid such awkward situations. – LambrosTuring Jun 12 '17 at 15:54
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    There's nothing awkward in asking, it's normal. Do you think it would be less awkward for you if you'll communicate in a language which your conversation partner does not understand well enough? – Neusser Jun 12 '17 at 15:57
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    Instead of asking "Do you speak English?" and make them feel like you're examining their knowledge, you should better say "Hello, may I ask question?" and if they reply positively, then ask the actual question. – LambrosTuring Jun 12 '17 at 16:14
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Which one should I use to communicate with the locals?

As of the December 2010 census, 69.3% of the population speaks diglossic Swiss German/Swiss Standard German as their mother-tongue at home. Some 22.7% of inhabitants speak Standard German in their family environment ("at home"). Dramatically increasing, according to the last census in 2000, 8.8% now speak English. Italian follows behind at 7.1% of the population, then French at 4.5%. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z%C3%BCrich#Languages

That read it seems to be more likely to successfully communicate in English than in French (which coincides with my experience).

How about the rest of German-speaking Switzerland?

I would say that the Zurich conclusion is applicable for the rest, except for the following regions

In the cantons of Bern, Fribourg and Valais, French is co-official; in the trilingual canton of Graubünden also Italian is. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Switzerland#German

Enjoy Switzerland!

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    I've read that all Swiss-German students are required to learn at least one of the other national languages of Switzerland and the vast majority of them picks French instead of Italian. In contrast, learning English is completely optional. So 4.5% seems way too low. Also i think that the 22% who speak Standard German at home, are immigrants from Germany. – LambrosTuring Jun 12 '17 at 22:16
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    @LambrosTuring Those statistics are for the mother tongue, not second languages. – jpatokal Jun 13 '17 at 22:18
  • Student do learn another national language (and pick in majority French), but learning English is for most students also compulsory. So yo'll have no problem with English in cities. – Djana Jun 14 '17 at 12:54
  • So are there any statistics for second languages? – LambrosTuring Jun 14 '17 at 14:06
  • English skills are definately higher than French skills in Zurich. It's also compulsory at schools, just not by the constitution. The reasons include that students are more motivated to learn English than French, people use it more and it's more similar to German. – Philip F Aug 27 '17 at 23:38
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Switzerland is a multi-language land, and quite small, so it's a natural consequence that the foreign language skills are much higher than, for example, Germany. Starting from the fact, that 'Hochdeutsch' is de-facto foreign language which children have to learn.

Generally children in German-speaking Switzerland learn at least 2 foreign language, 1 Switzerland one (usually French) and 1 extra (usually English). But generally, English skill are much higher, even to the extend that many Swiss people will switch to English if you ask something in 'Hochdeutsch'.

Here in Switzerland switching between languages is something very natural, so you can start conversation in the language you are more comfortable with and switch to another if needed. It's nothing awkward with it here.

  • As far as I know, Germans speak much better English that Swiss people. Am I wrong? – LambrosTuring Jun 14 '17 at 14:11
  • Young Germans are now speaking English as well as Swiss-German did 20 years ago. – Willeke Jun 14 '17 at 18:29
  • Swiss people will switch to English whereas many Germans will switch to German mid-sentence if you ask them in English:) – Pavel Mar 13 at 7:39
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I often travel to Zurich as my fiance lives there- my german is still horrid but usually you can get by using English. Zurich is part of the german speaking section of switzerland, so you won't get by as well with French unless you travel closer to the french border. However, you can say merci to thank people, as it's common in Swiss-German! But yeah, most people speak english.

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