Multilingualism: Switzerland’s unique selling point


By Gabrielle Hogan-Brun

The ability to speak more than one language is one of the more notable strengths of the Swiss people and economy. It also makes Switzerland a good test case for how the world might benefit from more multilingualism in economics and trade, argues Gabrielle Hogan-Brun, a language expert who is Swiss and has taught at universities in Lithuania, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and United States.

We Swiss are known for our multilingualism. In the marketplace, this hallmark is our unique selling point. It is one of the cornerstones of ‘Swiss made’. The market benefits of multilingualism seem evident. So, would the global economy be better off if everyone embraced multilingualism? Or would a move towards one global language make more economic sense? What are the costs and benefits of this language choice?

At the moment, we have ample hard evidence from both sides of the Atlantic that language-skill shortages in the workforce can harm the economy. Recent surveys have shown that one-in-four UK and one-in-six US businesses are losing out due to lack of language skills and cultural awareness among their personnel. By contrast, Swiss research suggests that a multilingual approach can yield unique business benefits. In fact, the economic value of multilingualism to Switzerland has been estimated to be 9% of its gross domestic product. So, multilingualism can be considered a source of considerable wealth for the country. In particular, its value to IT services has been calculated to be nearly 25% and its value to the chemical, transport and mechanical engineering industries to be over 15% each.

But which languages should we learn if we wish to optimise our return on investment? English is clearly popular, is often favoured in schools and is expected in many types of employment nowadays. Interestingly, Swiss studies point to regional preferences for second language skills. Higher wage differentials were indeed noted everywhere in Switzerland for proficiency in English, but more so in the Swiss-German region than in the French- or Italian-speaking parts. In other words, knowledge of English has greater market value for someone in Zurich than does mastery of German in Geneva or Lugano. This shows how economic incentives variously drive particular occupational language choices.


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