Thoughts on Switzerland and the so-called “Röstigraben”

This is a very interesting article from Jenny Ebermann from Mindful Leadership & Intercultural Communication, which I would present you here as a very important insight into what is actually an invisible but tangible cultural and linguistic barrier and how this is perceived by someone who lives in the French speaking part of Switzerland.


Ute Limacher has recently published a series of excellent articles on Switzerland, its different cantons, languages and history. To add another perspective to these, I have been asked to write down some thoughts and experiences on this country I call ‘home’ since over 6 years now. Exactly as Ute herself, I have also been living between and in different cultures since early childhood, thus identifying myself with various cultural groups and sets of behaviors.

I would like to take this particular opportunity to write about something that from my perspective and seen through my intercultural communication glasses is quite interesting and astonishing: the “Röstigraben”. Actually, as you have learned from Ute already, there are 4 main languages spoken in Switzerland and the so-called “Röstigraben”, which is a rather informal term, actually defines the “divide” between the Swiss German speakers and the French speakers.

I myself was actually lucky enough to have experienced these two different sides of Switzerland, having lived in Zurich as well as in the Romandy in Lausanne. If you speak French and you have a couple of spare moments, you should listen to Marie-Thérèse Porchet’s geography lesson. Not only is it hilarious, but it will also give you a better feel and understanding of what it is like to live in Switzerland and where the differences lie.

At first, when I arrived in Switzerland I thought it was funny to give a name to something rather fictive such as the imagined ‘border’ between cultural differences. Especially for me, who grew up in Belgium with its three official languages and where to my knowledge no such terminology exists, it had never occurred that it could actually have a name and would be very distinct. The truth is that you learn quite quickly that there really is a “Graben” (or trench, ditch in English). You just have to search the Internet to find many different articles on the subject.

If you are living in Switzerland, you can also hop in the train in any French speaking town, like Lausanne for example and travel towards Bern (or the other way round of course). Whereas you will see French newspapers on the seat and hear mostly French in all the wagons, suddenly and subtly this will change. Newspapers left over are now German and people speak Swiss German. Every time I take the train this strikes me, maybe because I speak the different languages but maybe also because it kind of happens all of the sudden; there is no real mix of languages and people as it would be like in Belgium before one or the other language dominates the atmosphere. It simply goes from French to German or from German to French.

Interestingly, it also appears to be very difficult for people to jump over the “Röstigraben” to visit friends, go on holidays or simply spend time. I have to admit that many acquaintances I used to see when living in Zurich, I don’t see anymore on a regular basis just because I now live in a French speaking canton. You would think that 250 Km is not far, but from a cultural standpoint it actually makes a major difference.

In my professional life, I have even heard people say that they did a “semester abroad” while studying. What they really meant here was that they simply went to the other side of Switzerland to study. How interesting is that?!

I personally think that these differences are very enriching and see a great benefit in being able to switch from one language to the other and from one culture to the other in the same country. Maybe this also gives a good idea of what it is like to live in Europe, where all of the cultures, languages etc. co-exist on a rather small continent (compared to others) without borders and mainly with a common currency. Food for thought! Jenny

Bildschirmfoto 2013-04-04 um 14.54.34

[©LECLERC, Jacques, La frontière linguistique en Suisse, Québec, TLFQ, Université Laval, 4 avril 2013, [http://www.tlfq.ulaval.ca/axl/europe/suisse_front-lng.htm]]

5 replies »

  1. Oh oui, c’est une bonne idée. Oui, j’adore Marie-Thérèse Porchet. Elle est, à mon avis, l’équivalent de Massimo Rocchi (cfr. dans les “replies” à mon article “The Swiss German”) pour les francophones.

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