A European linguistic curiosity

Bivio, a village in Switzerland, is one of Europe’s great linguistic curiosities.

The population numbers less than 200, but three languages and numerous dialects are spoken by the inhabitants. Switzerland has 4 official languages – Italian, German, French and Romansch – with the majority of Bivio residents speaking some variety of German. Language barriers are not an issue in Bivio – everyone speaks in their mother tongue, and it seems everyone understands each other.

At the grocer’s, everyone speaks their mother tongue, and everyone gets the right change.

They’re well-trained. At the kindergarten, they speak Italian on Tuesday and Surmiran, a Romansch dialect, on Thursday. The rest of the week, the kids alternate between the two, but in the playground, the German dialect Bündnerdeutsch rules. On Sundays, they may attend the Catholic church, where the priest preaches in Schwyzerdütsch, or the Protestant one, where High German is the order of the day.

Bivio means bifurcation or parting of the ways. It was here that Roman legions rested their horses between two great alpine passes, the Julier and the Septimer. At an altitude of 1,932m, Bivio has always been a meeting place, and it has always been isolated. That could explain why it’s a relic of a multilingualism that linguists consider was the norm for most of human history. But its days of relichood may be numbered. The proportion of Swiss German speakers in the village is creeping up, and starting in 2012, English will be taught in the primary school. So if you’re curious about how we used to be, now’s the time to go. (Source: The Guardian)

What an incredible place – can you imagine American or British children being taught two languages at school and speaking another in the playground? I wonder if the children eventually favour one language over the others?