How Migrants Save a Dying Language

Switzerland is a country with four main languages. 75 years ago, Romansh was recognized as the fourth national language by ballot. Since then, it has been declared a dead language many times over. If you visit the Engadin Valley in Grisons, it will show that the language is alive and kicking. It is alive thanks to the children of migrant workers living there.


In schools in Grisons and therefore in classrooms throughout, receive their lessons in Romansh, a language that is nearer to Romanian than to Italian. The Engadin is a valley high up in the Alps, and migration away from the villages there was a fat for many centuries. As a favorite holiday spot for many, though, it attracts many workers in the hospitality sector. And many of those workers come from all over Europe.


The parents of students attending the local schools have come to the Engadin to earn their money in the hospitality industry. They come from countries like Portugal, Germany, Bosnia, and many many more. Children start using Romansh in kindergarten; the language becomes the common language of the children, although none of them at home by the fourth national language. The idiom has become the lingua franca for these children uprooted from their home languages.


A Swiss VIP coming from such migrant stock is Rapper Snook. Having moved with his parents from Brazil 20 years ago, he grew up using this common language with other children in the village. Today, he writes his lyrics in Romansh, German, Spanish, English, and French, just as the whim takes him. And his songs are bought all over Switzerland in any language he chooses. For street culture, he has resurrected the general use of Romansh together with colleagues from the group "Liricas Analas."


When an initiative was launched over 75 years ago to make Romansh the fourth national language in Switzerland, its initiators wouldn't have anticipated that children of migrants would one day be responsible for keeping it alive. The initiative was launched to set a sign for national unity. Benito Mussolini was barking in the South, and the fascists had declared Romansh a dialect of Italian origin (just like the Germans had declared Alemannic aka Swiss German a dialect); in the North, Adolf Hitler was proclaiming Great Germany to include Switzerland.


Under these threats, Romansh speakers called for the national recognition of their language. The campaign built a picture of the archetypal Swiss based on mountains and Romansh. In 1938, Swiss voters were called to the ballot and approved the change in the constitution with a massive yes vote: 92 per cent. It is one of the top three results in Swiss balloting ever. It also sent a clear message over the borders.


The rustic hunter pictures and the girls in national costume of the 1938 campaign seem to have nothing in common with today's Romansh speakers with its recruits of polyglot migrant children in a globalized world. But if you consider it carefully, the hunters and the girls in national costume are still here, as are migrants, and all of them are typically Swiss.