Language Variation and Change in Swiss-German children’s speech

Part of this project is funded by the SPARK scheme (Swiss National Science Foundation) and is realized in collaboration with Dr Laura Rosseel (Vrije Universiteit Brussels) and Prof Eline Zenner (KU Leuven).

General aims

This project aims to document ongoing change and variation in the speech of Swiss-German speaking children. Earlier work on the language of German-speaking Switzerland has documented language use by focusing on age groups mostly above the age of ~ 15 yrs. However, the speech of children – the innovators at the forefront of linguistic change – has so far been neglected. Little is therefore known about the linguistic repertoire available to Swiss-German speaking children. Even more interesting would be the social meaning that children attach to the usage of dialect or non-dialect features (e.g. ethnolectal features or anglicisms).


SPARK project „Mein Kind spricht Balkan-Deutsch“

SNF grant no. CRSK-1_190191 | More info available under:


As part of the SPARK project funded by the SNF, we will zoom in the use of ethnolectal features by Swiss-German speaking children comparing urban and rural spaces. More precisely, this subproject seeks to empirically investigate the widespread myth in German-speaking Switzerland that if parents want their child(ren) to grow up speaking traditional Swiss-German, they will have to move to the countryside. In contrast, children who grow up in the city are said to borrow linguistic features from the Swiss-German spoken by the migrant population (so-called ‘Balkan slang’ or ethnolectal Swiss German), potentially due to language contact (e.g. deletion of locative prepositions or definite articles as in Gömmer Bahnhof?).

Data and methods

Naturalistic speech will be sampled from children aged 6 to 12 living in urban centres, in urban-oriented rural areas and in the rural periphery. To guarantee feasibility and to control for regional variation as far as possible, attention will be restricted to Winterthur as the urban centre and the surrounding villages as the rural areas. Children will be approached via schools with the aim of sampling data from one whole class. Two tasks will be used to elicit spontaneous naturalistic speech from groups of two or three children at the same time: self-made puppet shows and story cubes. This allows for a bottom-up analysis of the linguistic repertoire available to children on the phonological, lexical and morphosyntactic level. A supplementary top-down analysis will focus on children’s use of specific linguistic features known to form part of ethnolectal Swiss-German. Finally, an experimental track will gauge the social meaning that children from urban and rural areas attach to these features using a series of explicit and implicit language attitude tests. This last – experimental – part of the subproject will be performed in close collaboration with two researchers in Belgium.

Where are we now?

The project has started on 01 July 2020 and will continue for a year. So far, two pilotstudies have been carried out and presented at various conferences in 2019 (see „Publications & Presentations„).

Selected publications & presentations


Röthlisberger, Melanie. Erforschung der Sprachvariation im schweizerdeutschen Dialekt von Kindern in städtischen und ländlichen Räumen. Presentation at 20. Arbeitstagung zur Alemannischen Dialektologie, Autumn 2022, Pädagogische Hochschule Graubünden, Switzerland. [all abstracts here]

Röthlisberger, Melanie & Laura Rosseel. On the acquisition of ethnolectal features by Swiss-German-speaking children in urban and rural areas. Presentation at Variation in Language Acquisition (ViLA 4), 2-4 June 2021, Rorschach, Switzerland.

Röthlisberger, Melanie & Laura Rosseel. Measuring language attitudes towards ethnolectal features in Swiss-German-speaking children: A novel approach. Presentation at Methods in Dialectology XVII, 2-6 August 2021, Mainz, Germany.


Röthlisberger, Melanie. Erforschung der Sprachvariation im schweizerdeutschen Dialekt von Kindern: Projektvorstellung. Präsentation an 1. Workshop zur Forschung zum Schweizerdeutschen, 2021, Universität Bern, Switzerland.[Folien]


Röthlisberger, Melanie & Laura Rosseel. How pre-adolescents use ethnolectal features in urban areas: A case study of German-speaking Switzerland. Paper presented at the International Conference on Language Variation in Europe (ICLaVE) 10, 26-28 June 2019, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands.[download abstract]


Röthlisberger, Melanie & Laura Rosseel. Ethnolectal features in children’s vernacular in urban and rural German-speaking Switzerland: An exploratory case study. Paper presented at the international conference Urban Language Research, 31 October – 3 November 2018, Graz, Austria.[download slides][download abstract]