Originally Published in Gstaad Life Magazine - July 2015
I did it the wrong way. I learned High German or Hochdeutsch first. That is the advice usually given. The result? I felt isolated and discouraged. I had spent years learning an official Swiss language--even majoring in German literature in university--and found myself at social gatherings in Saanen unable to understand one word that was being said.
Take this sentence for example: “Now the fun is over” or in German “Jetzt ist Schluss mit Lustig”; and in Swiss German it’s: “Jetzt isch färtig luschtig.”
There is no similarity between the following words: “Schaffe” for “Arbeiten” (work); “Anker” for “Butter” (butter); “Rüebli” for “Karotte” (carrot); or “öppis” for “Etwas” (something). Thank goodness some words sound similar: “Määntig” for “Montag” (Monday) or “Vierezwänzk” for “Vierundzanwig” (twenty-four).
To make matters worse, “runter” (downward) in Germany is “achi” in Saanen and “apper” in Bern. At the time, my then-one-and-only Swiss friend said: “Diana, speaking High German takes more effort than speaking English.”
So what’s an expat to do?
Learn the local dialect, especially if you’re going to be here for more than a year or are married to a Swiss.
I can hear the groans. It’s too hard. I have no time. The Swiss Germans are distant, (don’t mistaken restraint for hostility). Well, here are some reasons that might change your mind: You’ll…
1. have fun: Schwyzerdütsch is what people speak when they are having a conversation. You and your friends will end up giggling as you attempt to articulate “Chuchichäschtli,” the word for kitchen cupboard.
2. learn it the way locals do: Kids speak Swiss German first and begin learning High German when they are seven or when they enter first grade.
3. earn the locals’ appreciation: You don’t want to be one of those expats who have lived in the Saanenland for 20 years, having never bothered to learn the local language.
4. feel less lonely and isolated: “Migration Distress and Cultural Identity” by Dinesh Bhugra states: “A deep sense of alienation, loss and failure contribute to poor self-esteem, which may contribute to distorted images of self.” Relocation therapists encourage patients to get out and meet others.
5. learn a new culture. Federico Fellini once wrote: “A different language is a different vision of life.”
6. get a better job, if you need it: Most local jobs require Swiss German.
7. function better in your environment: It’s more efficient to be able to talk with your plumber in Swiss German than in English.
8. learn the most spoken language in Switzerland: 63.7% of Switzerland speaks German (Swiss German), 20.4% French, 6.5% Italian and 0.5% Romansh.
Of course, learning High German makes sense too because:
1. The Swiss government wants you to learn it: With 23.8% of its population being foreign permanent residents, Switzerland has an integration challenge. According to the Office of Immigration, learning one of the three official Swiss languages as soon as possible is a vital requirement. Recently, plans were announced to launch a language passport to track immigrants’ language learning progress and to determine C permit eligibility. In 2012, Justice Minister and now-President Simonetta Somarruga criticized foreign CEOs for living in a “parallel society”, a “world in which people send their kids to international schools, speak English and are generally unconcerned about Swiss traditions or what’s going on around them.”
2. You’ll be able to help your kids with homework: Whether you send your kids to public or private school, they are most likely going to study German.
3. You’ll be able to read it.
4. You’ll be able to communicate in Germany or Austria.
Whatever you plan to do, get out there, join a club, take a class, meet people, watch Swiss TV, and buy Swiss German audio books (Pimsler, Simon & Schuster). Most of all, don’t try to be fluent; perfectionism will kill your motivation.