Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Note on Language

This is not to point fingers or name names, it is just a commentary on life in Switzerland/Europe.

There are three official languages in Switzerland: German, French & Italian. The German is actually "Swiss-German," which is confusing and harder than German, if you can believe that. It also changes from place to place where two people, from opposite sides of the German part of Switzerland will technically be speaking the same language but be unable to understand one another--crazy. There is a fourth language that combines German, French & Italian together but only a small handful of people speak it. However difficult, these are the languages of Switzerland.

Zürich is in the German speaking part of Switzerland, which means that people here are not required to speak English. It is rather amazing, and a credit to the Swiss Education system, that so many can speak English, and speak it well, but they do not have to speak it. Now my German is pretty pitiful at best, but I try speak German, or at least ask in German, if they speak English. I promise you that if you do this, people are about 77.8 times more likely to help you out or at least be nice to you. (Now I know this isn't the case always, yes I know you will say that this isn't the case, but these are my opinions and experiences. And since this is my blog I get to say what I want haha). It really bugs me when people say, "Well they should speak English." Or (and this one kills a little piece of me and my patriotism every time I hear it): "Well our country owns their country, so they should talk to me in English." Umm last I checked America could not afford to own anything!! And also, Switzerland is neutral so no we did not save them in World War II... The closest country where English is an official language is England, so no: Swiss people do not need to speak to you in English. People do not go up to order a coffee in the States in French, even though our Canadian neighbors speak French. I'm really not trying to pick on certain people (ahem train station queues...) I just think that we shouldn't assume that everyone speaks English (even though they probably do), as a sign of respect at the very least.

I understand German is an incredibly difficult language to learn (not to mention it isn't the prettiest sounding) but still, a little effort goes a long way.

Mark Twain has this great quote about learning languages:
"My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years."
- Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, "That Awful German Language"

I d0n't mean that every American, au pair and/or ex-pat does this, and I'll admit that sometimes, I wish it were English so I didn't feel so awkward asking which vegetable is a leek (note to self: looks like celery with a white bottom) but I'm always going to try to improve. The other day one of my friends was talking about a meeting he was having with some Zürich University professors for work. I asked if he was going to have the meeting in German and he replied, "No, I wish. They have to come down to my level and speak to me in English."

1 comment:

  1. 1. I live here.
    2. I don't know German.
    3. I will not attempt more than hello, good-bye, or excuse me in German.
    4. Hate the language.
    5. SOOOO glad most people speak english. If not, hand gestures and body movement work well. :)