Saturday, 18 June 2011

Lost in Translation

This week the Swiss authorities made available a new English-language 'Welcome to Switzerland' brochure.

Front cover of 'Welcome to Switzerland' brochure

It's like one of those ghastly corporate 'Our Employees' brochures intended for shareholders: All photo's of smiling, attractive people covering all the basic stereotypes, emphasising again and again 'cultural diversity' and 'respect for the individual'. Which would be tolerable I guess, if only there were some actual real content in the thing.

Maybe that's a bit unfair because on every page there is one important piece of advice that is repeated again and again: the requirement to 'learn the local language if you want to survive here'. It's no doubt an important point for those intending to stay long term, but it's rammed home with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer.

The question is: which ruddy 'local language' are we supposed to learn? In Geneva you're screwed if you don't speak French. In Zurich, German is the major language, but at times it feels more like Italian is running it a close second. English is definitely a no-no (other than in the office where it's by far the predominant language). The best, busiest, and most affordable restaurant near work is Italian and none of the staff there appear to speak German, English or French. They seem resigned, if not overly enthusiastic, to gangs of non-Italian speaking Brits invading their space to gesticulate at their toasted pancetta's or whatever they're called.

In my 'self-serviced accommodation' today the kitchen was packed with lively conversation, as it usually is on the few trips I've made there. But it's Italian conversation, not German. I feel like a ghost, as if the mere fact I don't speak Italian or German makes me invisible. A brief 'Morgen' is completely ignored. I guess it's not just London or New York where people are rude!

With work hours so much longer here, it's hard to want to spend what little free time one has back in a classroom, learning a dull, harsh-sounding new language from scratch. And it's not High-German mind, but Swiss-German. Which is apparently different enough to cause problems even for the Germans here. People talk a lot about the better quality of life in Switzerland, but forget to point out that the Swiss actually refused to reduce the 'standard' working week from its 42-45 hours compared with England's 37-40 hours when a vote was taken a few years ago.

Last night around midnight the 'No noise between 10pm and 7am or you have to leave' rules of my accommodation were broken by a half-naked, six foot plus, bald and extremely intimidating German speaker, who accosted me as I was crossing the corridor from the loo to my room. I'd heard someone shouting in loud German earlier, but unfortunately hadn't realised there was someone high on drugs or drink lurking in the corridor area.

I've no idea what the torrent of loud German abuse I got meant, abuse which only got louder and more threatening when I garbled my usual "Sprechen ze English?", and resulted in loud bangs and kicks at my door for about an hour or so afterwards. I am not sure at this stage whether my inability to understand what was being shouted is a blessing or a curse.

The 'Welcome to Switzerland' brochure starts off its 'cultural diversity' marketing pitch with the story of a Swiss train conductor from Africa, who followed his girlfriend to Switzerland. Apparently he spent a year trying to get a job and failing. So he wised up, spent a year learning the language (Swiss-German) and hey, presto! a job as a train conductor was miraculously offered.

Front cover of 'Welcome to Switzerland' brochure - the story of an African immigrant

It seems there's no choice but to learn German, even if in my workplace all I hear are English accents that show a range of Northern England geographical locations that I've never heard in London. Outside the workplace English is definitely a no-no. Much more so than in Germany or France, in my experience.

But German lessons (just like everything else here) are not cheap, and represent yet another 'hidden expense' of living and working in Switzerland.

Hopefully I'll find out the most cost-effective way to learn the language at the Town Hall 'Welcome to Switzerland' event being held on 7th July. Until then it's a case of 'Morgen', 'Sprechen ze English?' and shouting more loudly than usual whilst waving my hands in an exaggerated fashion.

UPDATE (Comments seem to be broken with an infinite loop when I or anybody else tries to post a comment. Thanks Google (not!)

Comment from Laurent Bugnion (via Facebook comments which DO work):

Ah Ian... My wife comes from Malaysia, and never had an issue finding people talking English here. She works in English, and while (after 11 years living here) her German is not bad, she often engages in English in local businesses. Never an issue in Zurich!

As for me, I moved here in 95 with not a clue about how to speak Swiss German. I had good notions of Hochdeutsch. I was always met with smiles and patience from people I talked to. It took me about a year and a half to understand enough Swiss German to be able to enjoy conversations with friends in bars, but it certainly never prevented me to function in everyday's life.

BTW standard working week here is 40 hours. Some firms go to 41 hours but with flexible hours, so you can work more one day and take free the next. This is pretty standard in firms here.

Comment in reply from me:

Your experience is different from mine, but it's early days yet. Certainly there are lots of ex-pat English-speaking groups, but based on past experience they tend to be too obsessed with the 'home country' for me to have rushed to socialise that way.

One thing I have noticed is how self-effacing the Swiss are about their English if they DO speak the language. A couple of times when I've asked a Swiss person if they speak English I've been told 'No. Only a little bit', only to be met with almost perfect English and a strong vocabulary.

The 'Working Hours' came from the ex-pat 'Bible' Working in Switzerland (essential reading for English speakers, available from Amazon). I have to say my own employer's working hours contradict those you've quoted and confirm those I've given. The official week is 42 hours and we have to clock up that time as a minimum. Of course, because I work in IT hours worked tend to be higher than that, but I think that's not a Swiss problem, it's a worldwide one and 'goes with the territory' :-(


  1. I'm surprised you think it's so essential to learn German. Of course it's helpful, but essential?

    I've been here 3 years and barely speak a word.

    One thing I learned: don't ask if people speak English - just start talking to them! And maybe slow down a bit.

    1. As a Chinese born Swiss, I can tell you that it's absolutely necessary to learn the local language (whether it's Germany, French, or Italian) if you want to INTEGRATE into this culture (in fact, the same holds true for every other country in the world).

  2. The same subject came up on the English-Language forums last weekend and the weight of opinion seemed to be towards needing to learn it, although both you and Laurent think not.

    I have to admit I've got into the habit of just grunting and pointing lately as that seems to work for my colleagues and any attempt to politely ask if someone speaks English first is usually met with a shake of the head (sometimes accompanied by "a little bit").

    Certainly I'm just about surviving without, although a few of us have had the wrong Italian sandwich at lunch time, or just put up with a different item from the one we thought we'd made it clear we wanted at a restaurant.

    And then there's all those "warning" announcements on the trams and at the tram stops where you're wondering if they're announcing complete cancellation of a service or something else.