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Speaking the Language

Switzerland - Speaking the Language


According to expats living in Switzerland, there is no need to worry about your language skills before arrival. Most people in the big cities speak excellent English and survival without knowing any of the local languages is possible. It will be totally up to you to decide if you want to give learning a new language a chance. There are many benefits to learning a new language, though, so you might want to give it a try.

Depending on the region, Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh (also known as Rumantsch, Romansch Rhaeto-Romanic or Romance). The division is quite natural and is based on geographical influences. German is spoken in eastern and central areas, French in the west, Italian in the south-east and Romansh only in the canton of Grisons, which lies in the south-east of the country. The majority of Swiss people (63.5% of the population in 2013) are officially German speakers, followed by French (22.5%), Italian (8.1%) and Romansh (0.5%).

What is worth noting is that the official and written language in the majority of Switzerland is the same German language as the one taught in Germany (Hochdeutsch, also known as High German). However the language used unofficially and verbally is Swiss German, called Schwyzerdütsch and depending on the canton (Swiss division unit with the similar power as a state in America) where it is being used, may sound totally different due to local dialects. While in the French-speaking parts, the dialect differences are slowly disappearing, the differences between Swiss German dialects are very noticeable and may cause misunderstandings even to a native.

English is slowly becoming the unofficial fifth language of Switzerland, mainly due to the influence of technology, international television and advertising. It is possible to communicate in English, mostly with the younger generations. Communicating with older people and in official situations such as a doctor’s office or the post office may require the knowledge of at least a little German or French. In the workplace, even though English is becoming more and more popular and is used as the primary language by many international companies, there is a high chance that your employer will require the knowledge of at least German or French as a base. There are of course exceptions; a person can be hired without knowledge of any other language simply because of exceptional skills or in environments like IT, where most of the technical terminology would be covered in English anyway.

While it is possible to get through everyday life and necessities only in English, especially in the bigger cities, it is highly recommended to get the knowledge of the language of your region of choice. For an expat, learning the language of the natives is not only life improving but also opens up a lot of wonderful opportunities. It will be easier to meet people, make friends, read the local magazines, listen to the radio, catch the latest news or watch movies on TV and in the cinema. In the German-speaking parts of Switzerland most of the foreign movies and programs, in both television and cinema, are dubbed. The exception might be cable TV if the channel has the option of switching the audio and subtitles. In the rest of the country there is usually a choice between French dubbing or subtitles in German and French. To make sure you find a movie with audio in English, you can search for special theatres or screenings for English speakers.

The most common languages to speak at home and at unofficial events are Swiss German, French, Standard German, Italian and English. Due to an increasing number of immigrants from many parts of the world, a number of other languages are also commonly used, including Portuguese, Albanian, Serbian and Croatian, Spanish, and Turkish. Speaking more than two or three languages is not rare in Switzerland, however it is not accurate to assume that all people are fluent in all four official languages. Children are taught at school in the language of the canton they live in, while the teaching at universities is covered in German or French (and Italian in the Ticino canton).

Knowing the local language can also prove useful when shopping, using public transport or when away in rural areas. If you choose to study the local language, depending on the region where you live, you can attend the free language classes covered by each canton separately.

The most affordable private schools come under the umbrella of the supermarket chain Migros, called Migros Klubschule (www.klubschule.ch); you can find classes in German, French and Italian and the quality of teaching is very good. Another option is Volkshochschule which is usually meant for teaching the natives the other official language. Classes are offered in German, French, Italian and Romansh (vhsbb.ch, vhszh.ch, vhsbe.ch) On the more pricey side there is Berlitz, where you will find an excellent quality of teaching. Some of the other schools worth checking out are Inlingua and Alemania, however the reviews vary depending on the location. Other than that there are plenty of language schools offering more intensive courses as well as individual tutors offering their services through newspapers and the internet. One of the most interesting options when you’re on a budget but also want to interact with another person is Tandem, a free language exchange program where you are matched up with another person and meet to study together.

If you wish to become a paid tutor yourself, you can try searching for students on your own, through advertisements in the newspaper or internet, or join a language school. Note that you might be required to present a CELTA certification to do so. You will be able to take CELTA or DELTA (more advanced) certifications through a six month standard course, or a faster, more intense one. If you have a relevant degree (MA) in English, you might not need to present this certificate.


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