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Learning a Swiss Language

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 Message 1 of 7
18 August 2009 at 7:36pm | IP Logged 
I've always been fascinated with Switzerland. I know others consider it a somewhat boring country, but for me it's always been sort of exotic and elite and just a very special place. It's said that Einstein only really flourished intellectually when he moved from Germany to Switzerland. Many other highly intelligent and/or wealthy people seem to end up there as well. The Swiss passport is probably the most prestigious in the world, and one of the most difficult to get. Cities like Geneva and Zurich are often at the top of the lists of world cities with the highest quality of life. The whole country is beautiful, wealthy, clean and safe. The big cities also offer plenty of diversity to keep things interesting.

Anyway, I'd like to learn a language in Switzerland. Leaving aside Romansch, spoken by maybe 1% of Swiss, the choices are German, French and Italian.

In the German-speaking areas, people speak a multitude of different Swiss dialects of German. They are not mutually intelligible with the standard German spoken in Germany and Austria, and apparently are not mutually intelligible even with each other. Plus there is no standard written form for these dialects. Instead, German-Swiss write in standard German. They know how to speak standard German, but really don't like to do so. They have high proficiency in English as well, and prefer to speak English over standard German, but much prefer to speak their own Swiss German dialect. It also seems that the Swiss Germans are the most insular, exclusive, ethno-centric people in Switzerland, which means they aren't so open or friendly with outsiders. I think all of these factors make Switzerland a poor place to learn German, especially if you want to learn standard German. (I, for one, don't see the point in trying to learn a Swiss-German dialect; if I decide to learn German, it will be the standard variety).

In the small Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, there is a similar problem. On the plus side it is probably the most beautiful part of the country with the nicest climate, and has the friendliest people who generally don't speak English so well (a plus for English-speakers trying to learn their language). But they have their own dialect of Italian, different from the standard Italian which is based on the Tuscany dialect. And if you choose to live in one of the bigger towns like Lugano or Locarno, which have a lot of visitors and residents from Italy, you will also often hear standard Italian as well as the Milan dialect. So three kinds of Italian. I think this would make learning Italian in Switzerland unnecessarily complicated.

So that leaves French. I think this is the most logical major standard language to try to learn in Switzerland. The French spoken in Switzerland is highly standard, unlike Canadian or Belgian French, for example. Another nice thing about French is that the language itself is highly standardized, with much less dialect variation than German or Italian. Finally, after English, French is the most useful language for inter-regional communication in Switzerland. Whereas many German-Swiss and Italian-Swiss learn French to a high level, not so many French-Swiss learn German to a high level. More Italian-Swiss do, but they generally learn standard German. Also, not so many French-Swiss or German-Swiss learn Italian.

This pretty much sums up my understanding of the language situation in Switzerland. Is this about right? Can anyone add to this, or correct something? I'd like to learn more.       
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 Message 2 of 7
19 August 2009 at 12:30am | IP Logged 
I've been living in an Italian-speaking area of Switzerland for 11 years.

The Italian language situation is rather different than you think; we speak standard Italian here. People who are over 40 or so also can speak various dialects. Younger people can understand dialect, but most can't speak it -- and the older folk switch into standard Italian if anyone who doesn't speak dialect is around. I rarely hear dialect - and most of what I do hear is because I hunted up CDs with it.

This is very similar to the situation in various parts of Italy - while standard Italian is based on an old Tuscan dialect, mutually incomprehensible dialects still exist all over Italy. I've never heard "Milan dialect" spoken in Ticino either; living dialect is increasingly a rural phenomena, much less hearing living dialect from nearby areas. I hear Milanese accents rather often - but that's like hearing a California accent if you're from Florida, it's not a big deal, much less a dialect.

Choosing against Italian on the basis of its dialects is like choosing against English because Scots and Frisian exist - except it makes less sense, because the dialect speakers can also switch to lightly-regionally-accented standard Italian at the drop of a hat (I've NEVER met someone who can't). Regional variation in accents strikes me as significantly more minor than the differences between UK and US English; they're more similar to the range within US English. It's really nothing like the situation with Swiss German.

On another note, quite a lot of Ticinese speak English well - it's far from universal, but seems a lot more common than in Italy.

All things considered, though, French is a much, much more useful language than Italian - both inside and outside of Switzerland.

Lastly: Switzerland is very much a majority-German-speaking country. Official forms are available in a range of languages, but everything from many non-governmental Swiss websites to labels on imported goods in health food stores may only be in German, or in German and French - even at physical stores in Ticino. Not having at least some reading knowledge of German is occasionally painful.

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 Message 3 of 7
19 August 2009 at 12:45am | IP Logged 
I'm really happy to learn all that - maybe now I would choose to learn Italian rather than French. It's easier, I like the language and culture more, Ticino is beautiful, even more so than other parts of Switzerland, and they have a (to my mind) very progressive anti-smoking policy in Ticino, and in Italy also.

Was I right about the Ticinese being more open and friendly with foreigners than the French-Swiss or German-Swiss? That might be the deciding factor right there.

Edited by pmiller on 19 August 2009 at 12:47am

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 Message 4 of 7
19 August 2009 at 7:50am | IP Logged 
Last year I lived in the French speaking part of Switzerland (Lavaux region - in between Lausanne and Vevey) and that place was BEAUTIFUL! I absolutely love it there, the vines, the crystal clear lake and the French alps on the other side. It truly is one of the most beautiful parts of Switzerland (though there are many!). I never actually made it over to Ticino during my stay, and am quite mad at myself for that considering I had an AG (free pass of all transit/trains in Switzerland).

To be quite honest, you'd be quite happy living in any of the linguistic regions in Switzerland, they all have really great qualities about them. One of my other favourite places in Switzerland is "Vierwaldstaettersee" (I think it's Lake Lucerne in English) but it's an amazing place too.

In chosing the most practical language, though I am biased I would have to say French. Though in most parts of Switzerland, especially the touristy parts, you won't have trouble finding people who speak English.

Are you planning on moving there? If so I'm super jealous! I'd love to go back to that beautiful country!
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 Message 6 of 7
21 August 2009 at 9:35am | IP Logged 
Choose the language depending on the region where you want to live. Personally, I would go for French.

By the way, Swiss German dialects mostly are mutually intelligible with each other.
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 Message 7 of 7
21 August 2009 at 10:23am | IP Logged 
I have chosen not to try to learn Romansch (including the Swiss branch of this confusing dialect bundle), but I can to some extent read it. I have one single tape with a few sentences in Romansch, in which I can pick out a few words. But trying to learn something that is spoken by so few people is a bad investment of one's time.

It isn't necessary to focus on learning Swiss Italian and Swiss French because they are both quite close to the standard form of those languages. Which leaves the oddball Swiss German, also called Schwyzerdütsch.

I would very much learn to understand and even speak/write this language (or whatever it is). But it is a problem that the Swiss normally don't write it, so I would need massive amounts of spoken Schwizertitsch to learnt it, - and then I still would have to deal with lots of differences between different kinds of Schwiizertüütsch. I would probably have to stay in the country for several moths to learn it.

This is a parallel to the situation in the Northern part of Germany, where Low German (Platt) in theory is spoken (few written and spoken sources and no effective standardization, - and quite far from standard German). However the number of actual speakers of Schwyzertüütsch is probably much larger than the number of actual speakers of Platt, which in theory should make it more attractive to learn. The only reason that I know some Platt is that NDR had programs in that language so that I could listen to it for hours. And because I knew the 'soound' of spoken language I could also read books in Platt without too much fuss in spite of divergent spellings. If I had had the same exposure to Swiss German I could of course have learnt that too. And that would have been nice.

Edited by Iversen on 08 November 2010 at 1:06pm

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