10 December 2007

Learning German in Switzerland

Last week we spent 4 days in Germany and 2 days in Austria.

I was astounded to discover that not only did I understand the bulk of what people were saying to me, but they also understood what I was saying. The majority of my transactions at the Christmas markets or the restaurants or other places we went were in German. Indeed, at one stage while negotiating with a merchant at a Christmas booth I made a joke, in German. She not only got the joke, but actually laughed!

So why is this so surprising to me? After all, I have been studying German for the last 11 months. You would expect me to understand some of it, wouldn't you?

However, when I am in Switzerland I understand virtually nothing of what people are saying to me, even when they are trying to speak Hoch Deutsch (High German). And when I speak German to them, they don't understand anything I am saying. If they speak English, they immediately switch to that language. If they don't speak English, they generally just give up, leaving me without any recourse for communicating.

My German tutor has been telling me that I am really doing quite well and I should feel proud of my progress. But when I get no indication of improvement in my day to day life, it is difficult to believe I am moving forward. However, while in Germany and Austria I was thrilled that my ability to communicate was so obvious. I found myself seeking out even more opportunities to speak to people. While in Switzerland, I dread it.

I understand that my grammar is pretty bad and that my vocabulary can be limited. And people do need to speak slowly or I miss what they are saying. But the Germans and Austrians could understand me. Why can't the Swiss?

Will I ever learn German while living in Switzerland?

Sometimes it seems impossible.

Updated Later the Same Day

Shortly after posting this I left to do some errands. As I was walking away from my house, an older woman walking her dog said, "Entschuldigung Sie, Schweizer Deutsch Schweizer Deutsch..."

I replied , "Ich lerne Deutsch. Sprechen Sie langsamer, bitte?" (I am learning German. Could you speak slower please?")

She said, "English?"

When I replied that I did indeed speak English, she immediately launched into a rant about how nobody in Switzerland knows how to speak German any more. She went on and on and on.

I felt like saying, "Well, it's not like you speak German anyway." But just nodded politely until she had ranted herself out and walked away.

Periodically I start to feel a bit homesick and negative about Switzerland. Inevitably I will have a very positive interaction with a Swiss person who is a complete stranger and then I will feel much more positive about being here.

I really need a positive interaction now.


swissmiss said...

My first trip to Berlin was a revelation - I suddenly realized I was eavesdropping on the conversation of a couple next to me, following along - and they were speaking German!

Whenever my German teachers prepare us for international exams - you should be able to take such and such an exam after so many months - they always say to add six months to the estimates if you're studying in Switzerland.

But I do have trouble understanding a lot of Austrians, at least on TV.

Global Librarian said...

I could not understand either Bavarian or the Austrian dialects. However, the people I spoke with likely were speaking Hoch Deutsch, even if they would normally have spoken a dialect.

Sigh. I'll keep plugging away. But now that Bavaria has passed a smoking ban, I will spend even more time there. Perhaps that will help?

Gretchen said...

This is EXACTLY what happened to me during our time in Switzerland. I was always amazed at how much I understood (and was understood) while traveling through German. And yet when I tried to speak German in Switzerland, the Swiss would often respond in English. Hang in there! And be sure to get back to Germany from time to time just so you can feel good about your progress!

Anonymous said...

If that helps you, let me tell you that many Swiss German will answer non-german speakers in their language (at least if they speak that language) as a matter of courtesy.

I therefore think you should try the experiment and ask them to keep speaking to you in German and you will probably find out that they will indeed understand a lot of what you say...

So keep your head up!

Ups, jetzt habe ich doch tatsächlich in Englisch geantwortet... ;-)

Midsummer night's knitter said...

My knees are knocking - I am sure I am going to have a hard time with the language(S). I can't even sort out which one I am trying to speak - any sentence can quite unitentionally end up being a mix of English, German, French and Scottish Gaelic...

Marcy said...

I've heard many people here laugh about how Germans and Swiss Germans will each switch to English when speaking to each other, b/c the dialects are just that different.

When hubby and I were in Zurich a few weeks back we talked about how, if we were living there, we'd probably make no effort to learn Swiss German, or not more than basic phrases. There seemed to be no need, as everyone knew English, and when else will Swiss German ever be used other than in this one part of a small country?

Expat Traveler said...

I'm glad French is much less complex dialect wise, however I still had people pretend not to understand me..

I think many just hear your accent and switch to English because they know you aren't a native speaker..

It happened to me a lot! And I was in int/advanced French speakers!

Anonymous said...

Ha! Reading through made me laugh. I've been learing High German for a couple of months now (still quite basic stuff) and was shocked when i arrived out here to find that SZ German is from another planet! I was a little annoyed because i wanted to make a real effort while i'm here.
I've decided to stop in Solothurn as it's a bit more diverse with tourists, bars, social stuff etc so i may stand more of a chance???
I would like to continue to study German though and try and pick up some SZ G, does anyone know of classes in Solothurn or surrounding area?

Global Librarian said...

'Fraid I'm not familiar with Solothurn, other than one afternoon to see the Baroque architecture.

But check the classes through the Migros Learning Center. They are an excellent resource throughout Switzerland and I know that the ones in the Zürich area have Swiss German classes.

Good luck!