Speaking the local language

Newcomers to Switzerland might be interested to know how those already here approached the language situation. Those settling in the French or Italian speaking areas will have had a lower barrier to the spoken language than those in the German speaking areas. Paperwork is in German but the Swiss speak Swiss German which sounds very different and varies from place to place. A lot!
Anyone landing up in the Rhaeto Romansch areas is in for a shock. The idioms are Sursilvan, Vallader, Surmiran, Puter, Sutsilvan. Rumantsch Grischun is the official written language there.

Quite a lot of people who work in English speaking firms can get by without the local language but to get to know ones neighbours and make social contacts generally, it‘s worth trying to learn basics at least.

I came here after two years of school German. Neither my co-workers, nor my husbands friends and family spoke English. I now speak fluent Basel/Züri/Aargauer/Schwyzer Dialect

Now everyone else can have their say.


All the areas where Romansch is used also speak and have all their official communications available in German. A while back we were thinking of moving to the Laax area and I was actually intending to learn Romansch rather than pursuing German (but would not have needed to do so). I’d been there enough to realise that with my French and Italian I could already understand most of it when written down, and quite a lot when it was spoken as well.


I am shocked when I meet people living in German speaking part of Switzerland for years and still NOT WANTING to learn German because they can live with only speaking English.
Even new Generations that come to do Master degree in Bern, don’t try to learn local (or at least German) language at all.


The problem is that for people working in International companies where English is the official language there is not always much of an opportunity to practice.

It’s also much more difficult to learn German when most teachers/schools categorically refuse to explain anything in English, even when just a few words could lead to a potential lightbulb moment. I recall one such incident when I finally worked out the Werden can be translated directly as ‘will be’, having been struggling with it over several lessons. It would have taken just a few seconds.

Yes, I know not everyone in the class has English as their native language or speaks it at all, but why refuse help those students that you can?

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Nowadays students can use their mobiles in class to help them quickly translate words. Teachers can’t always anticipate when to translate (and to be honest, they shouldn’t have to anymore).

I’ll expect much fewer would choose to learn in the future. By then, I expect live translation technology will be so good that people would prefer to use that. Babblefish might come sooner than expected!

I’m not talking about translation, even when I was doing it we had such things as dictionaries, but the way in which words are used, like in the case I mentioned the use of werden to overcome the lack of a future tense, but the lack of a two minute explanation led to much scratching of heads before the light dawned.


I know coworkers who live in their own English bubble and haven’t bothered to learn much of the local language. My neighbor complains to me that her sister-in-law can’t be bothered to learn German, so family dinners are a bit annoying as SIL’s husband has to translate everything, or the SIL just stays out of the conversation.

When we moved here, we attended a German course 2x week, for 2 years. We don’t use German at work, except at coffee breaks, but for talking to our neighbors, getting work done on our apartment, etc., we have to speak German. We don’t speak dialect, but can understand enough to follow and participate in a conversation. We’re both at the “oh, you speak German really well” level. :grin:


And this is a pity because Romansch dialects are in danger of dying out as they are overtaken by Swiss-German and German or Italian.

Here on the German side we have so many Swiss-German dialects it’s hard to know which is from which valley or berg. I don’t speak any dialect (only High German) but not even my kids can point out where exactly a dialect comes from. They seem to agree on the “fact” that Bernese German is the nicest to their ears. We have some neighbours from that region and strangely I agree.

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I believe it is both very useful and very hard to learn German in Switzerland, if you live in an international environment.

Very useful because you have many more opportunities to attend interesting events here, like within Vereins, going out with random groups of people and not just expats and so on.

Very hard because if your level is below B2, everyone switches to English. Overhearing conversations is also almost impossible because of the dialect.

I don‘t think many Swiss will agree with this. Maybe not an exact location but Swiss who hear me talking Swiss German for the first time, are mildly surprised that I sound as if I have connections to Basel. I lived there for about three years fifty years ago! And if I know someone from a certain region I usually recognise when hearing another voice from that area that the two ‚match‘.

No, I agree about being able to point out the general location but then when I ask more about it they can’t say exactly where does it come from, just approximate the location. We are talking about kids here not adults, mind. Oh, and Basel is easy to spot, even for me! :joy:
Anyways, when we visit Germany and speak German they ask us if we come from Switzerland. Apparently, a friend told us that we do speak German with a Swiss accent, “structure” and we use words that are not commonly used in other German speaking countries.

In many areas the dialects are mixing as folk are more mobile and so many couples come from different regions that the children hear several dialects all the time. My daughters used Bernese words a lot when very young as our nearest neighbour came from the Emmental.


Of course it is😉

I think the tiny nuances to discern a dialect and where it hails from is even tricky to us natives. I can do it quite safely in regards to (and only about) Ct. Bern…but couldn’ tell apart the Züri Unterländer from the Oberländer

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I am in Zurich and speak “household management” German. Meaning I can do everything with it except work in it. It’s clunky and I am not fast enough with shaping my thoughts as well as building nuances to be able to, for example, sit in a meeting and argue a point.

But I can speak to authorities, teachers, post office etc and decided it’s good enough. To take it to the next level I would need to either go for a couple of months immersion or go work for a Swiss company.

My Swiss German is dodgy, can understand about 60% and get tired quickly…

But I do speak Italian and French mother tongue level and this is both good and bad as means often switching to one of those.

Anyway my advice to anyone is to learn the language - yes you can “survive” without it but really much better to be able to participate to things, especially if you have children.


My understanding was that numbers of both “mother-tongue” and “second-language” Romansch speakers had stabilised and were actually increasing in the 21st century.

It’s not been helped by the different activist groups who are variously pushing (fighting with each other) for either a standardised version or for the local dialects to be used in schools in various areas.

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Can you tell the different accents from lip reading? I would imagine that to be very difficult.

I just don´t understand why expats from English speaking country don’t want to learn. It is a proven fact that learning languages develops the brain, we all want to avoid losing the memory in old age, and I do believe all these things help with it.
And behaving like that you close your world of potential new friends / colleagues / new things to learn.
Currently experiencing at work the fact that only one person on leadership positions doesn’t speak German (after almost 20 years living in Basel) so every meeting when this person is there, we have to speak English. And you can see how people react differently when this person is not participating in meetings, and German can be spoken.

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Because it’s hard. And they don’t need to.

I’m not agreeing with them, but it’s really not so difficult to understand the reason.


…and for those who travel a great deal for the firm, there is no real chance to take courses either. When I came here, much more High German was used on the radio and TV so it was easier to pick up basics. Now, where so much dialect is spoken in broadcasting, the situation is more complicated. And let‘s not forget that some people pick up languages and dialects quicker than others. To add to the fun, if several people of varied mother tongue are speaking ‚German‘ they may well be learning each other‘s mistakes.
It‘s always more complicated than one thought.