Thursday, March 04, 2010

Dear Frau: I want to be a Swiss journalist!

Welcome to the third edition of Dear Frau. It's kind of like Dear Abby, except with an international twist. If you have a question, be sure to contact the Frau and maybe your Frage will be in next week's Dear Frau column.

Dear Frau:

I come from Sri Lanka and formerly worked as a journalist there. I want to join the media here, but I’ve had problems due to language issues. The government only provides me with German courses, they will not let me go to journalism school or to the university. What should I do?


Hopeful Journalist

Unfortunately, problems due to language issues are not a unique situation to foreigners living in Switzerland. Even the Swiss are often confused and speak to each other in non-official languages like English (except the French-speaking Swiss. They may know other languages, but they only and ever speak French).

Despite her 2.5 years of German language training, the Frau has accepted that she will never be able to be a German journalist or German copywriter. No matter how well you learn and speak a language, writing in it professionally is something that very few can do well as non-native speakers. That’s why so many companies in Switzerland seek native speakers for certain jobs.

The Frau knows she is fortunate to speak English as a native language and be able to continue her writing career because there are English publications in Switzerland. Even so, there aren't that many, so she still must look outside of Switzerland for opportunities. Let’s just say the Frau will not be writing for the NZZ anytime soon.

The Frau would never tell anyone to give up, only that as a non-native English, German, French, and Italian speaker, she thinks you have a tough road ahead as a journalist writing for Swiss publications. Competition for jobs these days is tight enough and as a writer, your language skills must be near perfect. Even the Frau worries she might misspell things and this freaks her out.

The Frau’s advice would be to try to continue to work for your former newspaper in Sri Lanka. Do they need international news? Could you be their Swiss or European correspondent? Could you write travel articles about Europe for other Sri Lanken publications? As a writer abroad, you must learn to be creative in ways writers in their home countries don't have to be. Try to think outside the box. The other option is to reinvent yourself completely and think of other things you love and could do in Switzerland with less barriers to employment.

Whew. The Frau hopes she's not being discouraging here, just realistic. Anyone else have advice for our Sri Lankan journalist? Feel free to disagree with the Frau's advice. How have some of you reinvented yourselves abroad?


M'dame Jo said...

except the French-speaking Swiss. They may know other languages, but they only and ever speak French

I'm sorry, but I can't let you give us this reputation. Big Yodel Readers, that's not true! We don't like to speak German, because the Swiss German don't want to speak German anyways and that Swiss German is extremely hard to learn, that's a fact, but you're maybe confusing us with the French ;-)

Stephersplatz said...

Has anyone else found that the German speaking Swiss would rather speak English than High German?

I work in an international office so we speak High German, but with my Swiss friends I try so hard to practice my German, but they always switch back to Swiss German amongst themselves and English when talking to me.

Chantal said...

Ha, ha, M'dame Jo. I know it's not 100% true. It's a stereotype that's just sort of true. I went to an international event in Geneva and everything was in French despite the fact that half the audience didn't know what was going on! Another time I went to a touristy restaurant in Neuchatel that didn't offer any menus besides in French. The influence of the French French may be to blame. I don't know.

I can certainly appreciate how the French-speaking Swiss would feel about the Swiss German. It's impossible to learn and you learn German and then they'd rather speak to you in English. What the heck.


Exactly my experience. Sometimes I wonder what my 2.5 years of German classes were good for. Except to read my mail...

At least if I lived in the French section I'd be able to use what I learned if I was taking French!

M'dame Jo said...

Well, I understand how you must have felt, but Neuchâtel is not an international town. Translating the menus is not worth the trouble and in general, the waiters are able to explain. And if they did translate, the menu would probably be useless/ridiculous, it needs someone pretty qualified to translate food related stuff.

Also if the event taking place in Geneva was in English, the other half of the attendees wouldn't have know what was happening. What I mean is that I don't think it's abnormal to give priority to the local language.

Personally, I'm much more bothered by people (common in the scientific community) who spend years here without learning the language and expect everyone to answer them in English, while we're constantly giving them hints by not translating the menus in restaurants ;-)

Chantal said...

Good points. Honestly, I think my Swiss German colleagues were more pissed about the ceremony in Geneva all being in French than I was. Because as the ceremony was going on, they spoke loudly amongst themselves in German and I found that rude! Language relationships are complicated in this country and I appreciate hearing your opinions!

I always speak to people here in high German first and then if they switch to English I usually just keep going in German because otherwise I'll never learn! But I agree that people should respect the local languages and at least try. I can't stand people who don't even bother asking if someone speaks English before just launching into it!

M'dame Jo said...

they spoke loudly amongst themselves in German and I found that rude

Really? Yes, that's rude. But that's actually a good symptom of our complicated language relationship, as you said.

Chantal said...

Yes, really.

Complicated indeed!

Hattie said...

My older daughter is fluent in Swiss, no surprise she went to Swiss public school and had Swiss friends in the neighborhood.
I do have very gifted friend who learned fluent Swiss as an adult after marrying a Swiss man. But she is rare.
I always felt that Swiss people did not want me to learn Swiss, that it was kind of Their language.

M'dame Jo said...

Hattie, please allow me a small correction. There's not such thing as "Swiss," unless you're referring to the country as a whole. There's Schwiizertüütsch, French, and Italian (and Romansh).

And if we want to be picky, there's also not such thing as "Swiss Germans" - there not Germans, but they're Swiss Alemannic. And the French speaking are "Romands", living in Romandy or "Welsch", as the Alemmanic refer to us.

Chantal said...

Hi Hattie,

I know what you mean about them not wanting you to learn Swiss German. I feel the same way. It's like they want their own little secret language.

M'dame Jo,

Thanks for keeping us foreigners in line!

M'dame Jo said...

I guess it is more annoying to the French- and Italian-speaking, as we're in minority. I'm guessing most Alemannic wouldn't really mind if you consider that they speak Swiss (= ignore the other languages)... But we're swiss too, and we don't really understand when they speak! If this makes sense.

Chantal said...

I can totally relate to your frustration! I do my best to learn German and it just doesn't seem to do any good! I can go to Germany and do fine but living here is still a struggle.

Diana said...

My Swiss boyfriend almost fell off his chair this morning after reading today's page in my agenda book. I wrote "Märet" instead of "Market" or "Markt". After eight years learning Schwiezerdütsch, it's finally sinking in. Give it time and talk to the locals. It will come!


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