Thursday, March 28, 2013

How do you learn German in Switzerland?

Welcome to another edition of Dear Frau. It’s kind of like Dear Abby, except with an international twist. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to contact The Frau. She doesn’t have all the answers, but sometimes she likes to pretend otherwise.

Dear Frau,

Thank you so much for your blog. I am moving to Switzerland soon and aspire for my blog about my Swiss experience to be half as good as yours. I am hoping you can discuss and recommend options for learning German in advance of my arrival. I am setting up a private tutor, but thought you may have come across good books (like, Hoi! Your Swiss German Guide :)) or programs (i.e Pimsleur) to suggest as well. I unfortunately took French in high school and college.

Thank you,
Preparing to Sprechen Sie Deutsch

Dear Preparing to Sprechen Sie Deutsch,

The Frau would like to unlock the secrets to Swiss German right here and now on this blog, but alas, the language itself is a secret (much like Swiss bank accounts used to be), and she doesn’t have a key. So until the big bad U.S. government decides Swiss German should be as accessible to them as Swiss savings accounts, The Frau has turned to the only member of her family who understands the language:

The Frau: Baby M, is there a secret to learning Swiss German?

Baby M: Nein nein nein! (Her current and favorite German word)

So there you have it.

The Frau does not like to be discouraging. She does have one American friend and one British friend who learned to speak Swiss German (don’t ask her in what dialect!) and she has several friends who can understand Swiss German because they have been here a long time and also because they spoke fluent German before they moved here.

Learning German in Switzerland can be challenging
But for the rest of us French-in-high-school types, especially for those of us with no close Swiss relations to practice with, the process of learning High German and then understanding Swiss German will be long. One must accept that any form of German will take a long time to learn in Switzerland.

The thing is, you must learn two languages to function in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. First, you must learn High German. And learning High German could take years—even if you were living in Germany. But since you’re not living in Germany, it could take decades. Why? Because in Switzerland, you will not hear the High German language on a daily basis. And when you speak High German to a Swiss, you will often be spoken back to in English because the Swiss hate High German. Learning High German was so pointless to the Romands (Native Swiss French speakers) that many of them now teach Swiss German to schoolchildren instead of High German. How they do that, exactly, The Frau would love to know.

Where does this leave the over-achieving expat? If you’re like The Frau, it leaves you sad and depressed and wishing you could move to the French section, n’est pas?

But instead of going into depression when you’re feeling like a language loser, go to Germany or Austria instead. Then you’ll realize that you are learning German. One day, very far in the future, without realizing it, you too will understand a couple of Swiss German words. Then a few more. Eventually, maybe, like The Frau, after seven long years, you’ll get up to about 30% Swiss German comprehension.

Why is understanding Swiss German so hard? The fact that its dialect changes every ten miles? The fact that it’s only spoken and not written? The fact that Swiss people are very private and do not typically engage in casual discussion with strangers? The fact that a third of Swiss people speak English? The fact that even Swiss German speakers can’t always even understand each other?

Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja. And ja.

And then, think about this: Most native High German speakers claim it takes them about three months of living in Switzerland for them to be able to understand Swiss German. So…here are some tools to help you on your long German journey:

The Frau’s Quick Review of High/Swiss German learning materials/classes:

Berlitz: The Frau has no experience with Berlitz, but several of her friends have recommended it for beginners because it helps you learn useful phrases instead of being too academic.

Intensive German: The Frau has taken two separate intensive German classes in Switzerland. Her verdict? They are too intensive to take in everything that fast. Often leads to frustration.

Not-so intensive German: Taking a class 2-3 times a week for 1.5 hours at a time gives you time to take things in and practice them without being overwhelmed. The Frau did this pace for a couple years when she first moved to Switzerland and it was perfect.

Television: Watch German shows with basic getting-to-know-you conversations like Bauer Sucht Frau. Once you understand that well, you can graduate to the Swiss German version, which is called Bauer, Ledig, Sucht. Movies are good too—if you can get over the dubbed voices—especially good are movies you know really well in your own language. The Big Lebowski, for instance, is hilarious in German. Ich bin der Dude, anyone?

Language buddy: One of the best things to do is to find someone who speaks High German or Swiss German and who also wants to learn your native language. Then you can meet for an hour and speak each language for half the time.

Hoi: The Frau has this book but The Frau does not find this book too helpful. Why? It’s impossible to figure out how to pronounce things from it. And if you don’t know how the words and phrases in it sound, you will get nowhere. Why? Because Swiss German is a spoken language! Why this book does not come with the CD is beyond The Frau.

Pimsleur: The Frau has Swiss German Pimsleur. She likes it ok. It definitely helps to hear the language. But she thinks it is best used after learning some High German first so one has a basis for what and why they are saying what they are saying.

Anyone else want to chime in on how to best learn German/Swiss German?

40 comments: said...

We used Rosetta Stone for about a month before we moved to Switzerland, and it helped us learn the very basics in the little time we had before moving. Since arriving we've been taking lessons at Berlitz twice a week and highly recommend it.

I've accepted that I'll never really understand or be able to fully communicate with locals, but learning High German is valuable for being able to read your mail, write e-mails and converse on a basic level. Even if the conversation switches to English, it's good to show you're making an effort.

TheTuscan said...

It still amazes me how I cannot understand 90% of what my colleagues say. Then some IT guy walks is to solve a problem with your computer. His phone rings, he takes it, and not only you immediately know that he is from Germany, but you also understand half of what he says. Without having ever lived in Germany.
The mother of all frustrations

Chantal said...

Yes, eventually if you are not to go crazy, you must accept that it is almost impossible to understand everything your colleagues say. Totally agree about it being completely frustrating.

Hattie said...

My problem was that I would mix up Swiss and German so I never sounded "right."

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