Telegrams from Switzerland

Many Anglophones remain immune to both the need and the inclination to learn a foreign language

Saturday May 17th 2008

Only in Switzerland could you take an American Literature class entitled ‘Henry James – Art and the Aesthetic’ and need to be fluent in four languages to digest the wealth of philosophical writing around such a topic. It began with a passage by Nietzsche, in the original German of course. Whilst the professor read it aloud in a thick Swiss German accent, us mere mortals – the linguistically challenged Anglophone exchange students – politely requested a French translation from the teaching assistant. This was supplied with a somewhat haughty look of disdain, so that the new kids this term who haven’t quite mastered the French yet were rather too intimidated to even think about suggesting that they might look for an English one.

This isn’t unusual at all in Swiss culture. If you take a class on Film Studies you will almost definitely be studying French, German, Italian, Swiss, British and American films, in their original languages, possibly with the odd Spanish one thrown in for good measure. Switching between languages is an everyday occurrence, whilst most Anglophones, without extensive practice and tuition, find themselves awkward and self-conscious or just downright scared of foreign languages altogether. It certainly took me a good few months to feel comfortable in French and my confidence is still fallible. Of course, in schools here children are learning at least two second languages from around the age of 8 which makes an incredible difference, but it is not the only factor.

In its most central position in Europe, Swiss culture, whilst proudly maintaining its own identity (you really have no idea how enthusiastic they are about fondue ), is unavoidably influenced by its many neighbouring countries as well as the huge foreign population. There are over 100 000 speakers of Serbian and Croatian and Lausanne itself is also home to a huge Spanish community. Switzerland also houses more Kosovan immigrants than any other country, which explains the huge celebrations that kicked off here when Kosovo gained its independence.

In this most multi-cultural of atmospheres it is easy to see how people are accustomed to and accepting of foreign languages. A lot of brand slogans here are in English, to save translating them into the three most common Swiss languages, and this is wholly welcomed – something that isn’t always the case. A recent documentary on the use of English in the media in France revealed much resentment from the older generations as they felt French would never be used in that way in the U.K -and they are absolutely right.

As native speakers of the international language, many Anglophones remain immune to both the need and the inclination to learn a foreign language. As we all know, the half-hearted secondary teaching of G.C.S.E. German is neither enough to stimulate our interest or even to manage a weekend away in Berlin, which is one of the main problems. The other is that few foreign, non-Anglophone bands/books/films ever reach pop-culture status in Britain. The cultural exchange of influence across the channel does not come close to being equal.

So whilst I struggle (and struggle is a rather colossal understatement) to follow German philosophy or respond to questions directed at me in Italian, I have a huge respect for this quite fantastic multi-cultural nation and it’s entirely stimulating to be introduced to so many new perspectives. It is by no means perfect, and, as recent politics can prove, racial equality is still a contentious issue here, but it certainly takes a very different approach from the U.K, one that is refreshing and fascinating and one we could certainly learn from.


  1. What an interesting article! We do live in a multulingual world. I am not sure that English is as widespread or useful as people claim.

    I would like to argue the case for Esperanto.
    It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. Take a look at

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.
    Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo , which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past year I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

    Iwonder what other readers of Nouse think about Esperanto?

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  2. I agree with Bill Chapman. Where on earth did you receive the information that everyone, worldwide, speaks English fluently?

    Not even the England football manager speaks English.

    An interesting Youtube video, albeit also from Switzerland, perhaps also deserves attention!

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  3. Great article. I’m really sad there are not more countries such as Switzerland, where languages are equally treated and people actually enjoy speaking another language.

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  4. 27 Sep ’08 at 5:46 am

    Sayar Dehsabzi

    Afghanistan as part of its current endeavour to attain social harmony which can conduce to bringing about social democracy need to introduce a comprehensive programme of learning all Afghan languages, these include languages such as Wakhi, Pashaiee, Baluchee. Perhaps this may be a farfetched objectives however such principle to inform people of their obligation that every citizen to respect all cultural norms. I would like to express my appreciation of Switzerland approach on the issue of learning foreign languages. After all the world is becoming a single home for all of us where boundaries and so called boarder can no longer separate mankind. This can be achieved through respect and trust.

    Sayar Dehsabzi

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  5. Having lived in Switzerland, I think the Swiss have no choice but to be diverse in their language skills. Pick up a carton of milk, and it will have 3 languages on it – German, French and Italian. There is, of course a fourth language – romanisch spoken by a ‘handful’ of people in the mountains.
    Then there is Swiss-German, that is barely comprehensible outside of Switzerland. In fact, there are marked differences between dialects in the different Kantons (equivalent to counties).
    As for the Germans, they need sub-titles when Swiss German is spoken on TV. As you can imagine, the French and Italian speakers also struggle with Swiss German. No wonder the Swiss are so good at English! It is the common language for many.
    Living there, I found many German speaking Swiss preferred to speak English than high German.
    This may change with the growth of foreign nationals. High German must now be spoken in schools and universities. The Swiss resent this, but this is a necessary move to accommodate the large non-Swiss born population.

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