Saturday, June 30, 2012

For want of a common language

Most of the ladies in my French-language yoga class are French, but some of them are from the French-speaking part of Switzerland. To give you an idea of how close Swiss-French is to French-French, one of the Swiss ladies mistakenly thought that one of the other Swiss ladies was from France -- and this was after being in class together for several weeks, with plenty of conversation before and after class!

One of the Swiss ladies told me just a few weeks ago that she'd lived in Asia, but moving to the German-speaking part of Switzerland was a bigger challenge culturally (and was viewed as a bigger adventure by her friends and neighbors of the French-speaking region).


Here's another quick story to illustrate:

A friend of mine was waiting in a chaotic line, and since it wasn't moving, her husband took the children to wait somewhere else. Another lady immediately moved up to squeeze my friend out of line. When my friend indicated that she was still in line, told her she wasn't standing in line properly.

"Oh, and squeezing right up against each other is going to make it go faster," my friend replied.

"This is how we do it in Switzerland, and if you don't like it, you can just go back to wherever you came from," was the reply.

Note that this conversation actually took place in German (my friend's native language), and my friend never stated that she wasn't Swiss. Of course, she didn't have to.

[Then another lady (a lady my friend had assumed was German since she'd been speaking perfect high German earlier) suddenly switched to Swiss German to dispute the other Swiss lady's claim about "how we do things in Switzerland."]

Switzerland has an extremely high proportion of residents who are foreigners. According to this website I googled, foreigners account for more than 20% of the population. That's a lot. It would be nearly impossible to avoid tension between the foreigners and the native citizens.

However, I think the problem is exacerbated by having an official language (for all important business, official documents and instructions, etc.) that is not even mutually intelligible with the local dialect. It's like if you had to learn Italian for all formal communication, but the locals would all speak amongst themselves in French. Swiss German -- this so-called "dialect" of German -- is nearly that distant from High German.

If you don't believe me, take it from this Swiss comic book (Jetzt Kommt Später, by Kati Rickenbach):

The biggest problem with this, in my opinion, is the psychological distance it creates between the locals and the foreigners. The locals learn High German in school (essentially as a foreign language), and it's totally normal that they would prefer to speak their familiar native language. But there are huge barriers to learning Swiss German as a foreign language (it's not written, it's not consistent from one village to the next, it's hard to find materials and courses for learning it, especially if your command of German German is weak). So, effectively, the (German speaking) Swiss have their comfortable, familiar language for speaking amongst themselves, and then they have to switch to an uncomfortable, foreign language any time they want to communicate with a foreigner.

Communicating with foreigner becomes an annoyance, and even the most enlightened person is constantly making a mental distinction between "talking amongst ourselves" and "talking to them." It even contributes to a sentiment that Swiss people from other language regions of Switzerland are from a foreign culture.

German-speaking residents generally learn to understand Swiss German fairly quickly, but don't typically speak it -- so they are constantly marked as speaking the foreigner-speak. And I've heard credible arguments that the German-speaking Swiss feel more hostility towards Germans than towards any other (white) immigrant group.

Naturally, I intend to learn the local dialect. But the other weird thing is that a lot of Swiss people don't really want foreigners speaking their dialect. Many Swiss do -- there are plenty of people who feel that if you're in Switzerland, you should learn to speak like the Swiss. However, the particular dialect of Swiss German a person speaks is a strong marker of local identity. It's a way of telling people precisely where you're from. So trying to speak the dialect of some village that you're not really from sounds kind of weird and wrong to lot of people.

Personally, I think the solution is to stop the two-language system. Stop using High German** as the official language, and start using Swiss German as the official language of the Swiss-German-speaking part of Switzerland. Unfortunately, there's one big problem with that plan, illustrated here in a cartoon by Sergio J. Lievano:

The main reason Swiss German is considered a "dialect" (as opposed to being considered a separate language) is that it's not one language. It's a family of dialects that are (mostly, but not entirely) mutually intelligible amongst themselves. So it is impossible to agree on one official "Swiss German". It's so difficult that -- despite how fiercely the Swiss want to maintain their cultural independence from Germany -- it's simpler to just accept the foreign language rules from Germany than try and agree amongst themselves on defining Swiss.

[Aside: There was a humorous piece in the newspaper last week about how some Swiss people were up in arms over the fact that some foreign maps lumped together six different Cantons (the size of counties) as the "greater Zürich Area." Cantons that are outside of the Canton of Zürich -- can you believe it?! Meanwhile, plenty of people (my boss for example) commute into Zürich every day from neighboring cantons...]

However, I think it would be possible to agree to commission a committee of linguists from all over Switzerland to hammer out an official "Swiss German" language to serve as the official language (and just agree in advance to abide by what the committee comes up with).

If they created an official Swiss-German language, people could continue to speak the particular dialect of their home village. But people would also have the option of speaking a language that doesn't mark them as being from anywhere in particular -- and these two types of people would be able to communicate with each other in real time!

That's my humble proposal for improving inter-community relations in Switzerland.

**Technically the Swiss use a special version of High German, called "Schriftdeutsch" (i.e. "written German"), but it is nearly the same as the standard German language of Germany.


postmormongirl said...

This is eerily familiar. My husband is from the Tamil Nadu state in India, which is another country with a very diverse set of languages and customs. Indians tend to think of themselves in terms of their state first, country second. And my husband is from a state that is known for being very stubborn - most Tamillians only learn Tamil and English. So he used to pretend that he didn't know Hindi - some of his friends were quite embarrassed when they realized he in fact understood all of their Hindi conversations.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey PMG!!!

The cultural relations across India (especially the difference between the northern Sanskrit-based languages and the southern Dravidian languages) is so fascinating!! I'm in software engineering, so I've met lots of people from all over India over the years. I think India is essentially comparable to the whole of Europe when it comes to the range of (somewhat-related) cultures.

Switzerland is definitely a microcosm of the same thing. But it's so small that sometimes the insistence on cultural independence from one town to the next is almost absurd.

For example, Switzerland's national bratwurst is called "Cervelat". It's even called that (with minor spelling variations) in the French and Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland. But the people in Basel have their own separate word for it. A friend who lives in Basel reports that people will pretend not to understand what you're talking about when you ask for it as "cervelat".

Now, keep in mind that Basel is less that 50 minutes from Zurich by train, and there are two trains per hour in each direction every day connecting the two cities. It's more convenient for me to go to Basel than it is to go to some places in the Zurich suburbs where the bus service is infrequent.

That one word is just one typical small example of the extreme degree of insisting on maintaining cultural barriers with respect to close neighbors who are in constant contact.

Similarly, my boss mentioned that his wife can tell the difference between people from her own village and people from the village on the other side of a (very small) lake, just by accent. In some ways it's very charming, like going back in time to another era...

The Sinister Porpoise said...

From what I understand, if you do learn Swiss-German, you can go to Pennsylvania and have an easy time conversing with the Amish.

ivo said...

Spot on. This is a good analysis of the linguistic situation (problem?) we have in Switzerland.
But the proposal:

"Personally, I think the solution is to stop the two-language system. Stop using High German as the official language, and start using Swiss German as the official language of the Swiss-German-speaking part of Switzerland."


This could never work. The reason is simple: we other Swiss, of the French- and Italian-speaking persuasions, all learn High German at school (we Italian speakers also learn French). This is acceptable because High German is not only the most important (official and written) Swiss language, but also because it is one of the dominant European languages, culturally and economically. It is very useful -- certainly not as much as English, but not so much less either.

Swiss German on the other hand, even a uniformed and standardized version of it, would be politically impossible to impose on us at school. Frankly, we would feel it (rightly I think) as a sort of cultural imperialism from the part of the Swiss cultural majority. What use would it be outside of our tiny country? Politically, Switzerland doesn't work this way at all: we are a Confederation in which every agreement is a compromise of some sort. We "other" Swiss choose to learn High German at school (compulsorily I should add) also because they accept to do the same! This doesn't work so well in recent times, for various reasons (I could harp on this if you are interested).

Here's another, more realistic, solution: we could all learn English compulsority, and elect it to the status of a (semi?)official language. This has several advantages.

First, we all do learn English already in any case, because of its international importance. It's just an economical imperative. Only, it's not compulsory in several Cantons and, for intricate traditional and political reasons, it is often introduced in school curricula only after a second national language has already appeared. Some Cantons -- among which is Zurich, I believe -- have already dared introduce English in primary schools before a second Swiss language (i.e. French was delayed to a later start). Although there has been some initial outrage, it seems to have been accepted so far.

Second, English is culturally neutral in our country. It is closer to German and French than to Italian, but on the other hand it is not "their" language (don't get me wrong: nobody wants to secess here, but we are also fiercely locally minded, as you've noted in your post). Also, English is cool: kids in the French and Italian regions find German rather hard to swallow, I regret. I mean, when is the last time you've learned the lyrics of a German pop song?

ivo said...

A third advantage: official documents are often already in English: it's the fifth language appearing on our passports and driving licences, for instance. It beats Latin nowadays, which used to be the "neutral" choice (as in the officlal name of the country, Confoederation Helvetica).

Let me give you one last argument, which somewhat subsumes your solution: if English were an official language (and perhaps the only compulsory one in all schools), the Swiss Germans could drop High German! (And we too, yupieee!) Nobody would be cranky anymore that they speak their incomprehensible dialects anymore when they are supposed to speak proper German (for our convenience, so to speak), so they could indulge in it as much as they want, and even make it official (in their Cantons of course).

I'm pretty sure that still only a minority of Swiss people is ready even to entertain the English solution seriously. I think it makes sense, but I also know that we're very slow to change… On the other hand, I feel it in the air! Consider this: during my 10 years in Zurich, I have had countless occasions where the locals, as soon as they heard my Italian accent, have spontaneously switched to English, instead of High German! Even they prefer it! (no risk of embarassment if they get the grammar wrong, no risk of biasing the relationship from the start, etc.)

Alright, this was very long... apologies!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ivo!!!

Thanks for your insights!

I don't think the two solutions are mutually exclusive. I think that defining Swiss German as a language would go hand-in-hand with recognizing English as the common language across the language regions.

I understand that it would be difficult to persuade the Italian and French speaking regions to teach Swiss German as their first foreign language. However, as you point out, part of the reason for choosing to teach High German first there is because High German is the most important (official and written) Swiss language. In other words, a big part of the point is to facilitate communication across the language boundaries. I think perhaps you'll agree, that for that goal, it isn't working very well. I'm proposing that the Germanic cantons say to the other cantons "Hey, don't learn High German for our sake."

Part of the problem is that a lot of the Germanic Swiss don't speak High German well and don't want to. (I think this contributes to some of the hostility towards the actual Germans -- Swiss perceive the Germans as correcting/judging them on a difficult school subject.)

It's also partially because the language education (Germanic Swiss learning French and Francophone Swiss learning German) is surprisingly ineffective. Educated people living a few villages away from the language border don't typically learn each other's languages. Yet speaking good English is widespread (perhaps because people get more use out of it worldwide). (The Italian-speaking Swiss seem to do a bit better, perhaps because their region is less populous than the other two.)

As you point out, the common language of choice among the different regions already is English. It's neutral because it's not the language of any one region, and it makes sense because it's already the common international communications.

If all the cantons would go ahead and select English as the first foreign language -- and if the Germanic cantons agreed to define a common Swiss German to use amongst themselves -- that would go a long way towards aligning the "official" language rules with the way people actually communicate, hence would facilitate communication.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

Even if the Amish originally migrated from Switzerland or thereabouts, wouldn't the language have evolved in the intervening centuries?

The Sinister Porpoise said...

If I understand correctly, the Pennsylvania Dutch emigrated from Southern Germany/Northern Switzerland. It is almost a seperate language, but someone who I went to church with when I was younger came from Switzerland and found it easier to converse with the Amish/Old Order Mennonites because the dialects were similar. Their Bibles, however, are still in High German.

ivo said...

Hi C., thanks for your reply. I think we basically agree on the best cure, then. In fact, I believe that "freeing" the non-German speaking Swiss from learning High German by elevating a neutral language (English) to official status, would do much to help the Swiss Germans make a proper (meaning written, more or less standardized, and officially recognized at least at Cantonal level) language(s) out of their regional dialects.

By the way (and here I'm going to betray my true colors I fear ;-) ) it's the same sort of reasoning that the proponents of Esperanto, for instance, use(d to use) when arguing for a non-state, non-ethnic language to be used in international affairs, or even, more recently, for adoption by the EU.

C. L. Hanson said...

I imagine you saw my posts on Esperanto. ;)

I agree with the noble purpose of Esperanto -- the difficulty is simply a practical one: Learning a new language is a huge amount of effort (even a relatively simple language like Esperanto). If you want large numbers of people to learn it, they really need to be motivated to learn it -- which means you need to have a critical mass of existing speakers in order to make it a practical, useful skill. For Esperanto, the only people who learn it are true believers in the Esperanto philosophy and language hobbyists/geeks. And that's just not enough to get the necessary critical mass.

English doesn't have the same problem. People in Switzerland already use English to communicate with other language groups and with people from other countries. It's annoying enough for the Germanic Swiss to have to have most of their education take place in a language that is essentially a foreign language to them, and it's doubly annoying for the non-Germanophones in Germanic Switzerland to have to learn some alternate foreign language in order to read anything here or understand the announcements of which trains are late -- and then still not be able to follow a conversation among the locals!

Elevating English to a more official status wouldn't be a question of imposing onerous new burdens on people -- it would be more a question of officializing the current de facto situation. The Germanic Swiss want to speak Swiss German (for the most part), and regularizing it would simplify and strengthen that impulse. It doesn't matter that people outside this tiny country wouldn't learn it -- people can communicate with non-Swiss in English. (I've heard plenty of stories of Swiss people visiting Germany and finding the Germans switch to English in order to communicate with them, even when the Swiss were speaking their version of High German.) People who learn German in Switzerland aren't doing it because German is an important language in the world, they're learning it because they want to get by in Switzerland. I never would have learned German if I hadn't moved to a Germanic region -- I just want to speak the language of the place I'm living.

Of course, language momentum is also one of the main obstacles to this plan. Many people have put in a huge amount of effort to learn High German, and tons of people in Switzerland speak High German as their first/best language. Such people would likely have strong objections to changing the status quo.

Still, I think it is the sort of change that would be politically feasible incrementally. If they simply made English another official language (and started posting official announcements in English as well as High German), I think it would be only a generation before we end up with the plan described above.

dee said...

I could talk about this topic for hours, I really could. I think there is more Swiss-German/anti-foreigner bias in Zyyrri (sp? ;-) than in Bale, not sure why that is, but I feel it every time I'm in your Kanton.

Also, we have KLOEPFER in our fridge as we speak. Special label on a national brand, only for this region. Everywhere else it will say Cervelat/las on it. LOL.

CU soon? :-)

- wry

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Dee!!!

That's interesting. I wonder if it's due to the fact that Zürich is quite international and yet it's not right on a border (neither a national nor language-region border). We should totally get together and discuss!! :D

We're moving at the end of November, so we'll probably schedule a party for our new place in early December. But we should get together before that. I'll email you.