There’s a joke that Switzerland is the only country to have a national language that no one speaks: German

In reality, Switzerland has four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), and I’m no authority about how pure the other three languages are, but English is probably spoken more often than the official language of German. (As a general rule, dialect speakers prefer English to High German in many cases.)

As evidence of this, we have a new national hymn.

In English.

White Cross on a Shining Red

White cross on a shining red,
woven by a common thread:
freedom, independence, equality.
Open to the world in solidarity,
Swiss are one in peace and diversity.
Free are we who freely speak,
strong as we protect the weak.
White cross on a shining red,
sign of Switzerland, the path we tread.

It’s lovely, and as an English speaker, I appreciate it. But, from a sociological perspective, I find it fascinating. Even though Germanic students are required to study French in schools and vice versa, when the two meet the chosen language for discussion is more likely to be English. (I don’t know what the required second languages are for the Italian and Romansh regions, although I suspect German.)

Big businesses operate in English with a high frequency.

It’s quite rare to run into people here who don’t speak at least enough English for me to never have to learn a word in German. (No panicking–I speak German and have a B2 certificate and even teach a religion class in German to very patient teenagers.)

In other words, if you want to succeed in Switzerland, you better pay attention in your English class.

I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a single German teacher in the United States that tells students to study up on their German so they can be a successful business person.

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8 thoughts on “Swiss Saturday: English

  1. I visited Paris in the 1980s, then returned in 2018 for a weekend. I was astounded at the difference. In the 80s I got the legendary French sneer from waiters at my marginal (high school) French. In 2018 every restaurant had menus in French and English, and the waiters would switch to English as soon as I opened my mouth, or they saw which language I was reading.

    I assume it’s due to lots of British tourists traversing the Chunnel.

    1. My father visited Paris in the 50s, and hated tourist-y stuff, so he took my mother out to dinner in a place that was “off the beaten path.” While wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, typical tourist clothes. And got the snooty Parisian waiter, asking for their order – in French. However, that wasn’t his first trip to France. In WWII, he was behind the lines before D-Day, and spoke perfect French with regional accents, so he placed the order in perfect Parisian French. Said they got the best service of the trip after that.

  2. Very interesting comments and articles, all of which show the vast difference in how we educate our students. In the USA, unless one is in a selective private school, language is not taught or presented in the early grades, which is a shame because the earlier one learns a language the easier it is to learn. That explains why most Americans unless they have the ease of auditory learning languages don’t speak multiple languages. In the EU schools, multiple languages are taught from the start of school years and most are encouraged to speak and learn multiple languages and English.
    This is why I can’t understand why English is not the standard business language for the USA as every standard form one fills out is in English despite our ambiguously blended cultures.
    I know if I ever get to travel outside the country and inside the USA, I may have to use a translater app to help communicate.

  3. I studied in a German university for one year in the early 1970s. One German student showed me his chemistry textbook, which was in English! Although I don’t recall German students speaking English, they were expected to be able to read it. I wonder now whether this fellow’s chemistry exams were in English or German. I had studied two years of college-level German before I went to Germany; it was only at the end of the academic year that I felt somewhat fluent in the language.

  4. I’ve traveled around the world enough to have decided that learning a second language in the US primary and secondary schools is a bit paradoxical. *So much* business (and leisure) activity is conducted in English, such that learning a second language is a novelty more than anything. Across the world, people learn English as a second (or third) language because it is a defacto requirement on the world stage. There is no analogy for those who natively speak English.

    One of my more memorable WTF language moments was while traveling in Sri Lanka. I was at a tourist site, and two Indians were speaking English to each other, and quite fluently. I politely asked if I may ask them a question about the language they were speaking. The guy said sure. It turns out they were speaking English to each other because while they were both Indian, they came from different states and neither spoke the other’s native local language. He also told me that while Hindi is considered a national language, not everyone learns/speaks it, so here they are speaking English.

    I speak some high German, and use it when I travel. Half the time people just speak English to me in response. But… I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t necessary for Americans to be conversant in a language other than English to function on the world stage. And I say this from experience, not ignorance.

    1. I vacationed in Iceland a few years back. The entire time I was there, I didn’t meet a single person, other than perhaps a few other tourists, who wasn’t as fluent in English as I was. But tourism is their second biggest industry, and they do it very well.

  5. There’s an old joke.
    What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual.
    What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages?
    What do you call someone who speaks 1 language?
    Not only that, a lot of Americans — wrongly — look down on those who are, at least, bilingual, by virtue of speaking English as a second language.

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