Let me tell you my thoughts, then tell you a story, then tell you my plan of action…
#1. I’m starting to see myself as more and more international in my outlook. Living & working in the USA for 1 year could have been a fluke. Living & working in central Europe for 1 year illustrates a trend. Not only am I starting to see how easy it is to move across borders and settle in to new places, but I’m starting to develop a taste for it. Professionally-speaking too, I can see the benefits. The multinational pharmaceutical companies are cutting back their Western branches and relocating East. If I wish to be a chemist in the notoriously fickle and unpredictable industrial sphere then I should be prepared to go to where-ever there are jobs.
#2. Being a monolingual speaker of English doesn’t disqualify you from relocating to a foreign country. The working language of multi-nationals is invariably English. The working language of a lot of world-ranking universities is English. I had initially been worried about applying to work at a Swiss company, but was told during the interview that lack of German language skills would only affect which supervisor I was assigned to. I know now that >85% of the supervisors speak English anyway, so I don’t count that as an inhibition.
#3. The German, French and Swiss have one thing in common. They speak multiple languages with much more fluency than their average British counterpart. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that English is so widely-spoken the Brits don’t feel pressurised into learning tongues. Maybe it’s because the UK is an island cut off from mainland Europe that it has this linguistic isolation: the geographically-close continental countries have to deal with each other on a more intimate scale. I don’t know exactly.
#4. The best way to ensure you become happy in a new country is to make friends with the locals. They give you insider knowledge, full cultural/social immersion and will stick around if you have to leave again. I uphold this opinion quite dogmatically.
So where do my thoughts leave me?
It could almost be said that one of the working languages of Basel itself is English. Switzerland is home to many multi-national companies: technological, financial and diplomatic. With all its “working language is English” companies it attracts English speakers and British expats in droves. The cinemas show films in English. The travel centre and Council Bureau staff know English. There are English-speaking clubs and societies. You can get through nearly everything by speaking English, and won’t have any trouble finding Brits and English-speakers to talk to. Forget about 1 year. You could get by for a decade in Switzerland without knowing anything but English.
…But here’s the question: do I want to?
No. Oh no I don’t.
I am monolingual. I am a stereotypical Brit who speaks nothing but English, confident that I can get by. I’m content to lay the blame squarely upon my education. Madras College had some exemplary Departments – Modern Studies, Mathematics, Science and English were judged in the league tables as being some of the strongest in Scotland – but Modern Languages wasn’t one of them. Modern Languages was in fact, rather weak. I can’t claim to be an expert in the causes of this. All I know is that pupils who were easy to manage in other classes suddenly became demons in French lessons. Behaviour was shocking, the teachers were barely able to keep order, most people saw French as the easy/boring class. It was compulsory up to S4 (age 16). Taking it on to Higher/Advanced Higher/University never once crossed my mind. And why should it? I wanted to be a scientist. Scientists needed Biology, Chemistry, Physics & Maths. They didn’t need LANGUAGES.
…Ah, now if I’d realised back then that I wanted to be an INTERNATIONAL SCIENTIST…
I made an effort to learn German when I found out that I’d be going to Switzerland. I went along to Evening Classes held by the university. I actually quite enjoyed them – the other attendees were grown-ups “in the real world”, it made a nice change from hanging around stressed students. But we’re talking about one course held one night per week for 10 weeks. I was trying to learn German from scratch in the last semester of my undergraduate career. Malfunctioning research projects, lecture notes and tutorial questions were all that was on my mind. I didn’t have time to do the homework, I was usually tired and preoccupied in class (’cause of the whole evening thing), and if I had a deadline next week…well, the German classes were the first thing I’d try and shift from my timetable. Skip one class and you’re behind everyone else on the basics of German language.
I don’t feel proud of the fact that I came to Switzerland unable to speak German – but I don’t feel that I had much of a chance of rectifying it while I was in Scotland. It’s never too late to try, though. I’m probably at the age where learning new languages will get difficult, but it will NEVER be impossible.
There are several reasons why I feel a strong motivation to learn German properly.
A. Unlimited learning resources. I’m currently living IN a German-speaking area. It won’t exactly be a problem finding native-level German speakers to talk to, or German reading material, or spoken German to mentally translate. It’s less likely to drain out of one ear between classes, I guess…
B. General integration into Switzerland. At work people have now clocked on to the fact that I’m British and don’t speak German. They talk to me in English and will speak English to include me in conversation. If nearby people are talking in German, I have a chance of guessing the context from what I know already of the language and words that sound the same in English. But I still can’t follow the conversations fully. And not everybody speaks English. I don’t want to exclude people from my little sphere just because they don’t know my language. I reckon I’ll get on a lot easier once I know enough German to speak to strangers in shops and chat to the natives at lunch time.
C. Professional Benefits. While the whole second language thing is less of a CV boost than it once was, I reckon an English speaker who knows German/French will have an easier time getting job offers in Europe than someone who is monolingual. I reckon an English speaker who knows German/French will have an easier time getting PROMOTED in a European company. Knowing the language will make me a lot more willing to relocate to different countries, and have a smoother time of it. I’m not yet sure how international I’m going to end up…but opening doors at this point in my life won’t do me any harm.
D. Personal Incentive. If you hang around bilinguals for long enough you’re going to be shamed into learning a new language eventually. For me the real kick in the teeth is when I see fellow Brits speaking German fluently. I can write off the continental Europeans as being too poly-lingual for their own good, but when a British person makes the effort to speak another language…
The best place to start is with the German language classes offered by the company. At the moment I have IT difficulties accessing the relevant software to book something. Failing that there are plenty of options available in Basel itself, though they are more pricey. Attend the classes. Speak German to/at people. Induce work colleagues to talk to you in German. Join “conversation groups” if necessary. Buy German newspapers and listen to German radio stations. It shouldn’t be impossible for me to get by.
If I pick up the German while I’m here, it shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain it wherever I end up next, either. It’ll probably take a good few years to work on it, anyway. I’m keen to do something about my French, too. I have an advantage in that I studied it at school, so it’s not completely unfamiliar to me. Switzerland isn’t exactly short of French-speakers, either…
There’s my statement of intent.
Hopefully I’ll have a good progress report in 12 months time.