Deutsch Tales from the Swiss Front

Featuring: The Language Barrier & Resources for German Learning

So, I had to move labs at work. When you’re a intern you have to be willing to go with the flow, though fortunately it was just a shift down the corridor into the lab of another technician. It was the day before I was scheduled to shift labs when I asked outright and had my suspicion confirmed: my new lab partner doesn’t speak any English. And I heard second-hand that he made him…concerned…about my moving in with him.

For most English-speaking expats working and living in Switzerland, it is safe to assume that you won’t have any trouble finding individuals who speak some English. In most of the multinational companies the working language is English anyway; in the majority of shops/services in central Basel the assistants have plenty of English-speaking customers. It begs the question: does everybody in Switzerland speak some English? Well no, of course not. While the scientists/project leaders/managers in the pharmaceutical companies need highly proficient English for their jobs (enough for it to be specified in the job descriptions), the technicians doing chemistry in the laboratories don’t have that need. The technicians I’d previously worked around all knew enough English to talk to me with it. I’d had no dealings with this other technician down the corridor.

It didn’t unduly astound me to learn that he didn’t speak English: however it did upset me slightly to learn that he thought either his inability to speak English and-or my lack of German fluency would be an issue. (Since I wasn’t the person he expressed the concerns to, I don’t know the exact nature or extent of the problem and it would be wrong to speculate too much on it.) However, if I’d been told that I was soon to be sharing a laboratory with somebody who only spoke Mandarin…I sure know how I would have felt! The fact that this technician was significantly older perhaps made the problem worse.

Inability to speak a foreign language presents not just a barrier to communication…but to trust. As a species, we just don’t like it when other people are having a conversation we can’t understand. It worries us. Are they talking about me? Are they hiding something from me? Am I missing something important? Do they want to isolate themselves from me? Trust gets eroded. Without a common language, friendship is almost impossible. I think that in countries like Switzerland & Germany native speakers of German are more likely to switch into English if confronted with a native English speaker. It’s an etiquette thing, it has happened even when I’m getting on OK in accented German that clearly shows I’m a foreigner. In the UK, USA and France if we were approached by someone who only partially spoke English we probably wouldn’t  switch into their native tongue, even if we did know the language. It’s an etiquette thing we don’t seem to believe in.

Moving back to my “umzug” (move, in Swiss Standard German). I came to a decision: I would do my damndest to speak in German with my new lab-mate. Even if my German IS really, really bad and rudimentary. For the purposes of politeness. And trust.

My first week in the new lab has gone fine, I should add. While it was stressful running around the place hunting out glassware in unfamiliar territory, it looks like I understand and can speak enough German to get along fine with him (i.e, I can understand the small-talk questions he asks and reply, I can request assistance). I’m hoping the process will accelerate my German learning or at least provide an incentive as to why I should bother learning a foreign language in a country where, “Nearly everybody speaks English anyway”.


On a totally different note, I thought I’d share some of my Deutsch learning materials/references that I’ve been using.

1. has a whole section devoted to the German language; concisely summarising grammatical rules, nouns & verb endings as well as culture. Their article on Common Beginner’s Mistakes In German…well, I see what they’re saying. I also reckon their list of German films might come in useful when I’m trying the multimedia approach to language learning.

2. Some tongue-in-cheek covers of the latest pop hits…auf Deutsch! Up on YouTube and AlexiBexi’s website (where you can find his German lyrics). He covers Taio Cruiz, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Keisha – stuff I can barely stand to hear on the radio, but which sound actually quite good in his covers. Favourite has to be ‘Letzt Freitag Nacht (D.G.E.F)’, though I don’t know WHY I’d want to know the German for ménage-à-trois

3. Lola Rennt. Recommended to me by another German learner as an enjoyable film with fairly simple plot & dialogue. It’s also quite cool because I’ve been to Berlin so the setting is familiar.

4. ‘Streiflichter aus Amerika’ Bill Bryson. A long time ago I read this book (Titled ‘Notes from a Big Country’ in the UK and ‘Made in America’ elsewhere), but I still remember the gist of the English version. You really can’t go wrong with Bill Bryson: the book is a compendium of newspaper columns, so has the benefit of having small chapters and a variety of topics covered with humour. I can just about detect the humour in the German translation, too!

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