August 01

my ten year anniversary

Today is Swiss National Day. Happy 722nd Birthday, Switzerland!


1. Augustweggen

In a couple of weeks it’ll be 10 years since I moved to Canada. My plan was to move here for a year and… here I am. One thing I sometimes ponder in regards to languages is my lack of fluency in my own native language.

Let me explain, the Swiss German speakers of Switzerland are considered disglossic, as in the dialect we speak every day is significantly different from the the Standard German we write in and listen to on TV, radio, school, etc. If you’ve read my post about Arabic or know about the MSA vs dialect issue, this is very similar. Swiss German is a dialect that officially does not exist written, and the only time a Swiss German would choose to speak Standard German is to be considerate to speakers of a different language. The official languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansh and therefore my native language is German, the Standard German variety that is.

There are some fairly distinct differences, Germans generally do not understand Swiss German unless they’ve had a lot of exposure or live close to the border. There are differences in vocabulary, some small like

ech be – ich bin (I am)

others more significant like

Hördöpfel – Kartoffel (potato)

The biggest differences however, and what causes the most stumbling, is the difference in grammar. Swiss German only has two tenses, present (I am) and present perfect (I have been).

Geschter esch er ersch am 11 hei cho. – Gestern kam er erst um 11 Uhr nach Hause. (Yesterday, he only came home at 11 o’clock).

The Swiss German ‘esch … cho’ is the equivalent to ‘has come’ or ‘ist gekommen’, so if I translate this sentence into Standard German in my head it’s going to come out as rather odd sounding sentence.

Sentence order and word usage can also be different.

The reason I bore you with this is because this makes Standard German difficult for me these days. I think most Swiss German speakers have problems speaking proper Standard German, but they use it on a fairly regular basis. I, on the other hand, rarely ever come in contact with it. I speak English in my day to day life and I speak Swiss German with my family.
While I still understand everything written or said to me in Standard German without a bit of difficulty, writing an email in proper German or trying to have a conversation with a German is an exercise in frustration. I can obviously get by, but I’m sounding like a farmer fresh off the Alp with a terrible accent and odd sentences and more often than not, looking for vocabulary or equivalent colloquial sentences that don’t translate.

The problem is simply that I don’t ever use it. There is one person in my circle of friends who’s from Germany, but most of the time we’re with others and we don’t speak German. And to be honest, English is easier for me these days than what is considered my official native tongue. I write the odd email in Standard German and it generally takes me 3 times as long as in English and the grammar is probably more off in German than in English too.

This goes so far that when I started to learn Spanish I would always translate to and from English. This was partly due to the availability of learning materials and teachers, but probably more so because English is a lot more present in my mind. This resulted in Spanish with a Swiss German accent and the typical mistakes of an English speaker. For example the verb ‘to know’ can be translated into ‘saber’ and ‘conocer’ depending on the situation. German has the equivalent ‘wissen’ and ‘kennen’, yet I still have to think about these occasionally because I come from English without the distinction. To switch to German to figure out the proper takes too long and makes me stumble over it.

My English is pretty good, but it’s not perfect. I can certainly manage just about any situation and most things I stumble over are cultural references of some kind, like children’s tv shows. Yet every so often I come across something I can’t properly explain in English. Just the other day I wanted to tell a story about when we were kids and used to build our own ski jump in the backyard. Now I’m still not entirely sure if it’s called a ski jump, but it’s the ramp like thing to jump off from. This is fairly typical, because I don’t know anybody who skis here, so naturally this is not a topic that comes up. In fact I probably never talked about this in English and there was a whole bunch of vocab missing to properly tell the story.

So basically, the only language I speak perfectly is not even a language at all, it’s just a dialect. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t write this for sympathy nor is it a problem, I merely find it a very interesting phenomenon about languages and how they work. My true native tongue is the Swiss German dialect and I can speak that as perfectly and as nuanced as anyone can in their native tongue.


because no post about Switzerland is complete without a picture of a cow