This week I’m “liveblogging” my trip to Ukraine. Unlike traditional reports, these posts will be shorter and more frequent.
Switzerland is one of my favorite countries in the world and unlike its bordering neighbors, represents a unique blend of languages that can sometimes be an enigma and create a difficult language barrier.
The Language Enigma Of Switzerland – An Italian Swiss Citizen Lost In Germanic Zurich Airport
In Switzerland, the official languages are German, French, Italian, and Romansh. I’ve never encountered the Romansh, but have done business in Geneva, Lugano, and Zurich and therefore seen first-hand how different regions look (and sound) so very different.
While walking from my gate to the lounge in Zurich, a woman who appeared to be about 65 years old stopped me after failing to stop several other passengers who walked by her. She frantically spoke to me in Italian…and sadly I do not speak Italian. She was holding a boarding pass and Swiss passport, so I addressed her in German. Blank stare. Then in English. Blank stare. Not a word.
She kept pointing to her phone. Then she said wi-fi and handed me her phone. She had a smartphone I did not recognize with an Android platform. I tried to connect to wi-fi, but also failed. She also had no signal.
I offered her my phone, but she was not familiar with how to use an iPhone.
I opened Google translate and asked her who she was trying to call in Italian. She opened WhatsApp on her phone and showed me a number. I entered it into my phone and called the number. No one answered.
This woman began to panic. I took her by the hand and told her via Google Translate that it would be okay.
And it was.
Moments later my phone rang. That number on WhatApp, a SWISS number, was calling me back.
I handed her the phone and you should have seen the smile spread across her face.
Her daughter was waiting for her in baggage claim. We walked a few more paces together and I pointed her in the right direction.
Switzerland is not unique in having multiple official languages, but I found it so interesting that a citizen was absolutely lost in a place like Zurich Airport. Not only was it interesting to me that she could not speak any English or German (which is truly not a criticism, just an observation), but it was interesting to me that no one around her could speak Italian.
Helping a stranger in need is the measure of a good day. Nice story, Matthew.
One thing I learned in Zurich is while they are decent in English, they still have nowhere near the conversational levels of the Nordic guys, and I would imagine the French and Italian speakers will be even less proficient. We’ve been told Romansh is practically nonexistent in the mainstream, unless in the government sector.
Actually, surprising for me is that the Portuguese are better than the Swiss in English lol
Their long on-and-off alliance with Britain may account for part of that.
Many Swiss are absoluely fluent in English. I should know as I am Anglo-Swiss and have lived in Zurich for many years. It just depends who you meet.
Correction to previous message:
It just depends on …
“Depends who you meet”. “Depends ON who you meet”. Works either way.
Nice work, Matthew.
Good to remember at times we all need a little help, no matter where we might be. All the best for your kindness
In the German speaking part of Switzerland, the first language you learn in school is French. After that it is ether English or Italian with more and more people choosing English for obvious reasons. The majority of Swiss will indeed speak German, French and English. The lady you helped out had some bad luck as many German speaking Swiss are conversational in Italian from spending time in the Ticino or neighboring Italy.
Actually, in many German-speaking cantons, including Zurich, English is now the first foreign language taught to kids. In Zurich for example, English starts at age 7 and French at age 11. Some cantons don’t teach French until secondary school.
Helping people sounds pretty woke, which I know is bad, but there’s this part of me deep down that is trying to tell me this was a good thing to do. I need to watch Tucker to get that part of me to go away
My Swiss friend of 30 years is 80 and speaks Italian, German, Swiss-German, English, and I think even some French and this was not unusual for her era but of course, not everyone is like that. Sadly, perhaps the domination of English in the international sector is encouraging many Europeans to be bi-lingual only (fluent in their own language and English) and not bothering with Tri-Lingual.
My daughter is learning Russian in school, Ukrainian barked at her from her mother at home, English, and even picks up some Spanish and Polish from friends.
I thought it was crazy that at Basel Mulhouse the language seemed to be french but around actual Basel most people spoke German. Fascinating place.
Basel Mulhouse airport is technically in France so that probably accounts for it.
I was in St Gallen the other day, with an Italian woman and a (Romande) Valaisanne. We were in the funicular, speaking Italian. As we got out, one of the locals asked us what language that was.
Not as many Swiss Germans speak French as you’d think. And for the Romands (French-speaking) and the Ticinesi (Italian-speaking), the problem with German is that the Swiss Germans don’t speak the German that they teach the kids in school.
It’s a weird place, but in some parts, you’re constantly code- and language-switching.
I should add that, for these same reasons, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who is less than patient with your inability to express yourself in the native language. In general, around the world, people hear a non-native speaker’s limited vocabulary and grammatical mistakes, and assume that the speaker is not just a foreigner, but an idiot. In Switzerland, just about everyone’s been there at some time.
I found that English is not spoken too much in Milan. One small grocery store manager did find a customer who spoke English to ask if I was looking for something.
Great article! Although I’ve never been, Switzerland fascinates me. A couple of years ago I was interested in learning more about Romansh. As a map geek, I thought it was odd that I could not seem to find a map of Switzerland online with place names in Romansh, so I decided to create one from scratch. It took the first six months of 2021 to do. Here is the link to where it lives: https://www.redbubble.com/i/poster/Charta-da-la-Svizra-Map-of-Switzerland-in-Romansh-by-SkolaNobu/80373043.LVTDI
You are one classy guy, Matthew. Great job!
I work at Zurich Airport and unfortunately most people are just thick , lazy or a combination of both, standing next to the terminal D sign and asking where is D, etc. The signage is in English and the signs also have pictograms for exit, baggage train, so anyone can understand… no one has an issue understanding the toilet sign! I’m also puzzled by the story as a Swiss would normally have a Swiss phone and can use normal network phone call to contact another, it doesn’t need to be whstsapp.. or simply use sms.
I didn’t understand the phone issue either, but I saw she had no reception or wi-fi.
Hi Matthew, yes certainly abnormal I must admit. Whilst roaming costs are indeed higher here in the land of cheese and gold most would select the roaming option even for a SMS especially given the circumstances but a good English saying will cover it… ” there’s nowt so queer as folk “
Being Swiss doesn’t mean the same as living in Switzerland. She could be living abroad. Also, Swiss mobile costs are far higher than surrounding countries, and they cost even more if you want roaming in Europe. So she might even be living in Switzerland with a foreign SIM.
Strange, or stranger
Most of the Swiss can speak all 4 languages, and more. And of course aren’t fluent in any.
Personally I love it.
But it’s a mountain country, in many remote villages speak old tight dialects, and maybe more at ease talking to cows.
Is this some kind of joke?
I hope no one takes this serioulsly. The people speaking romanche usually have to know another language; a lot of italian speaking people are good at french. But not even a minority speak the four languages.
And you know where you can shove that cow comment.