One thing I’ve noticed as a newcomer in Switzerland is that I am acutely conscious of being American. It’s something I never thought about too hard before, but now I can’t stop thinking about it.
This is hardly surprising…when you are in a new place, you are bound to feel like an outsider for a certain period of time–the length of which probably varies from person to person. This has nothing to do with the encounters I’ve had with other people thus far–I’ve already been struck by the kindness and helpfulness of just about everyone I’ve met here, and I mean that sincerely–it’s all based on my own self-perception and my observations of those around me.
When I go out in public in the U.S., the people around me are just people. Here, they are European people. They have European names and European clothes, they speak French and German and Italian, and they know their way around this city like the back of their hand. They know how things work and what is polite and what isn’t, and they must all be staring at me, right? With my puffy winter coat and sneakers?The way this feeling of ‘otherness’ manifests most strongly is in language. It never ceases to amaze me how ingrained multilingualism is in Swiss culture. The majority of Europeans in general speak more than one language, but the Swiss are a particularly impressive example. Most can carry on a conversation, or at least order food, in three or four different tongues.
In the French-speaking part of the country, I’ve noticed that most people speak French at home and work, but have learned German in school and can speak that just fine, too. Most of the people I have met are also comfortable conversing in English when the situation calls for it…so comfortable, in fact, that I worry about my own language progress. When I make an attempt to start off a conversation or inquiry in French, the other person will perceive right away that I am not only used to speaking in English, but that my French is shaky at best, and they automatically respond in English. Why put up with my hand gestures and mispronunciation when they can speak my native tongue perfectly well? You have to admit, it makes sense. It’s also very courteous, which is why I am torn. On the one hand I really want to become fluent, and on the other, as soon as the person I am interacting with switches to English, my stress levels drop dramatically and I feel a wave of relief.
Of course, the Swiss know so many languages out of necessity. Switzerland is a tiny country–about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire squished together–and if you drive more than a few hours in any direction you are going to cross one border or another and it helps to be able to communicate.There are many international inhabitants of Switzerland, and the cities of Geneva and Lausanne are so diverse that I have already met people with roots in about twenty different countries. The nation of Switzerland itself has four official languages, which are French, German, Italian, and Romansh–a Latin language spoken by a very small percentage of the population. Notice that English is not on that list…the fact that most Swiss can speak at least some is just a bonus. And then, of course, there is Swiss-German, a dialect that is commonly spoken but has no official written form. It is quite complex and sounds like a mix between German and Yiddish…yes, it will be awhile before I will be attempting that one. I want to grasp standard German first, since apparently most of my official mail–insurance paperwork and such–appears to be sent in German only. Thank goodness for Google Translate! At any rate, I have recently signed up for a service that matches up people who wish to improve their conversation skills in a second language. There are many people here who wish to improve their English, so I do not think I will have too much trouble finding someone I can meet and chat with on a regular basis, without feeling too much pressure. As a shy person, I think this is the reason that languages are difficult for me–it has much more to do with a reluctance to make mistakes in front of strangers than my memorization skills. After all, learning languages is all about getting out there and trying your best, and trying not to worry about what others may think. I guess you could say the same about traveling in general!