21

While people in the “German-speaking” areas of Switzerland read and write Standarddeutsch, they speak Schwyzerdütsch – which linguists might describe as a dialect of German, but which to a casual observer is a different language.

In its article on Swiss German, Wikipedia reports that many Swiss consider Hochdeutsch to be a foreign language. Yet looking at Swiss TV I see that at least some programmes are broadcast in German, so there’s obviously an expectation that viewers will be able to understand it. A discussion in a forum thread I found – “What About Swiss People's High German?” – is inconclusive.

So I’m unclear on the practical utility of spoken German in Switzerland. What reaction can I expect if I start speaking Hochdeutsch to people in the central part of the country (Zürich, Luzern, Nidwalden)? Are they likely to understand (and recognise that I’m “making an effort”) and be able to respond, or – if German is a foreign language to both of us – will I be better off sticking to the classical “Brit abroad” thing and just talking in English?

2
  • 2
    If a German tries to speak Schwyzerdütsch, it might be considered funny, strange or even impolite in Switzerland.
    – Landei
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 7:31
  • As long as you are a foreigner, people will appreciate if you speak German instead of English. Thanks to TV and public schools, every Swiss in the Central and East Switzerland will understand and be able to speak German, but not all of them will speak English (e.g. villagers in the faraway, untouristic mountains). Then again, if you are fluent in English but beginner-level in German, that is a different story... Commented Jun 19 at 10:09

3 Answers 3

37

I'm a British person living in Zürich and this has been my experience:

Absolutely all German-speaking Swiss will understand you and be able to respond if you speak to them in Hochdeutsch. Although Schwyzerdütsch is the language most used in everyday life, Swiss schools are taught in Hochdeutsch and many programmes on Swiss TV are imported from Germany. They also won't have any expectation that a foreigner will be able to speak the local dialect, since Schwyzerdütsch-speakers from different parts of the country can have difficulty understanding one another! Speaking in Hochdeutsch when it is obviously not your first language will certainly be seen as making an effort and people will be very accommodating.

Most Swiss people do speak English (often excellent English). Swiss people may also be self-conscious about the fluency of their Hochdeutsch (often unnecessarily, to my ear at least). Nonetheless, I think a lot of people will be more comfortable talking to you in Hochdeutsch than in English. Sometimes they may switch to English if it seems more polite or more efficient - for example, if you are buying a complicated train ticket at the station. For simpler transactions/conversations, though, people will often follow your lead if you start speaking to them in German, and friends or colleagues will be happy to speak to you in Hochdeutsch if you let them know you would like the practice. (They may want to practise their English instead. Just remind them you are the one living in a foreign country and you need it more!)

In summary, being able to speak German in Switzerland is of great value and it will be seen as making an effort. On the other hand, if you run out of vocabulary or courage and have to revert to English, you shouldn't have much difficulty either.

1
  • 1
    +1; I've only been here (Bern) about three weeks, but this has been my experience so far as well. Everyone I've encountered has been willing to speak Hochdeutsch with me, and equally willing to switch to English when my German hits its limits. (Oddly, the one exception was at a Swisscom shop on a main thoroughfare, where the fellow claimed he couldn't speak English or French. So I muddled through in German.)
    – Kyralessa
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 19:40
3

I spent a year in Switzerland, although it was in Geneva (Genf) and not the German speaking part.

German is a "foreign" language to most French speakers. When speaking with someone from the central/eastern part of the country, they will "always" speak English, "never" German (except among close friends).

More to the point, many Schwyzerdütsch-speaking people consider Hochdeutsch a "foreign language," or at least a foreign dialect. They will try to speak German with you, and appreciate the effort, but their first choice would probably be English. At least until they get to know you better.

4
  • @Takkat: I discussed the background on the stack exchange history site. history.stackexchange.com/questions/903/…
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 13:21
  • I visited Lausanne (French part of Switzerland) and my experience was that German was preferred to English. For example, in the hotel I talked French to the receptionist, and since my friends looked like not understanding anything, the receptionist switched to English. Then she saw that we're from Germany and switched to German (with a very slight cute French accent (; ) and said that that's much better than having to talk English. Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 9:28
  • A lot of value as 90% of the population speak German. Commented Aug 7, 2012 at 5:18
  • @LegolasGreenleaf: "90% of the population speak German": I would rather go for 65%, as in the West they speak French, and in the South-East they speak Italian. Or does your 90% is only for the German-speaking parts of Switzerland? Commented Jun 19 at 10:15
2

This is a hard question to answer. At least in the German part everybody will understand and speak English and there will also be an expat community. However if you want to stay for longer and make Swiss friends I am afraid that you will need to learn the language. Best would be to learn "Swiss German", because most Swiss don't really feel at ease with high German/ standard German. For any kind of work which is not in a purely international setting you will also need to have a working knowledge of German.

So in a nutshell I'd say: If you are in Switzerland only for a couple of years you don't need to learn German, but if you are planning to stay for longer or to settle here, German (or French, depending on where you stay) will be necessary to integrate and feel "at home".

I hope that helps.

2
  • 1
    I miss the further candidates Italian and Romansh for complete coverage.
    – guidot
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:58
  • IMHO, more useful to learn German first than Swiss German, as most jobs in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland will require German, and not Swiss German... But yeah, if you want to stay in Switzerland for decades and have a local life, then you will have to learn BOTH German and Swiss German. Commented Jun 19 at 10:19

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.