All Kinds of Languages (September 29, 2005)

Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian, and Romanche. I'm staying in the French segment of the country.

Denmark spoiled me by thoroughly teaching English to most of the populace before I arrived. It's really easy for an English speaker to survive in Denmark because everyone you meet is easy to communicate with. Students in Denmark start learning English around the 3th or 4th grade, and Danes tend to watch Hollywood movies with subtitles instead of dubbing.

Switzerland is different. Most of the populace here, I'm told, do not even speak the other Swiss languages, much less any language at all from outside the country. Education in each language must inevitably be watered down when there are so many languages to learn, and also movies and television programs tend to play with dubbing. It's weird to watch Law and Order: CSI or Friends here because the characters have such different voices that they feel different. (Aside, of course, from not understanding what exactly they are saying!)

The only exception I've seen is with professors and graduate students at the school. These guys speak English because they interact so frequently with people from around the world. Not only are international conferences held in English--the lingua anglica of research nowadays--but there are many foreigners (like me!) working in the school itself. I haven't tallied the school as a whole, but in my little working group, the majority is from abroad.

Most people but researchers know a tiny bit of English (about as much as my French!) but are not fluent. This includes waiters, food-stand guys, bankers, transit-system representatives, taxi drivers, and mobile-phone salesmen, human-resources people, and people at the information desk of the school I work at. Not to say that English speakers are completely stranded here; they will, however, find most communication with most people to be slow, difficult, and imprecise.

Lex Spoon