A Tale of Switzerland and Language Barriers


On the first full day of our Swiss adventure, Quinn and I took the Glacier Express train from Geneva yesterday all the way to Chur, which is very close to Liechtenstein and just happens to be hosting a summer festival this weekend.  The major difference between Geneva and Chur is the language: in Geneva, it’s French or English.  In Chur, everyone speaks German — and Swiss German at that — and most of the locals at the festival who I talked to said that French or Italian is their second language, not English.  (Rumor has it that a non-negligible portion of the population of Chur also speaks Romansch, Switzerland’s fourth language, but I didn’t hear any.)

I studied German in high school, and last week I had dinner with a German speaking friend in which we avoided English for two hours and I re-opened the German speaking part of my brain.  Of course, I was warned that in Switzerland, everyone speaks Swiss German, which is entirely different from Hochdeutsch (high German — the dialect I learned).  However, the Swiss mostly all know Hochdeutsch because that’s what they are taught in schools, even though they all speak Swiss German outside of school.  So, thus far, someone says something to me in Swiss German, I struggle to grasp for meaning and say something back in Hochdeutsch, they transition to Hochdeutsch, and then we’re talking.

By contrast, Quinn doesn’t know any German.  (The roles will be reversed when we get back to Geneva and into France, as Quinn took French in high school and I did not.)  This sets up the following exchange that happened at the festival in Chur, shortly after we’ve just walked around the mountains on the edge of town…

A man walks up to me and says something in Swiss German, which sounds similar enough to “Möchten Sie mit mir tanzen?” that I assume he is asking me to dance with him to the polka band that is playing behind us.  Quinn and I are really trying to find some food*, so I say “Nein, danke,” and hope that’s the end of it.

Instead, the guy blocks my path and asks “Warum nicht?” (why not?).  I think quickly of an excuse that will both work and I know how to say in German, and point at Quinn and say “Ich bin mit meinem Freund hier,” (I am with my friend).

The guy then approaches Quinn and asks him, in Swiss German, if he can have permission to dance with “ihrer Fraulein.”  Quinn, not having any idea what is going on, shakes his head no with a look of confusion, which is mistaken for a look of “Don’t touch my woman.”

The guy turns back to me and tells me that I shouldn’t let Quinn tell me what to do, and the next thing I know, I’m (poorly) dancing a polka with this guy in the middle of a street festival in Chur, Switzerland and he’s telling me all about how I need better taste in men.  Quinn chooses not to rescue me, but to take pictures instead.  (Picture withheld.)

* Another language note: I was warned that one of the ways in which Swiss German most differs from high German is in the words for different food types.  When we did finally get to a kebab stand and I specified “Keine Tomaten”, the woman running the stand pointed to the tomatoes and said “Keine ????”  I couldn’t make out the second word, but apparently Swiss German has an entirely different word for tomatoes that sounds nothing like the English word. Fun with avoiding food allergies in a foreign country!


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