One of my goals when I graduated from my French business school in the 1990s was to start working abroad right away, as opposed to beginning a career in France and hoping for an opportunity down the road. That’s how I signed up for a credit analyst job in Zurich, Switzerland.
Zurich was not very far from my home town, just a few hours’ drive away, but it was a very different world. It was, still is, Switzerland’s finance and business capital, a deceptively quiet powerhouse. But to me that was not the city’s main attraction. What I loved was its Germanic vibe. The architecture, the colors, the life style belonged to a European region I had been exposed to through travels, books, and films and I longed to know more intimately.
Then there was German, the first language I learned at school, even before taking up Russian with my father as teacher. It was his idea, unchallenged by me, that English could wait and that I would learn it when the need arose. It turns out he was pretty right about that.
Unlike many French students, and probably because my parents had good German friends and a particular taste for Mitteleuropa culture, I found German to be a beautiful language and I was eager to use my first professional step to improve my German skills. The problem, I soon realized, was that the main language spoken in Zurich was not German. It was Swiss German.
Switzerland, a multicultural work in progress since the Middle Ages, has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh, which could be cursorily described as a baroque mixture of German and Italian.
German is the language of the majority of the Swiss people but they don’t speak it in their everyday life. They use their local brand of Swiss German. Each region of German-speaking Switzerland has its own dialect. Most of the Swiss German dialects, though not all, are easily understood by most German-speaking Swiss but, if you are someone who did not grow up speaking one of the dialects, you are in for a challenge…
I ended up understanding the Zurich dialect, aka Züritüütsch, fairly well but I never managed to speak it properly, even though I was very curious about and amused by its compactness and its expedient grammar. I think the fact that it was an essentially oral language was quite an obstacle to my structured way of learning.
One of the things I loved about my life in Zurich was the everyday exposure to several languages and cultures. At work we alternated between Swiss German, German, French, and English. Most of my colleagues were German-speaking Swiss but some came from the French and the Italian parts of the country, some from Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland. All spoke several languages fluently and thought nothing much of their multilingualism.
I remember a lively lunch in a pizzeria with my new colleagues early on in my first year in Zurich when the conversation shifted seamlessly from one language to the other. I thought, this is what I want. And I gradually came closer to this fluidity during my Zurich years.
It was my first personal experiment in multiculturalism. I think it was successful in great part because multiculturalism is the norm, not the exception, in most of urban Switzerland, certainly in Zurich. I learned from my colleagues and the other people I met over there that navigating between languages (and cultures) was no less normal than being attached to just one. Then I saw it would shape my own road map…