“I’m gonna practice Swiss-German tonight at a party!” I announced proudly to Beat, the guy who valiantly tries to teach me Swiss-German.
“Oh, you know, they can probably speak French or English too,” he said, looking slightly worried. During our language exchange sessions, he speaks slowly and I say a few words but we have to switch to French for real conversations.
“No! I want to practice!” I said. “One of my students, Aline, invited me and I want to have a real Swiss party experience.”
I’d already been to some Swiss parties but usually ended up speaking English because I was with Nick or other English-speaking friends. This time, I had decided to go alone to talk the dialect.
“Okay, well, I’m sure it’ll be interesting.” Beat said after a slight pause. “It’s just that sometimes people don’t have the patience to talk slowly and to wait for you to find your words and all, especially at a party…”
My confidence started to lower. What if I wasn’t able to talk to anyone? What if they all started mocking me when they’d hear my weird take on Swiss-German? What if no-one had the necessary patience to wait for me to form a bad sentence?
I understand Swiss-German pretty well because half of my family is Swiss so I’ve heard the brutish language throughout my childhood. I call it brutish because it consists mostly of rough sounding consonants whereas French is a perfect harmony of alternated vowels and consonants. Hence, my Swiss-German is as bad as my ability to think up similes.
As I walked up the stairs to reach Aline’s appartment, I wondered how I should say “Hello”. I sensed it was crucial: if I said it in French or in English, people would think I wasn’t able to speak their language. If I said it in German, they would talk too fast and expect me to be fluent. I decided to go for “Salut” which is French, really, but the Swiss say it too, with a singing accent. It sounds more like “Soooo-lee”.
Aline welcomed me in Swiss German and all her friends looked friendly. I sat down and started to relax until I realised I had forgotten to bring the bottle of champagne I had prepared in my fridge. It’s quite important to bring something when you’re invited to a Swiss party. New guests were popping in with presents in hands- it was Aline’s birthday and her moving in party.
I tried to make a joke about how Aline was my best student and Sascha, also my student and at the party as well, was the worst one. I knew how to say “best” but I realised I didn’t know how to say “worst” halfway through telling my joke. People laughed anyway because they’re Swiss and everyone knows how polite the Swiss are. Or maybe because my accent sounded funny. The first lesson I learned that night was the importance of preparation: make sure you bring your champagne and that you know the words to your joke before telling it in front of 5 people listening.
I sat next to a friendly girl, Sally, who automaically switched to German to help me understand what she said. Foreigners often complain that the Swiss refuse to speak “Hoch Deutsch”- real German, which is not their native language, instead of the hard to understand Swiss-German. It has happened to me a few times but at the party, all of Aline’s friends offered to speak in German, English or French, and when I begged them to speak Swiss-German to help me practise the dialect, they did it and spoke slower.
It was a total immersion and while I could understand almost everything, I still had a hard time expressing myself. I normally interrupt people all the time and make jokes and witty comments but there I had to limit myself to 3-4 words per minute. But it didn’t matter so much because for the first time in 3 and a half years living in Switzerland, I felt like I belonged. I could hang out and have fun with the Swiss talking their dialect. I was part of it – I’m half-Swiss, after all. This need to belong was probably what had pushed me to go to this party in the first place, aside from getting a good topic to write about for my blog of course.
A guy started talking to me in German, explaining his mother was German so it was the language he spoke. He was talking and talking and I couldn’t understand what he was saying so I nodded politely, smiled a lot and laughed when everyone esle laughed. He didn’t realise I couldn’t understand him so he kept talking to me. After a while, I couldn’t take it any more, I said: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand your accent” He laughed. Later, I told Sacha I was able to understand everyone but that guy. He said: “I don’t understand him either! No-one does!”
Drinks were flowing and soon a few guests felt confident enough to start talking to me in French. Sascha, my student, said: “I have to practise tonight! After 3 vodkas, I’m finally fluent!” Aline suggested I bring a bottle of vodka for each lessons with Sasha. Being slightly drunk didn’t help me much though. I started mixing German, Swiss-German, French and English in an inelegant gibberish. Frustrated to be so limited in my speech, I switched to English just to tell a joke. Everyone laughed. At least they knew I could be funny. In another language.
At midnight, I was confused and too tired to listen and talk another language. I said goodbye to the remaining guests: ”Sehr nice to meet you!”- It was really time to leave.
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