Challenge Cécile: The Swiss Party

“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.

The forgotten bottle. Still in my fridge.

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.

You might also like:

How to survive a Swiss winter with dignity

What Switzerland taught me

Switzerland’s dirty secret


19 thoughts on “Challenge Cécile: The Swiss Party

  1. Dear C,
    You are Worldly!!!
    I am intimidated!
    The most I’ve ever done with a second language was take Spanish in College, which I’ve completely forgotten now)
    And Italian with Rosetta Stone. Part 1.
    I admire you.
    :)Love, L

    • Oh thanks Lisa! Please don’t be intimidated… When you’re French, you just have to learn other languages to be able to communicate with more people in the world. It’s easier when you speak English ;-)

  2. I’m so glad you’ve had this real Swiss experience ! I remember feeling similar to you when I went to French parties and was successful at telling jokes in French and understanding *most* people’s jokes. I had done it in the past in Spanish while in Ecuador and the feeling was just as satisfying. I think it is so important to be able to socialize in your new country, in their language — it’s such a huge break through not to mention tough as nails! Congrats to you!!! Félicitations ! You worked hard; now I think you deserve to eat the remaining Kinder chocolate left in your fridge (perhaps save the Champagne.. ^^)!

    • Hehe, don’t you love Kinder Maxis? Thank you Grenobloise, going to this party really felt like an achievement and I’m glad you were able to do it in France as well. It must be really hard to make jokes in French! How many languages do you speak well enough to socialise like that?!

  3. I simply can’t stop reading your blog! I wish I could find the right word to describe it but I think all the language in my mind are so mixed now, that I am surprised how I wrote a comprehensible sentence ;)

  4. Good thing you decided to come to the party. I enjoyed meeting you. Would be great if you would inform me about the next Blogger-Meeting we talked about at the party. It sounded really interesting.

    • Thanks! I enjoyed the party and meeting everyone as well. I’ll find you on facebook to add you to the bloggers group. I’m not sure when the next meeting is but it’ll be interesting to have you in it (:

  5. What a party and cross section of languages! I would have failed. I took 4 years of French and still don’t know how to speak it. I do know some nouns and verbs, but I would have to live there and learn by immersion or take classes again.
    So cool that you can at least attempt to speak 4 languages! Good for you at least trying!

    • Thanks! It wasn’t so courageous because I knew that Swiss people speak well English and/or French so we could have switched languages easily if I had been completely out of translation ;-)

  6. Awesome. Sounds like it was just the experience your Swiss-German needed. (I guess Swiss-German/high German is analogous to Scottish dialect/English: you’d start a fight if you asked a Scot to “speak proper English”!)
    Good luck with it.

    • Thanks! Luckily, the Swiss won’t start a fight if you ask them to speak “high German” even though the term “high” is pretty insulting to Swiss German really… They definitely don’t like it but they’d still do it to help. At least everyone offered to do so at the party (:

      Ps: We have a little bloggers group in Zurich, I’m not sure you still live in Basel at the moment but if yes, would you be interested in joining? We meet once a month or so…

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