Grüetzi! Lately I’m experimenting with Swiss German because I’m going to Switzerland to stay in the German-speaking area. About two-thirds of Switzerland speaks German as their first language. However, they speak a unique dialect, or, more accurately, a diverse family of dialects. I’ve been having a hard time because the internet does not offer a lot of resources, and I could not find any native speaker resources where I live and work.
Delving into other communities
I love to find out about how other people think and live. When I was in high school, I had a fascination for other religions and cultures. I enjoyed going to different places of worship, and meeting people from other countries–as shy as I was–brought me joy. By the end of high school, I decided that I wanted to go overseas as a foreign exchange student to France; moreover, I would leave my WASPy Denver suburb for college, to study at a majority Jewish university on the East Coast of the US. In the university decision, I explicitly stated that I wanted a “cultural experience.” When I came to study in Ukraine during college, I took it to the next level: I wanted to become as Ukrainian as I could. Moving out of my familiar atmosphere, how long could I immerse myself? Like a porpise, I could never be a fish, but how long could I stay under water?
Soon I learned that I could be understood as long as I could speak a language that others understood, but I could only understand if I spoke the language others spoke. If I wanted to experience intimacy among them, I had to use the language that they thought in, that they spoke with their loved ones. A version of the language would not suffice; I needed the exact language, no matter what its relationship with the standard dialect.
Hard to find materials
Needless to say, it’s not always easy to find materials in every language and dialect. For most people, communication–making oneself understood–is the goal. The majority language serves well. For example, if you go to Morocco, you can usually be understood in English or French. You can stretch to be understood by more people if you learn one of the major Arabic dialects, such as Literary Standard (Fusha), Egyptian, or Levantine. But where to do you turn if you want understand, and so want to learn Moroccan dialect, or even Marrakech dialect? or Tashelhit Berber, an unrelated language spoken in the High Atlas Mountains?
Now you understand my problem in trying to learn Swiss German, or Schwytzertüütsch. The Swiss are famously isolated, as well as multilingual. On the one hand, everyone speaks at least German and French, and probably English, and maybe Italian. Making yourself understood is easy. On the other hand, Switzerland’s isolation preserved many rare dialects of languages. When one linguist set out to study Swiss German, another responded, “Which valley?” Hundreds of significant local variations exist in this portion of this tiny country. Even German spoken in Zürich sounds significantly different from the dialect of Lucerne, 50 kilometers away.
The problem is two-fold. First, resources are very hard to come by. Second, I imagine that the Swiss aren’t used to having foreigners want to learn Swiss German, so how helpful will they be?
In spite of the fact that Swiss German is not usually written and does not have a standard written language, I’ve made progress on the first problem. On-line I’ve found some word lists and verb conjugations for major verbs. Here are the modal verbs, for example.
There are also YouTube videos that help, although they usually just teach your greetings. Since my daughter doesn’t know any German at all, these videos helped me teach her greetings in Schwytzertüütsch. One channel, Maryangel24, offers to go in a little deeper to teach you about food, cursing, and others.
Even better, I found a great site that has podcasts for learners of Swiss German. Someone reads a simple story for about 10-15 minutes in Swiss German, although the variety depends on the speaker. The text is written in Standard German (Hochdeutsch), and there are explanations of some of the unusual vocabulary. Fortunately for me, I know Standard German; if I didn’t this resource would be less helpful.
Will the Swiss help me?
I will see how it goes for the second problem. I have three questions I’ll be paying attention to during this experiment:
- Will the Swiss allow me to speak broken Schwytzertüütsch?
- Will they get frustrated–or offer to do me a “favor”–and choose to speak English instead?
- If I ask how to say something, will they give me the Swiss or Standard word?
To be honest, maybe it’s annoying–maybe even intrusive–to try to speak and think like a local, even prying into the intimate language of these people. As I said, I will see how it goes.
How deep can I go?
With such a lack of materials I don’t know how deeply I can go into the language of the local people. I have my materials that I put together, plus what I learned from YouTube and podcasts.
Next I’ll just need to see how it goes with the people I’m trying to speak with. Will they try to keep me out or welcome?
Have you tried to go deeply into another language? another country? How did it go?