I love Schwyzertüütsch! Lessons on learning a minority dialect

My Swiss aunt (left) and my mom (right)
My best teacher! My Swiss aunt (left), next to my mom

In my love of languages, something always calls to me from the realm of the rare or unexpected, so for my visit to distant relatives in Switzerland I wanted to learn the local language of Swiss German, or as they say there, “Schwyzertüütsch.” While Switzerland declared four languages to be official, Swiss German is the most widely spoken. Nevertheless, materials are difficult to find, as I discussed previously here.

This language does not have standard grammar or even spelling, and it differs significantly from one area of Switzerland to another, even though the country is a bit smaller than the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire. For example, I played a bit of a Swiss podcast for a relative and asked what dialect the narrator spoke. “Maybe Zürich with a little bit of Lucerne,” he guessed. Even though these two cities lie only 50 km apart, they each bear unique, identifiable characteristics.

After my week in Switzerland, I successfully learned a bit of Schwyzertüütsch, and lessons on how to tackle a rare language. The lessons I learned can help you when you’re trying to learn a less-commonly learned language.

Success!

Considering my one week scale, I consider my intensive Swiss experience a success. Employing my Swiss greetings and pleasantries, I delighted people by opening conversations in Schwyzertüütsch. By the end, I could create understandable sentences, although they were often a peculiar mix of dialects I had learned previously. When I would talk to a cashier, I sounded by no means Swiss, so I was asked, “Schwyzertüütsch oder (or) Hochdeutsch?” to see what dialect I preferred.

I was surprised to find that I could definitely hear the difference between dialects. Our first stop was Basel, and then to the surrounding area (near Siisach). Immediately I heard the difference between how the city pronounced “k” in the expected way, while the surrounding area pronounced it more roughly as a “x”. So “thank you” (“Danke”) sounded different between the two. When I went south to Berner Oberland, I heard how the “l” sound became a “w”. For some reason, my own speech took on some of the Bern sound.

So for a week, I considered my foray into Schwyzertüütsch successful thanks to my new ability to make basic sentences and my more sophisticated ear.

My situation

Let me describe my initial situation as I took on the task of Schwyzertüütsch. While I say I wanted to “learn” this language, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I’ve been studying German since I was about 14, and have a decent level of Standard German, or “Hochdeutsch.” Moreover, I spent a decent amount of time in southern Germany, near Stuttgart, where I picked up some of the Swabian dialect, or “Schwäbisch.” Swabian resembles Swiss German in some ways.

In addition to these advantages, I had some learning disadvantages, too. On the trip, I was with my mom and oldest daughter, who are both monolingual English speakers. They both know me well, and understand that I will be learning languages at all times. Nevertheless, out of practicality and politeness, I was not able to speak German the entire time.

Most helpful resources

The most helpful resources I found were the basic vocabulary lists and verb conjugations, as I tended to use them every time I opened my mouth. If I forgot, though, some words came out Swabian. Some of the grammar points were helpful, but I didn’t use them as much, as I leaned on Hochdeutsch grammar when I got into a pinch. I liked the podcasts I found, but I didn’t use them as much as I could have in preparing to go. That would have taken more concentrated study than I managed to do.

My older relatives were especially helpful. When I would ask them how to say something in Schwyzertüütsch, they would simply answer. For example, Margerite, an 80-year-old aunt of mine and fluent in English, not only would answer, but she would wait until I said it correctly. She even corrected my Schwyzertüütsch, for which I was very grateful. And she made it look fun. Younger people tended to say in English, “In Schwyzertüütsch?” a little incredulously.

The lack of materials–even in Switzerland itself–made my quest difficult. I only found one decent, affordable grammar after I returned from Switzerland. In Switzerland, most of TV and 99% of all writing is in Hochdeutsch, so I had to talk to people as my only reliable source of information about the language.

In spite of a general lack of materials, I found the most basic resources surprisingly helpful, and the older Swiss folks were especially fantastic.

Lessons learned for next time

I learned a few things about delving into a rarely learned language if I were to do it again (I hope this is not just hypothetical).

  1. Take more advantage of audio and video materials. I would find a few minutes per day to focus on these materials to internalize the language better beforehand, rather than simply refer to tables and lists all the time.
  2. Speak more while there. It would have been nice to speak even more when I had the chance. Sometimes I chickened out when I felt rushed or tired. I’d like to find and take more opportunities to speak.
  3. Find resources at home or on line. I didn’t spend so much effort to find a conversation partner either in my city or on line. More speaking ahead of time would have given me a head-start to make quicker headway once I arrived.
  4. Spend more time there. This would surely be the most enjoyable technique!

I made some good progress and enjoyed spending time with speakers of Schwyzertüütsch. I think these techniques will help me with this language–as well as other rare languages.

Are these helpful lessons for you, too? What are the most helpful resources for learning the language you’re studying?

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