A million ways to say hello, one way to laugh at yourself

by Mauricio MarquezGuest Columnist

There are a million ways to say hello in Switzerland. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but there are a lot.

Switzerland is a multilingual country with four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch. Despite Switzerland’s highly restrictive immigration laws, foreigners make up a substantial portion of the population, adding even more languages to the list of those that can be heard on any given day.

I live in Fribourg, or Freiberg, the capital city and biggest town in the canton (Swiss state) of Fribourg/Freiberg. The canton is largely French-speaking, with a sizeable German population. As such, individual municipalities within this canton can choose either language as their main tongue.

The city of Fribourg, however, is officially bilingual, so everything is in French and German.

In the rest of Switzerland, Swiss Germans, or Schweizerdeutsch and French Swiss, or Romands, have very little to do with each other. Most seem happy to share a federal government and a little sense of “Swissness,” but both communities largely keep to themselves. That sentiment of self-imposed linguistic apartheid is also present to an extent in Fribourg, but not as strongly as in the rest of the country.

You may be asking yourself, “Why do they let something like language keep them apart socially?”

Truthfully, I haven’t been able to find an answer. Even the Swiss don’t really seem to know.

In most of Switzerland, the Swiss Germans are the majority. Their cities are the industrial backbone of the country and mostly all national services originate in German-speaking Switzerland.

The French Swiss live west of Fribourg, and though their numbers are much lower than the Swiss Germans, they also have a strong sense of identity and in modern times have begun to play a slightly more active role on the national stage.

The staff at my favorite café is predominantly German-speaking, but I would have never guessed; their French is flawless.

It really is amazing to me that the people in this area can switch back and forth between the two languages easily. I’ve been studying German, which has been difficult to say the least. Swiss German is very different from Standard German. Each locale has its own version, and the language is only spoken, not written, which makes it even harder to learn. Add to that the fact that a Swiss accent is almost unintelligible to other German speakers and you have a very daunting task.

I’ve made a fool out of myself many times trying to form the almost unnatural sounds of Bernese German (the German of Bern, which is 20 minutes away). The usual response from native speakers is a good-natured laugh at my attempts to speak their tongue, and a response in English.

A lot of times, it’s very stressful to have so many languages floating around. More than once, I’ve come home with a headache from trying to think in three languages. But it has been well worth it. Everyday I feel a little more integrated into this multilingual community and the stress of learning new languages pays off a hundred-fold in the end. The Swiss are truly special people, and maybe one day I’ll actually be able to communicate with them coherently. Until then, I’ll keep them laughing.