Also called Mundart (‘mouth art’), Swiss German refers to a group of Alemannic dialects spoken by 64 percent of the Swiss population. Pronunciation, word choice and intonation differ from canton to canton.
With no definitive written form, Swiss-German is sometimes called Schwiizertüütsch or Schwizertitsch. A majority of people from 19 out of the 26 cantons speak some form of Swiss German.
Here, The Local contributor Lily C Fen asks foreigners in Switzerland to share their best tips for learning how to speak it.
Join a tandem class
Since Swiss German is a spoken craft, focus on speaking skills by joining conversation classes and language meet-ups, advises Verena, an Austrian food engineer based in Zurich. She goes to meetup.com event Language Exchange with Pub Crawl Zurich. Another fun meet-up focuses on learning through listening to Swiss German pop songs.
“For people wanting to learn Swiss German, going to these events is helpful because native speakers are there that are willing to help you learn. You can find tandem partners and it’s a fun and pressure-free way of conversing, and asking for help with grammar or pronunciation,” she told The Local.
It’s easy to create your own meet-up – offer your native language skills in exchange for someone else’s Swiss German skills. Many Swiss universities, including Zurich and Basel, offer a ‘tandem’ language exchange service.
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“Learning only comes from hearing it and asking questions, or figuring it out based on the context,” says Bernard, a risk manager from New Zealand who lives in Lucerne. Listen out for Swiss German identifiers such as adding ‘-li’ to a word ending to signify something small, or dropping the ‘n’ off German phrases such as guten Morgen or schönen Abend.
Monette, a training coordinator based in Winterthur, says: “Once I know a word or phrase, I inject it in everyday conversation to make sure the word stays with me.” She uses Pimsleur Swiss German audio lessons as another listening resource. Keep your ears alert for the unmistakable guttural ‘ch’ sound that characterizes Swiss German, she adds.
Why not join a ski club this winter? Photo: oneinchpunch/Depositphotos
Join a local Verein (club) or take fitness classes in Swiss German. Anny, a psychologist originally from the Philippines, recommends Froue Z’Morge, (‘breakfast with ladies’).
Socializing with Swiss German-speaking neighbours works wonders, says Melody, a wellness practitioner in Lucerne. The annual Neighbours’ Day held in many Swiss cities is a chance to get to know them, if you don’t already. After a few drinks, trying out Swiss German diminutives like Schätzli (little darling), Chätzli (little kitty), or Brötli (a small piece of bread) can be a lot of fun (the High German equivalents are Schätzchen, Kätzchen, or Brötchen).
Learn High German first
‘High’ refers to the language’s geographical scope. It is used officially in the central and southern highlands of Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Having a good grasp of High German first should make learning Swiss German easier.
“High German was useful for me professionally and Swiss German, socially,” says Lina, a retired civil engineer based in Zurich. Pavel, a Slovak national working at a Swiss bank, told The Local that many years of learning High German has helped him focus on Swiss-specific expressions and pronunciation.
Many language schools offer High German courses, such as Migros Klubschule, Hallo Deutschschule, EB Zurich or Flying Teachers.
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Take formal Swiss German classes
However take care to always focus on one dialect. Marco, a Swiss local from Zurich insists, “stick with one teacher, otherwise you end up with a weird mix of dialects that will affect your speaking”.
Consume local culture and Swiss media
Winterthur-based expat Monette listens to the local news and watches the Swiss edition of a television crime drama called Tatort on SRF on Sundays. Casey, based in the canton of Aargau, attends church services delivered in Swiss German. Text and email your Swiss friends or colleagues. Listen to the radio and be on the alert for Swiss expressions and songs.
Read the right books
Visit your local bookstore to pick up helpful books such as Swiss German Booklet or Chuchichäschtli Schwiizerdütsch Büechli, which lists words in High German, Swiss German and English. Another useful book is Hoi: Your (New) Swiss German Survival Guide by Sergio J. Lievano and Nicole Egger.
Use Swiss German language apps
Betsy, a Cambridge English teacher based in St. Gallen, uses apps like Grüezi Switzerland, utalk Swiss German, Swissdish, Schweizerdeutsch Lernen (from High German to local dialect), and Mundart (a Swiss German dictionary with 1000 entries and counting).
Don’t be afraid to talk
You’ll only improve if you speak – so don’t worry about making mistakes, just get talking. Start by impressing locals with Grüezi and Grüezi Mitenand to say hello. When sitting down to dinner, throw in an En Guete, meaning Bon appetit.
Laura, a Spanish national, says of her time in Zurich: “I did not want to use English since I challenged myself to escape my comfort zone and progress with my German learning.” She adds: “I think the dialect is a really important part of the Swiss identity, and has to do a lot with the history of the country so I would recommend at least to try.”