Why Switzerland still lags behind on English skills

Switzerland remains stuck in the second tier of countries when it comes to speaking English as a foreign language, a new study shows, but there are reasons for optimism, as the head of the English Teachers Association of Switzerland explained to The Local.

Why Switzerland still lags behind on English skills
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The 2018 edition of the annual English Proficiency Index, produced by English language teaching giant EF and based on the results of 1.3 million tests globally, has Switzerland in 15th spot among the 88 countries surveyed. Switzerland also came 12th among 32 countries in Europe.

With an overall score of 61.77 points, English speakers in Switzerland were classified as having “high proficiency” – a level allowing them to carry out tasks like making a presentation at work or reading a newspaper.

The result is solidly respectable rather than spectacular, putting Switzerland in the same bracket as countries including Poland (ranked 13th overall), the Philippines (14th) and Romania (16th).

There were also differences across the country. Foreign speakers of English in the German-speaking part of the country had “very high proficiency” (the top category), according to EF while they had only “moderate proficiency” in the Lake Geneva region and in Italian-speaking Switzerland.

Taken as a whole, the results mean Switzerland is still some way behind the Scandinavian countries that dominate the rankings of foreign speakers of English.

“There are whole range of cultural and social factors at play when it comes to why Switzerland did not rate as highly as, say Sweden (1st) and Denmark (5th),” Sue Wood, President of the English Teachers Association of Switzerland (ETAS) told The Local.

One of those is the fact Swiss school students live in a multilingual country.

There are four national languages here, and while English is the first foreign language taught in many cantons [in the German-speaking part of the country, at least], there is also a requirement for primary school children to learn another national language,” she explained.

Under the terms of a 2007 ‘harmonization agreement’ Swiss school children learn two foreign languages, with at least one of them being a national language, despite concerns among some that too much is being asked of young students.

The ETAS president also pointed out that people in English aren’t exposed to English to the same degree as Scandinavians. “In Scandinavia, television programs are not dubbed; they have subtitles. But Swiss students of English have to go out and find the language. It’s not there all the time in the same way it might be in Sweden or the Netherlands.”

Wood also pointed out that while people in Scandinavia appear to take a real pride in speaking English well, “Swiss people are perhaps not as comfortable switching to speaking English. Indeed, they may be more comfortable speaking to non-native speakers.”

But the ETAS president sees reasons to be positive about the development of English speaking in Switzerland.

“Switzerland has invested a lot in English teaching in the last ten to 15 years. The newer teachers coming through now have had full in-depth teacher training and we are now waiting to see the results,” Wood said.

Read also: Foreigners in Switzerland speak more national languages than the Swiss

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Understanding the different names for Christmas across Switzerland

Switzerland's four national languages means there are four different names for Christmas. We break down why - and how to say Merry Christmas wherever you are in the country.

Understanding the different names for Christmas across Switzerland
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Switzerland's four official languages – Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansh – each have their own name for Christmas. 

Given the Swiss proficiency in English, if you're ever stuck this festive season – a simply 'Merry Christmas' is likely to suffice. It is a happy time of year after all, so it's probably not the time for correcting someone (although don't be surprised if it happens). 

But in the interests of keeping things correct, here's the names for Christmas in different parts of Switzerland – and why. 

Swiss German: Weihnachten/Fröhliche Weihnachten

Just under two out of every three (63 percent) Swiss speak Swiss German as their first language, making it the most popular and widely spoken language in the country. 

In Swiss German, just like in German, Christmas is Weihnachten – which translates to 'holy night' or 'in the holy night'.

Weihen is a verb which means to dedicate or consecrate, while Nachten means night/nights. 

The word comes from the original middle high German word wihennahten.

Merry Christmas in German-speaking Switzerland is Fröhliche Weihnachten or simply Frohe Weihnachten. 

French: Noël/joyeux Noël

Around 23 percent of Swiss speak French as their first language. Christmas is known as Noël in Romandy, which translates to the 'birthday of the Lord' – referring of course to Jesus Christ. 

Noël is thought to come from the Latin dies natalis, which means 'day of birth', although some suggest it derives from the Old French word nael. 

Merry Christmas in French is joyeux Noël. 

Italian: Natale/buon Natale

Around 8 percent of Swiss speak Italian as a first language, where the word for Christmas is Natale. 

As with French, it translates to the 'birthday of the Lord' – although here the connection with the Latin dies natalis is especially clear. 

In Ticino and want to wish someone a merry Christmas? Then buon Natale is all you will need!

Romansh: Nadel/Bellas festas da Nadel

Only spoken by around 0.5 percent of the population – or roughly 45,000 people as a first language – Romansh is another language with Latin influence and is the fourth official language of Switzerland. 

Christmas in Romansh is Nadel, which again means birthday of the Lord – as with the other Latin-influenced Swiss languages. 

While Nadel may appear similar – in particular to the Italian 'Natale' – it is even closer to Catalonian and Galician words for Christmas, where Christmas is Nadal. In Portuguese, Christmas is Natal. 

Merry Christmas in Romansh is a little bit of a mouthful – Bellas festas da Nadel – however it'll be much appreciated if you say it to a Romansh speaker. 

Swiss Christmas Traditions

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange Swiss squad

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #2: The Harley riding Santas of Basel

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #3: Get drunk on cake, but don’t “make it vomit”

Bizarre Swiss Christmas Traditions #4: Lake Lucerne’s Santa Hunt

Bizarre Swiss Christmas Traditions #5: Edible gingerbread trees

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions: #6 Geneva's 'Coupe de Noël'