For members


Five places to learn (Swiss) German for free in Zurich

German is not an easy language to learn, particularly Swiss German. The City of Zurich knows this and has several offers for free classes for immigrants. Writer Parul Chhaparia lists five of them.

Swiss German can be incredibly difficult to learn, but the journey is well worth it. Photo by Chris Lutke on Unsplash
Swiss German can be incredibly difficult to learn, but the journey is well worth it. Photo by Chris Lutke on Unsplash

Let’s accept it. Learning German is not easy. And if you try to learn Swiss German, it could be as tricky as nailing jelly to a tree.

However, the difficulty is not the only reason many immigrants don’t pick up the local language as much as they would like. Sometimes, it is just that you are working too much to find time to learn, or you are unemployed and find these courses quite expensive, or you are a homemaker who does not need much language skills, so why invest time and energy?

Even then, if you have been living in Switzerland for some time, you must have been motivated to learn the local language at least at some point. The good news is that most of the city authorities in Switzerland recognise these reasons and, therefore, offer free German courses to motivate people to learn the language more socially.

READ ALSO: 5 modern Swiss novels to read this summer

In this article, we have compiled some of the German learning programs that are offered for free by the city of Zurich for various focused groups of immigrants.

AOZ Fachbereich Gesellschaftliche Integration

AOZ is an independent public law institution in the city of Zurich. It fulfils social assistance and integration promotion tasks for asylum seekers, refugees, and other immigrants. In addition, AOZ has been actively offering language support to immigrants.

The institution offers free German courses at three locations in the city: Letzipark shopping centre, Pestalozzi Library Oerlikon, and Langstrasse.

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your German good enough for Swiss citizenship?

According to Samantha Sengupta, the project manager for the Societal Integration Department,
at AOZ, the project started way back in 2008-09 when ‘learning Deutsch’ was not mandatory.

“The idea was to motivate people to come and see how they can learn Deutsch to integrate better. So we have been trying different ways, and currently, we have three locations in Zurich where these free classes are conducted,” Sengupta said.

Any person who lives in the city of Zurich can participate in the program. “The program is successful. We see many participants coming for the course. They decide how long they want to stay in the program. Some stay just for a few weeks, others for two to three months. It is mostly people considering to integrate and have low budget who come for this program,” she said.

You can find more information here.

Learning German is hard work, but worth it (Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash)

Gemeinschaftszentrum Buchegg

Even if you have been living in Zurich only for a few weeks, you might have discovered the Gemeinschaftszentrum (community centres) in your area.

They offer a diverse range of socio-cultural activities to those in particular areas. In addition, some of these centres also organise Language conversation café (Sprach-café) meet-ups.

The Gemeinschaftszentrum of Buchegg conducts its Sprach café every Tuesday from 10 am to 11 am. The sessions are currently conducted online and don’t require any prior registration.

You can find more information here.

READ ALSO: 15 ways to swear like a Swiss German

Gemeinschaftszentrum Leimbach

Like the Gemeinschaftszentrum Buchegg, the Leimbach centre also organises a Sprach-café face-to-face meetup weekly. According to Michalina Gründel, the teacher at the Sprach Café, “the program’s objective is also to bring more immigrants together to socialise with participants from other communities.”

“The program is for everyone. One does not need to have prior knowledge of much German, but it is important to have an A1 level. This is a common rule at GZ Leimbach,” Gründel said.

Gründel has taught many participants for the last couple of years at GZ Leimbach. Most of these participants are from local or nearby areas. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she organised online classes. “I had to switch to online lessons, but it worked better than I thought. Some days I would have more participants online than live,” she said.

You can find more information here.

READ ALSO: ‘Just so fun to say’: Are these the best Swiss German words to learn?

Gemeinschaftszentrum Loogarten

The Loograten Community has recently started its Sprach Café. The event takes place every Tuesday between 2 pm to 3 pm, without prior registration.

The program’s focus is to brush up your German in a more fun and social way than in a complete school-like setting.

You can find more information here.

Interact Language Tandem

Founded in 2017, Interact is a non-profit organisation to promote linguistic and cultural exchange between German and foreign-speaking people in Zurich.

The association organises language tandems in various languages, including Arabic, English, French, and Italian. The project is supported by the Kanton Zürich Integrationsförderung.

You can find more information here.

Many other places, such as Fachschule Viventa, supported by the city of Zurich, offer German lessons at a very reasonable fee without making a hole in the pockets of the immigrants. The city of Zurich website also provides a databank of different German courses suitable for various groups.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Tips for learning Swiss German from those who have

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For members


5 modern Swiss novels to read this summer

Switzerland is a diverse, multilingual country and its literature reflects that. To pep up your late-summer reading list, we've put together a list of novels by modern authors from across Switzerland.

5 modern Swiss novels to read this summer

All of the books we’ve chosen are also available in translation if your language skills aren’t quite novel-reading-ready just yet.

Martin Suter, Small World (German, available in translation)
Zurich-born ex-copywriter and creative director Suter has been pretty prolific since he turned his hand to novels – he’s written 14 since 1991, as well as four plays and nine collections of his columns for Swiss newspapers.

Sadly, not all of them have made it into translation (yet), but his breakthrough 1997 novel Small World is a great introduction to his work. It’s a fast-paced psychological thriller with well-drawn characters that follows Konrad, a long-time sort-of friend-sort-of member of staff to the mysterious and super-wealthy Koch family.

Things start to go wrong as Konrad becomes increasingly forgetful. This is initially attributed to his penchant for a tipple, but it soon becomes clear he has Alzheimer’s.

As his memories of the present are replaced by those of the distant past and the complicated truths that lurk below the surface, he starts to represent a threat to the powerful Koch family.

It’s also spawned a (not-quite-as-good) film adaptation starring Gerard Depardieu in 2010 (Je n’ai rien oublié).

melinda nadj abonji

Swiss author Melinda Nadj Abonji smiles after being awarded with the German Book Prize (Deutscher Buchpreis) for the best German-language book on October 5, 2010. (Photo by FREDRIK VON ERICHSEN / DPA / AFP)

Melinda Nadj Abonji, Tauben Fliegen Auf (Fly Away, Pigeon)
Nadj Abonji was born in a part of Hungary that now belongs to Serbia and moved to Switzerland at the age of five to join her refugee parents.

This split between two places inspired this novel, which tells the story of the Kocsis family, who immigrated to Switzerland in the 70s knowing just one word – ‘work’, and the generations that follow them.

But it’s a heart-wrenching tale  – they have to deal with prejudice from their adopted community despite their best efforts to assimilate, as well as seeing from afar the devastating impact of the Balkan War on their loved ones back home. 

The perfectly paced novel beautifully merges the history and culture of two very different places and brings to life the challenges – both practical and emotional – of the immigrant experience and how it feels to leave part of yourself behind.

Zoe Jenny, Das Blütenstaubzimmer (The Pollen Room)
This was Basel-born Jenny’s first novel. Published in 1997, it’s since been translated into a whopping 27 languages.

It’s also the best-selling debut novel by a Swiss author if you needed another reason to give it a go.

The slim novella centres on Jo, the vulnerable and lonely product of a broken home and who, at 17, is still searching for love after her mother abandoned her when she was small. 

It’s a haunting story, full of evocative imagery and spare prose that works almost as well in the sensitive translation as in the original text.

joel dicker

Geneva-born writer Joel Dicker poses during a photo session in Paris on February 22, 2022. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

Joel Dicker, La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert (The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair)
Switzerland loves a good Krimi and Joel Dicker does a great job at weaving unexpected twists and turns into this postmodern murder mystery.

This easy page-turner sold over three million copies all over the world and was made into a mini series in 2018 starring Patrick Dempsey.

It tells the story of Marcus Goldman, a successful-but-shallow young American novelist in New Hampshire (where Dicker is said to have spent his summers), who is struggling with writing his next book. He goes to stay with his college professor, the eponymous Harry Quebert, to try to kickstart his writing.

But then Quebert is accused of the murder of a teenager who disappeared over 30 years ago and Marcus must work to clear his mentor’s name and find out the truth about what happened. In doing so, he finds the subject of his next book and the line between murder investigation and book-writing begins to cross over.

Anne Cuneo, Le trajet d’une riviere (Tregian’s Ground: The Life and Sometimes Secret Adventures of Francis Tregian, Gentleman and Musician) (French, available in translation)

Cuneo was born in Paris to Italian parents, but grew up in Switzerland, where she also studied. She wrote 15 novels, as well as dozen of plays before she died in 2015. 

If you love the music and history of the 16th century, then this 1993 book is for you. Mixing fact and fiction, it recounts the incredible story of Francis Tregian, the little-known copyist and compiler who is credited with the Fitzwlliam Virginal Book, the main source of keyboard music from the mid-1500s to the early 1600s in England. Containing some 300 works, it’s the most important surviving manuscript from that era.

Despite being born into nobility, Tregian didn’t have an easy time of it: Catholic at a time when England was under Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant rule, his family fortune gets seized and he has to fend for himself. Fortunately, his musical and language abilities mean he is able to do well abroad as he travels across Europe, sharing music with many famous composers – from Monteverdi to William Byrd– and hanging out with Shakespeare.

Do you have any must-read Swiss authors you think we should write about? Let us know in the comments!