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‘Exotic’ languages get Swiss tongues wagging

There's a growing interest for languages such as Chinese, Russian and Arabic

Interest in languages such as Chinese, Russian and Arabic is growing in Switzerland. An ability to decode one of these gives a CV a definite boost, even if demand in the job market remains low.

“Languages open many doors,” is something you might have heard from your parents since you were young. The fact is that in Switzerland it’s rare to bump into someone who can’t get by in a language other than his or her mother tongue.

And it’s not just “traditional” languages that are piquing people’s interest.

“English obviously remains the language that attracts the most students,” said Petra Gekeler, director of the language centre at the University of Basel, which was founded ten years ago and offers 18 languages.

“There is, however, a growing interest for languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Russian. Student numbers are constantly on the up,” she added. “They realise that for their professional future it’s important to be able to speak more languages and not just French, Italian or Spanish.”


Study abroad

The Migros Club School, one of the main private schools in Switzerland, with 50 locations offering 600 courses, offers 32 “exotic” languages in addition to German, French, Italian, Spanish and English.

“Looking at students’ timetables, these exotic languages make up about eight per cent of the total [languages],” Daniela Canclini, responsible for coordinating languages at the Migros Club School, told

“In the past 12 months, the most popular languages have been Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish and Turkish. We don’t do research as such, but we reckon that half the students take these courses for professional reasons, the other half for personal reasons.”

To be able to get by in Chinese, Russian, Arabic or another less common language, a stay abroad is a must. It would take years to master a language only by attending a course for two or three hours a week.

Gekeler said that their students who studied Chinese “generally spend one or two semesters in China”.

From Icelandic to Hindi via Persian and Vietnamese: language courses in Switzerland cover the world. The Migros Club School, for example, offers 32 “exotic” languages.

The language centre at the University of Basel offers 18 including Hungarian, Swedish and Swahili.

“Swahili was introduced following requests by ethnologists at the university who were carrying out research in East Africa,” said Petra Gekeler, the centre’s director.

One of the centre’s particularities is that it offers targeted specialist courses, for example English for economists, French or Italian for doctors or Italian for art historians.

“In my opinion, this specialisation has always been an essential aspect and I think in future we’ll head increasingly in this direction, above all concerning English,” Gekeler said.

Chinese whispers

Since 2004 – the first year that statistics were available from the Migros Club School – demand for less traditional languages has remained relatively stable, with “slight increases for Russian, Swedish, Chinese, Norwegian, Finnish and Albanian,” according to Canclini.

She added that the predicted explosion of Chinese language classes had yet to materialise.

Nevertheless, she pointed out that in recent years language institutions of all sizes offering Chinese have sprung up like mushrooms.

Two years ago, for example, a Confucius Institute opened in Geneva, attached to the university, with two more planned for Basel and Zurich.

In addition, various state schools are offering Chinese as an optional subject.

Learning curve

One of these is the Denis de Rougemont college in Neuchâtel, where for eight months students have been able to spend an hour-and-a-half a week learning Chinese after school.

“You see, this character goes through the middle of a line and means ‘in the middle’. It’s relatively easy to memorise Chinese characters. There’s a certain logic,” 16-year-old Marjane enthusiastically explained.

Justine wasn’t convinced initially; she thought Chinese would be too hard. “But it’s not as tricky as you’d think. The grammar is really easy,” she said.

But what drives these students to stay behind at school after their friends have gone home? Are they all thinking of their CVs?

“No, it’s purely personal interest,” Marjane is quick to point out. “ It’s a language that lets you learn to think in a completely different way.”

Also for Alasdair professional considerations come second. “What intrigues me most is the culture, the alphabet. I find it really fascinating.”

Pierrick, on the other hand, the only student to have visited China, plans on working in the diplomatic service. “I love Asian culture and China’s an enormous country. Its future is looking strong.”

Maya already has a clear idea of what she’ll do at the end of the one-year course. “I’ll take private lessons and when I’m 18 I intend to spend a year in China.”

A 2005 study based on the 2000 census revealed that in German-speaking Switzerland, the most-used language in offices – after German and Swiss-German – is English (23.4%), followed by French (19.7%) and Italian (11.1%).

The ratio is considerably higher is the category “liberal professionals”, where 54.5% of people speak English at work. In the category “unqualified worker”, on the other hand, the percentage drops to 8.6% and Italian rises to 14.8%.

Also in the French-speaking part of the country, English (17.7%) is ahead of German (15.4%) and Italian (6.8%).

But in Italian-speaking Switzerland, English (11%) is relegated to fourth, behind Italian, German (22%) and French (16.9%).

(Source: The Swiss Linguistic Landscape, Federal Statistical Office, 2005)

Booming English

But when it comes to the job market, Manpower, a human resources specialist, says it hasn’t seen a great change for small and medium-sized companies, which make up 99 per cent of the more than 300,000 companies in Switzerland.

“English, French and German remain the priorities,” the US company told by email, adding that English was booming – a result of its increasing role as a lingua franca across Switzerland.

Manpower had, however, noticed a growing demand, above all for Chinese and Russian, in the customer services and sales departments of international companies and subsidiaries.

“This development concerns above all cities which are heavily oriented towards international clients, for example Geneva. On the other hand demand is virtually non-existent in cities like Bern,” it said.

Manpower added that among others languages there was a certain demand for Spanish and, less often, for Portuguese, Swedish, Danish and other eastern languages.

CV boost

“Demand often turns not only to the language but also the culture of the applicant, especially concerning China,” the company said.

In other words, employers are looking for people born in these countries rather than Swiss who can get by in the required language.

For Manpower, this means recruiting staff abroad – which isn’t always a foregone conclusion. There are restrictive conditions on getting work permits for people coming from outside the European Union or the European Free Trade Association.

Given the cultural element, Manpower says that “for Swiss applicants, it’s more relevant to have good German, French or English, which remain the languages in greatest demand in Switzerland, followed by Italian”.

In other words, Arabic, Chinese, Russian or whatever certainly look good on your CV, provided you don’t lose sight – or sound – of what’s nearer home.

(Translated from Italian by Thomas Stephens)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR