Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Learning how the other half lives – and speaks

Ruedi Noser is breaking the language barrrier Keystone

Switzerland is a country with four official languages. While many Swiss are impressively fluent in more than one of them, barriers remain.

Even in parliament, many members struggle to follow what their colleagues from other language regions are saying. Radical party member Ruedi Noser tells about the reasons for his decision to spend a year in the French part of the country.

Noser sits in the House of Representatives for the centre-right party. An engineer by training, he has his own technology business near Zurich.

But last year he took a momentous decision: he moved with his family – wife and four children – to Versoix, near Geneva, for the purpose of learning French. He had never got on well with it in school – partly because he is dyslexic, he believes.

It has been a very worthwhile experience, and not only from the point of view of language, he explained. What made you decide to go and live for a year near Geneva?

Ruedi Noser: There were three main reasons for going. The first is that I really had to learn French, the second is that my children are now more or less bilingual, and the third is that in Swiss politics, if you really want to understand the whole of Switzerland, one third is French, so you have to understand your colleagues in French. A lot of them don’t really speak German. Are you satisfied with your experience?

R.N.: Yes. The first six months I went to school and I learned a lot, but to be honest I’m a little fed up with the school now, so it’s time to stop. I’m definitely not an expert at learning languages. Other people learn much faster. Did you read the French-language papers before you went?

R.N.: The honest answer is no. And do you read them now?

R.N.: Yes. Do you think you have a better rapport with your parliamentary colleagues from the French-speaking part of Switzerland now?

R.N.: Yes, definitely. I think that if you do this, you are showing them respect. They see you are making a great effort to learn the language, so they respect you in turn. Do you think that a lot of politicians would benefit from doing what you did, even if they never master French very well?

R.N.: Yes. If you take me, I am not perfect in the language, but I am much closer to understanding the culture. This is the important part, to understand the culture, not really to speak.

To learn the language in Paris is one thing, but to understand the culture, to go to Geneva and have contact with the local people, to send the children to the local school and see how the school system works, that’s different. What in particular do you think you learned?

R.N.: The Swiss French follow politics in France and bring some ideas from Paris to Switzerland – of course in a Swiss way. They are critical of Paris politicians, but there is a francophone influence. One example is the whole education system. They go for the baccalauréat [the academic stream], and apprenticeships are a second choice. I think in the Swiss German part there isn’t really a hierarchy between the two.

In the past I saw a lot of disadvantages in this, but now because my children are in this system I also see a lot of advantages.

The schooling system in Geneva is much more efficient, I think. For example, my children have to do a dictation every Friday. In Swiss German schools they do one about every three months.

The system for learning the local language properly is much more efficient. They take more care over it. In Swiss German we play with the language; we have no problem about using English words, but in the French-speaking area there are strict rules about how to use words. What about the practicalities of moving to another part of the country?

R.N.: I took a holiday from my company, but of course there are some jobs I couldn’t delegate, and for those I had to go back to Zurich. Would you recommend this to everyone?

R.N.: We have to be very honest. It is very expensive to do it with a family. You need a second home.

For me, working in my own business for more than 20 years without a break, it may be possible to do it, but it’s not really financially possible for everyone. Is there an alternative? It used to be a tradition that German-speaking Swiss spent a year in French-speaking Switzerland.

R.N.: You have do it before you’re 30, before you settle down. It’s what we’re doing with my children. They now speak French perfectly, and they don’t have the same problem that I do.

It’s very important to do an exchange year when you’re at school. And they now have many friends, and I’m sure a lot of these friendships will survive.

Julia Slater,

Ruedi Noser was born in Glarus in 1961. He is married with four children, two girls and two boys, aged from 6 to 11.

The family has been living in Versoix, a village near Geneva, since July 2009.

A member of the centre-right Radical Party, he has been a member of the House of Representatives since 2004.

From 2003 to 2009 he was vice-president of the party.

He trained as an engineer, and has been sole owner of the Noser group, which specialises in telecommunications and informatics, since 1996.

The group has locations in Switzerland, Germany and Canada, and in 2008 had 420 full-time employees.

Noser is not the only member of parliament to try to improve his language skills by moving.

Antonio Hodgers, a representative of the Green Party from Geneva, has moved to Bern for a year, in order to learn both standard German and Swiss German.

He caused indignation among German speakers when he told a newspaper that the widespread use of Swiss German in public life was a “real problem for national cohesion”.

Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch.

German is by far the most widely spoken, by nearly two thirds of the population. However, the normal spoken language, Swiss German – broken up into numerous dialects – is very different from standard German, which is used for most writing and for formal purposes.

French is spoken by about 20%, followed by Italian (6.5%) and Romansch (0.5%).

When Swiss from different language areas get together, for example at business meetings, often each speaks their own language – or everyone speaks English.

In the House of Representatives, simultaneous translation is provided in German, French and Italian.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR