Language edict found tricky for foreign managers

Expatriates in top level jobs often don't have the time to take language classes on the side Keystone

Foreign executives in Switzerland are being urged to learn a national language to help them integrate. For some expatriates, it’s an unrealistic expectation.

This content was published on February 8, 2012 minutes

It’s not the first time language has been raised in the same breath as integration in Switzerland, but it’s rare for the comment to be directed so succinctly at the army of foreign professionals working in the country.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga recently told public radio that people had complained to her about foreign CEOs living in a “parallel society” in Switzerland; a world in which they send their children to international schools, speak English and are generally unconcerned about Swiss traditions or what’s going on around them, she said.

When it comes to integration, she said learning the local language was the “most important thing”. “If you can’t speak a country’s language, you can’t reach out, you don’t know your rights, you don’t know your duties.”

She urged foreign managers and their spouses to try speaking a local language and learn about the country. Her remarks hark back to plans presented to parliament in November to promote the integration of foreigners.

The package of measures aims to tighten entry rules, making language courses mandatory for family members of non-European Union immigrants and when renewing limited residency permits. It also says employers should aid the integration process of their non-Swiss staff and their families.

Language learning may sound like a solution to politicians, but for the people relocating to Switzerland it’s a different thing in practice.

English, the lingua franca

Foreign executives typically come to Switzerland for three years. Many work long hours for their high salaries and want to spend their free time with their families instead of learning a new language – no mean feat the older people get.


“Everyone knows how difficult it is to master a foreign language. Frankly, unless you practise every day as an adult, it’s difficult. You have to reach a certain level of fluency so as not to feel ashamed to speak in that language,” Sabine Baerlocher of Active Relocation, told 

A straw poll of four multinationals in Switzerland – ABB, Nestlé, Novartis and Roche - found they recommend new arrivals learn a local language but it isn’t obligatory.

“Most of the time the expatriate employee does not need the local language. They work in a company where everybody speaks in English, and they work 80 hours a week, and on the weekend they spend time with their family,” said Baerlocher.

Her company helps people on a contract settle into Switzerland, and like most relocation services, advises on daily life essentials such as house hunting. She does recommend spouses who want to work learn the language and that children under the age of eight go to public schools and take part in local activities.

But Baerlocher sees integration as much more than language. “It goes both ways. If we want people to be integrated we need to integrate them too. And that’s not very Swiss.”

Expatriates can feel separate, simply because of different cultural norms, she said. Some cross-cultural training for the Swiss “to become a little more open” could also help.

And compared with some countries, expatriates in Switzerland are better integrated, she said. They don’t typically cluster in foreigner-only neighbourhoods, as often happens in less safe countries.


Almost all her relocating clients receive language classes from their company. The most valuable courses are those that help with practical needs, Baerlocher said. “True language integration, not trying to make them a professor in German.”

No time

It’s all the harder in a country with three official languages (German, French and Italian) as well as different dialects.

This week a swissinfo forum asked readers if it was fair to expect people to learn a local language. Many said they had a raw deal.

“Because of the multiple languages in Switzerland, it has got to be one of the hardest countries for a busy foreigner to integrate into,” wrote a “former high earner” who is married to a Swiss.

One reader said while every senior executive probably wanted to be well-integrated in their local community, “the reality is that virtually all multinational and high-tech companies are now standardised on English as their principal language for communication.”

“There simply isn’t time or the opportunity to become fluent in a local dialect we might be exposed to socially a few hours a week. Our careers and our families are all consuming and frankly our brains are no longer wired for it,” noted another.

“I’d say learning the basics of a language when living in a country is a basic of politeness and respect,” argued someone else.


Motivation is key, according to an American managing director who is now fluent in German and knows some French, Spanish and a little Italian.

Frederick Shepperd runs an investment company in Zurich, and was formerly on the American Club of Zurich executive committee.


“I think it is extremely important to learn a foreign language, coming from the United States, or an English speaking country. You not only learn a language, you learn a culture. That is perhaps the most fun of all,” he told

Foreign residents in Switzerland

Foreigners accounted for 22.4% of the total resident population in mid-2011, according to the latest statistics from the Federal Migration Office.

Most come from EU member countries, notably Italy, Germany, and France, as well as Portugal and Spain.

The biggest expat communities from outside the EU are from Serbia, Turkey and Kosovo.

Immigrants from North America (US, Canada, Mexico) are the seventh largest group.

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Integration law proposals

A package of measures  presented last November 2011 foresees mandatory language courses for family members of immigrants from outside EU countries.

The renewal of limited residence permits or the granting of a permanent licence would also depend on language skills.

The proposed package comes with an SFr40 million increase in funding for integration efforts to SFr110 million annually by 2014.

“Switzerland can and must do more to integrate foreigners even if it we do not have major integration problems,” said Justice Minister Sommaruga at the time.

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swissinfo readers have their say

“I don't think that Swiss people appreciate how hard it is for newcomers to integrate into a community in which most social interaction is conducted in an unwritten dialect.”

“Learning the customs, unwritten rules and history behind how Switzerland works and people behave made a huge difference - there are some great books around that articulate the culture well.”

“Some of us are only here for the short round - less than two years, and it's difficult to become fluent in that time.”

“The world is changing fast and it would be to Switzerland's great advantage to embrace its access to global talent and accommodate the tradeoffs of a more international population.”

“Everybody is different, I enjoy the challenge of learning a new language.”

“Language is an essential element to integration and understanding of the culture of the country and/or society that one lives or plans to live in. If one does not speak the local language how can one expect to be understood?”

“I am very happy living in a bubble, because my Swiss neighbours and Swiss society in general almost prefers it that way.”

“In my mind the disconnect here is between tax policies that are designed to bring high level jobs to Switzerland and this obsession with integration for individuals who have no intention of making a long-term life here.”

“This debate really ought to center on what type of nation do the Swiss really want to create.”

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