Trilingualism & Beyond

Postbus & Cows, Engadin, Switzerland

Postbus & Cows, Engadin, Switzerland

I took the photo above during a 1998 visit to Switzerland. It’s a relatively typical scene in the villages of the Engadin region, with the Postbus trying to negotiate its way around a herd of cows just strolling down the street.

Visiting Switzerland is an interesting—even frustrating—experience from the linguistic viewpoint, because the country has four official languages (none of which is English). The languages are: French, German, Italian and Romansh, as shown in this map. Thus, many inhabitants of Switzerland are trilingual or more (they speak three or more languages). That’s fine for them, but for you as a visitor, it presents a difficulty. As soon as you want to speak to a stranger, the question immediately arises as to which language you should use!

In theory, the country is divided into linguistic regions, so it would be reasonable to choose the dominant language of the region in which you find yourself. (For example, in the westerly regions, French is the dominant language.) Unfortunately, as I discovered, that doesn’t always solve the problem.

Nonetheless, before arriving in Switzerland, I had naively thought that I was relatively well prepared for the experience, because I had learned two of those four languages at school…

Linguistically Prepared?

At the high school I attended in England, French was a mandatory O-level subject (along with Math, English Language and English Literature). The school was a typical British “comprehensive” and there was nothing particularly unusual about the O-level requirements. In general, pupils were expected to study at least one foreign language, and French was the usual choice.

We were also able to select 4 further O-level subjects based on our own preferences, of which one could be another language (but only one of those taught at the school: German, Russian and Latin). I chose to study German, and I passed my O-levels in both foreign languages.

At that time, I had no real idea about the direction that my future life might take, although the idea of perhaps working in Europe some day did appeal to me. Unfortunately, as things turned out, knowledge of French and German has proven to be of very limited usefulness to me, whereas knowledge of Spanish would have been very valuable!

In a Taxi in Zurich

As I mentioned above, I expected that my knowledge of French and German would be beneficial in Switzerland. The first night that we arrived in Zurich, we had to get a taxi from the airport to our hotel. I got into the taxi, and, figuring that I was in the German-speaking part of the country, I asked the driver to take us to the hotel in that language.

He returned my request with a confused look, so instead I tried English. Still no luck. Eventually I tried French, to which he smiled and nodded. It turned out that he wasn’t Swiss at all, but was in fact un colon from Morocco, where French is not an official language, but is widely taught.

Our driver seemed quite surprised that I was able to ask him in more than one language, and even accused me of being Canadian!

Arrival in Davos

Arrival in Davos Platz

Arrival in Davos Platz

We did eventually get to the hotel in Zurich, and stayed overnight before heading for Davos the following day. The photo above shows Mary and me on arrival in Davos, although we had actually traveled by Rhaetian Railway train, rather than the Postbus behind us.

Linguistically, I figured that Davos would be a “safe zone” for me, because surely now we were in the midst of the German-speaking portion of the country.

My relief turned out once again to be premature, because the version of German spoken in Switzerland was almost completely unintelligible to me. The people of that region speak Schwyzerdütsch, which is a very strong (unwritten) dialect, with substantially different pronunciation rules. Listening to a conversation between two locals, I could barely pick out more than a few words, and only then when I began to grasp the varying pronunciations.

Watch Your Gender

Nonetheless, most locals understood standard German, so I felt that at least I could ask for things in German if necessary. Unfortunately, that too turned out to have its pitfalls.

We couldn’t locate the main Post Office in Davos so, while buying gasoline, I asked the attendant for directions. I said to her, “Entschuldigen Sie mir, wo ist der Postamt?

The response was another very puzzled look (and if you speak German you’ll probably already have spotted my error). I then engaged in much hand-waving and explanations, along the lines of wanting to buy a stamp. Eventually, the attendant figured out my meaning, and, with a smile, explained that I should have said, “Wo ist das Postamt?”.

I’d got the gender wrong, which to me as an English speaker didn’t seem all that important, but clearly I was mistaken!

Don’t Learn Too Much!

At long last, just over a year ago, I decided to make the effort to begin learning (Latin American) Spanish, given that I’ve now lived for more than 30 years in California, which has a substantial Spanish-speaking population.

I called up a local tutor who was offering group lessons, and discussed whether she could help me. She asked whether I had ever learned any other foreign languages. I felt that mentioning my previous studies in French and German would be seen as beneficial, so I was surprised by the tutor’s negative response. “That’s going to confuse you”, was her claim.

I’d never before heard of the idea that it might be possible to learn too many languages! And yes, while learning Spanish I have sometimes resorted to the use of French words, but only in cases where I didn’t know the Spanish equivalent anyway! If I didn’t know French, then I’d just have had to use the English word in those cases.

I did some online research to determine whether there’s really any evidence for this odd notion that learning more than two languages is potentially confusing, or conversely, as I had believed, beneficial. I found several articles on the topic, such as here, here and here. On the whole, the consensus seems to be that, while it can lead to temporary confusion, in general knowing two languages makes it easier to learn a third.

So, yes, I still believe that I can safely say that Trilingualism is not something to be ashamed of!

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