I’m always happy to hear from fellow expats anywhere in the world here at Blog in France. Today I’m delighted to welcome Paul Douglas Lovell as guest blogger to share his experiences with learning his new country’s language.

paul swisslish  

 I have been living in Switzerland for 13 years and if a local asks me “sprechen Sie Deutsch” I’ll proudly say “ein bitzeli” then hope to quickly change the subject.

“Ein bitzeli” is Swiss German for “a little bit”. I think using dialect makes me sound more native. We expats tend to get taught only text-book Hoch Deutsch (high German). In truth I see no distinction between the two languages, it is all Dutch to me, and therefore I learn each word individually.  

I talk a mix n match of the two and throw in French and English words also. Don’t know how but without much consideration, I seem to instinctively choose well known words that can help me get my point across.  I’ve even been known to use Italian also.

I’m a very chatty person and I can, in my own animated style, say almost anything I want. My trouble is, I only understand about 30% of people’s responses and get a bit embarrassed listening intently and guessing when to nod. Luckily it is very bad manners to interrupt when people are speaking so if I don’t daydream I can sort of follow the thread. When brave I will throw out the occasional “Wirklich?” which means “Really?”

That doesn’t stop me from talking over the garden fence with my neighbours or with other dog-walkers I meet.

paul garden

I often hijack the conversation because doing all the talking masks my ineptness. 

I did take German lessons many years ago, six in all. Unfortunately I found the teaching methods didn’t suit my way of learning. Read and repeat doesn’t work with me.

I need strong picture association, actions or rhymes to make words stick. I was so desperate to find any type of rule or group pattern that would make learning the German language easier. I failed, there were none that I could see. Not much logic either.

All dogs are male “Der”, and cats female “Die”, all horses are neutral “Das”. At home I had a Gordon Setter bitch and a black tomcat but no little pony.

paul dog

So after frustrating myself, the teacher and my classmates with continuous questioning, I quit. Now I simply use “D” for everything. 

I speak with a working class accent that drops H’s in words like house and adds them to words like addition. This is a further hindrance as German speaking is extremely precise.

I find I can often repeat a German phrase with only the slightest error in pronunciation. But can the hearer grasp what I am saying? Well, I imagine most of you know the answer to that. I must sound like I have a pair of socks stuck in my gob.

However, because the Swiss are so well educated, assistance is usually available. I have found people to be much more forthcoming when you don’t ask “Do you speak English?” but say “Sprechen Sie English?” instead.

I remember on my first solo visit to a supermarket I actually bobbed around, clucked and squawked when asking for chicken. Thank goodness the cabbages were easy to locate. I soon noticed that many shelf-stackers in the supermarket, a position usually filled by the less educated like myself, speak very good English too. 

My lack of language skills makes me known in the village as the English man. A local girl even knocked my door to ask me if I’d help teach her English. I don’t charge a fee, instead I informed the mother if she requires her to reach a certain academic level to hire a professional. We now teach each other.

Instead of brushing up on my language skills, I spend my time writing. I have just published my first book, one that outlines the circumstances that brought me from my council house childhood in England to this beautiful country of Switzerland. Curious people can find more information here.  

pauly cover