Tag Archives: Swiss German

Which language to choose (part II)



Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein

Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein (Photo credit: tschoppi)

 (“Constant dripping wears the stone”)

Raising bilingual children is not only a commitment and demands lots of energy to provide the regular inputs, maintain the passion for the language throughout all the years, but also requires to be flexible.

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about the language choice we had to make within our family and how we managed to still keep up with the languages we didn’t talk on a regular basis.

When I stopped talking Italian to my son 7 years ago, I obviously hoped that some day he would ask to learn it. Among my children he is the one who started earlier with reading and writing, and he is  very talented in languages (and literature in general).

This year he had the opportunity to follow classes in Spanish and French and I was very pleased to see that he loved both of them. We had very long discussions about the similar vocabulary, the difference in orthography and, of course, the analogies with Italian. This exposure to related languages made him realize that talking Italian is valuable too. It wasn’t the first time he heard those languages, but learning about them at school, in a setting with peers, made them apparently more valuable for him. For me this was a very interesting aspect. I always thought that being exposed to a language in “real life”, i.e. during holidays and with friends would suffice to persuade somebody of the necessity to learn it. But apparently the peer-pressure and the formal setting was the trigger for my son at this stage (11 yo).


English: Chart of Romance languages based on s...

English: Chart of Romance languages based on structural and comparative criteria not on socio-functional ones. Based on the chart published in “Koryakov Y.B. Atlas of Romance languages. Moscow, 2001”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


And then something for me very pleasant happened: my son asked me to talk Italian with him. And he asked it in Italian! This “Vogliamo parlare in Italiano d’ora in poi?” was the greatest gift he could give me. – We now talk Italian in the weekends. Just he and I, when we have one-on-one time. And we both enjoy it very much.

So this is another phase of the multilingual journey in our family I’m really pleased to write about. My son is currently re-discovering books we already had, also those for younger children, but I’m sure this summer he will enjoy the ones his cousins kept for him too, from age 11 upwards.


Rita Rosenback just published a book called Bringing up a Bilingual Child, where she mentions the seven “C’s” of successful multilingual parenting: communication, confidence, commitment, consistency, creativity, culture and celebration.

When we “gave up” Italian and Swissgerman a few years ago, my husband and I were worried that this lack of consistency would affect the language acquisition of our children. We thought that they would not understand us talking German to them, that they would refuse talking back to us in German and that they would forget those languages and never be interested in talking them.

I think that the fact that those languages kept being important for my husband and me, that we would still use them also in the presence of our children – while talking to friends etc. – and that we regularly visited our relatives who talk those languages, kept them easily accessible for them.

I’m convinced that the consistent passive exposure to these other languages helped our son to still have “a good rapport” to them. Like if the door to access those languages was always open. This not only happened for Italian, but also for Swissgerman which he talks with great confidence and the right intonation while talking to his Siwssgerman family. The fact that our children would not actively use them on a regular basis does not prevent them to use and learn them at a later stage in their lives. – I know by my own experience that this can happen at any stage, even when you’re already adult.


Planting seeds of knowledge

Planting seeds of knowledge (Photo credit: CIMMYT)

 “We can plant different seeds, water them, expose them to sun, but can’t predict how fast they grow and when they will come to fruition.”











Mothertongue, first language, native language or dominant language?

In the strictest sense, we all have a mothertongue as we all have only one (biological) mother. – But does this mean that the language our mother did talk to us is automatically our mother tongue? What about this friend I had in school, who was adopted when she was 2 and grew up in a Dutch family: would her mother tongue be Swahili because her mum was talking Swahili to her or would it be Dutch, because this was the language the mother who adopted her did talk to her?

Usually, mothertongue (or fathertongue!) defines the first language we were exposed to, our L1, the first language we speak, the one we grew up with or that our parents (or caregivers) did speak with us. And usually people tend to speak this language for a long time.

If we want to define the first language we speak, learn and feel comfortable with, the term first language may seem more appropriate. This first language doesn’t have to be one. In multilingual families it can be two or three: the important aspect to define a language as first language is, that the child uses it on a regular basis, preferably every day – linguists suggest that an exposure of at least 20% of the daily time would be optimal for a child to become (almost) equally proficient in the family languages. If there are more than one first languages in a family, we can also use the term of family languages: these would be for example the language a child talks with the mother, another one with the father, a third one with a caregiver (i.e. at daycare, school etc.), maybe a next one with extended family or locals, a fourth one with friends…

My parents only spoke German with me and my sister, but we were exposed to Italian since day one. We didn’t “learn” it in the conventional, academical way, so Italian counts as our second-mother-tongue or one of our first languages. – Usually, when people ask me which is my mother tongue (or mother language) I answer German and Italian. Both languages are still equally dominant and valuable for me.

If I analize the different phases in my life, there were phases where Italian or French or German were dominant languages in my life. I’ve spent about 4 years talking mainly Italian and French (and did study Old-French and Old-Provençal, which felt like “living” in this time and period!). During that period I really had difficulties communicating in German. I struggled every time.

Only when this linguistical situation changed and I did focus more on German and Italian, my German became more dominant. English was the fourth language I’ve learned and I didn’t use it very often from age 20 to 34. I did re-activate and improve it when we moved to the Netherlands, along with Dutch that I learned with my son.

In the last 8 years, English and Dutch became the most dominant languages, with German being our family language.

Therefore, my first languages are now German, English and Dutch, with occasionally Italian (the language that still feels like the closest to my heart!), French and Swissgerman.

Using a term like family language would also be an option, but then it would mean that the whole family (maybe even the extended family?) shares these languages or gives them the same value. But this, in a family of five (even three would be enough!) is not very realistic. Also, using first language instead of family language, I would inply that the dominance of the languages within a family can change throughout time. Situations change, we move abroad, we immerse into other cultures and languages and within a multilingual family this can be a reason for prefering one language to another – even if only for a certain period of time.

Which are my children’s first languages?

From a chronological point of view, this would be Italian and Swissgerman for all of my children, but only for their first years.

This changed when they started attending the Dutch crèche and then an English school.

Today – I should better say “at the moment”! – they consider German and English as their first languages and of course Dutch. They don’t feel that confident in Swissgerman or Italian (at the moment). But I know, by my own experience, that this can change if the linguistic situation changes again or if they just decide to talk them more often.

For multilingual children whom’s linguistic situation within the family and social context changes in their early years, the concept of first language changes too.

The first language or mother tongue plays an important role in sociolinguistics, as it is the basis for people’s sociolinguistic identity. Terms like native language or mother tongue refer to an ethnic group rather than to the first language.

Native speakers are considered to be “authority on their given language due to their natural acquisition process regarding the language, versus having learned the language later in life”. In this case, my native languages would be German, Italian, Swissgerman and Dutch because I did acquire them naturally, without studying them. I did not “learn” them at school, I did imitate speakers and copy sentences. The fact that someone is a “native” speaker because he or she did learn this language in an early stage, doesn’t really make sense to me. We are perfectly able to learn a language in a “natural” way also in a later stage of our life. In the same way, the mother tongue can be no longer the dominant one later in life (cfr. language attrition).

In his lecutre “English and Welsh” in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien distinguishes the “native tongue” from the “cradle tongue”. The cradle tongue being the language we learn during early childhood and the native tongue “may be different, possibly determined by an inherited linguistic taste, and may later in life be discovered by a strong emotional affinity to a specific dialect (Tolkien confessed to such an affinity to the Middle English of the West Midlands in particular)” (cfr. pdf of “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien)

We each have our own personal linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes, and our native language comes seldom to expression, save perhaps by pulling at the ready-made till it sits a little easier. But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

My chief point here is to emphasize the difference between the first-learned language, the language of custom, and an individual’s native language, his inherent linguistic predilections: not to deny that he will share many of these with others of his community. He will share them, no doubt, in proportion as he shares other elements in his make-up. (cfr. “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien, p.18)

The predilection of a language is, in my opinion, more important than the chronological place it has in our language acquisition history. For me, personally, the language I prefer speaking and that is closest to my heart and I’m more spontaneous in, is not the language my parents talked to me during the first period of my life.

lingua madre

lingua madre (Photo credit: Gianfranco Goria)

About the origin of the term mother tongue

“The origin of the term mother tongue harks back to the notion that linguistic skills of a child are honed by the mother and therefore the language spoken by the mother would be the primary language that the child would learn.” However, this type of culture-specific notion is a misnomer. The term was used by Catholic monks to designate a particular language they used, instead of Latin, when they are “speaking from the pulpit”.That is, the “holy mother of the Church” introduced this term and colonies inherited it from the Christianity as a part of their colonial legacy, thanks to the effort made by foreign missionaries in the transitional period of switching over from 18th-century Mercantile Capitalism to 19th-century Industrial Capitalism in India.” (cfr. wikipedia)

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Some similarities between German and Dutch

Learing a new language is always very exciting. Especially when the new language we’re learning is similar to one we already know. These similarities can be at different levels (phonetical, lexical, syntactical etc.).

The Dutch language belongs to the westgerman branch of the indoeuropean languages and is actually close to German (and Swissgerman).

The simplified relation between the languages ...

The simplified relation between the languages Dutch, English and German. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many foreigners the pronunciations of “Scheveningen” or “Gouda” are a challenge. It’s especially the way the <ch> and the intervocalic <g> is pronounced that creates some articulatory problems. For Swissgermans the voiceless velar fricative <g> [x] or [ɣ] for the <ch> or the uvular fricative [χ] are very well known. They sound similar to the German in “ach”, “Bach”, “Fach” etc.. Therefore this is not something Germans or Swissgermans would find difficult to pronounce. In the southern Dutch dialects these sounds are softer and <g> and <ch> represent the palatal fricatives ([ʝ] and [ç]).

Something I personally found important to learn are the false cognates or false friends. People already fluent in German when learning Dutch, need to be aware of words that are phonetically similar and sometimes even have similar roots but are different in meanings:

The Dutch aandacht means “Aufmerksamkeit” (attention) in German, and the German “Andacht” means “devotion”.

The zetel is a seat and not a saddle (German “Sattel”), the winkel is a shop (“Laden”) and not an angle, like in German.

With vaart you don’t design the journey or trip (“Fahrt”), but only boat trip and varen refers to the movement of ships only.

Tot is not “tot” (dead) but only means “until” and is pronounced with a short /o/ (whereas the german “tot” has a long one /o:/.

A postbus is not a public means of transportation but a P.O. box (“Postfach”).

The kwartier is not a quarter or accomodation (germ.”Quartier”) but defines a quarter of an hour; and it’s often used in its diminutive form kwartiertje.

Glazuur has nothing to do with baking (germ.”Glasur”; icing) but is dental enamel (“Zahnschmelz”).

Blaffen does not mean to snap at someone, like the German “anblaffen” but the barking of the dog. In German this way to snap is comparable to the barking of a dog though and both words have the same etymon. When a Dutch says that he’s going to call you on the phone, i.e. bellen (ik ga je bellen), which is the abbreviated form for opbellen, or ring at your door, a German would think that this person would bark at him (germ. bellen). For an English speaking person it doesn’t seem too weird, as the English bell (noun) is producing a similar sound although the English verb to bell has a different meaning i.e. the semantic fields for the Dutch bell and the English one are slightly different.

The sale signs for houses and flats puzzle every German speaking person who visits the Netherlands for the first time: te huur (which means “to rent”) seems very similar “to whore” (“huren” in German), but once you learn that <uu> is pronounced like [] you’ll get over it. A similar misunderstanding could occur with the verkocht sign, when a property is sold, since it really sounds like the word for “overcooked” in German (“verkocht”).

Te huur in Huizen

Te huur in Huizen (Photo credit: CorporatieNL)

Verkocht onder voorbehoud

Verkocht onder voorbehoud (Photo credit: the_riel_thing)

What were the analogies or similarities you found between German and Dutch? Or another language you know and Dutch?

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Thoughts on Switzerland and the so-called “Röstigraben”

This is a very interesting article from Jenny Ebermann from Mindful Leadership & Intercultural Communication, which I would present you here as a very important insight into what is actually an invisible but tangible cultural and linguistic barrier and how this is perceived by someone who lives in the French speaking part of Switzerland.


Ute Limacher has recently published a series of excellent articles on Switzerland, its different cantons, languages and history. To add another perspective to these, I have been asked to write down some thoughts and experiences on this country I call ‘home’ since over 6 years now. Exactly as Ute herself, I have also been living between and in different cultures since early childhood, thus identifying myself with various cultural groups and sets of behaviors.

I would like to take this particular opportunity to write about something that from my perspective and seen through my intercultural communication glasses is quite interesting and astonishing: the “Röstigraben”. Actually, as you have learned from Ute already, there are 4 main languages spoken in Switzerland and the so-called “Röstigraben”, which is a rather informal term, actually defines the “divide” between the Swiss German speakers and the French speakers.

I myself was actually lucky enough to have experienced these two different sides of Switzerland, having lived in Zurich as well as in the Romandy in Lausanne. If you speak French and you have a couple of spare moments, you should listen to Marie-Thérèse Porchet’s geography lesson. Not only is it hilarious, but it will also give you a better feel and understanding of what it is like to live in Switzerland and where the differences lie.

At first, when I arrived in Switzerland I thought it was funny to give a name to something rather fictive such as the imagined ‘border’ between cultural differences. Especially for me, who grew up in Belgium with its three official languages and where to my knowledge no such terminology exists, it had never occurred that it could actually have a name and would be very distinct. The truth is that you learn quite quickly that there really is a “Graben” (or trench, ditch in English). You just have to search the Internet to find many different articles on the subject.

If you are living in Switzerland, you can also hop in the train in any French speaking town, like Lausanne for example and travel towards Bern (or the other way round of course). Whereas you will see French newspapers on the seat and hear mostly French in all the wagons, suddenly and subtly this will change. Newspapers left over are now German and people speak Swiss German. Every time I take the train this strikes me, maybe because I speak the different languages but maybe also because it kind of happens all of the sudden; there is no real mix of languages and people as it would be like in Belgium before one or the other language dominates the atmosphere. It simply goes from French to German or from German to French.

Interestingly, it also appears to be very difficult for people to jump over the “Röstigraben” to visit friends, go on holidays or simply spend time. I have to admit that many acquaintances I used to see when living in Zurich, I don’t see anymore on a regular basis just because I now live in a French speaking canton. You would think that 250 Km is not far, but from a cultural standpoint it actually makes a major difference.

In my professional life, I have even heard people say that they did a “semester abroad” while studying. What they really meant here was that they simply went to the other side of Switzerland to study. How interesting is that?!

I personally think that these differences are very enriching and see a great benefit in being able to switch from one language to the other and from one culture to the other in the same country. Maybe this also gives a good idea of what it is like to live in Europe, where all of the cultures, languages etc. co-exist on a rather small continent (compared to others) without borders and mainly with a common currency. Food for thought! Jenny

Bildschirmfoto 2013-04-04 um 14.54.34

[©LECLERC, Jacques, La frontière linguistique en Suisse, Québec, TLFQ, Université Laval, 4 avril 2013, [http://www.tlfq.ulaval.ca/axl/europe/suisse_front-lng.htm]]