Sunday, 3 February 2008

My Polyglot Brain

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At the age 20 I packed my bag(s) and took the train to Switzerland. Why – at the age of 20 you probably make decisions. Somehow other countries did fascinate me and I happened to find a job in Switzerland advertised in the daily English newspaper. A Business man in Zürich was looking for an English speaking secretary. The business man was a Pakistani, married to a Swiss woman and they had 3 children. At that time (1966) I just wanted to live somewhere else, having already breathed a bit of foreign air on holiday in Italy and Paris, which quite appealed to me. I was always interested in foreign languages, somehow I decided one day I would like to perhaps become bilingual.

I suppose that was the beginning of it all. I knew that there were a few languages spoken in Switzerland, but no-one told me about the different dialects. Every language has its dialects. Even English is spoken differently according to the region where you grow up and being a cockney I knew this too well. I was once working in the city for a shipping company, P. & O. and it was sort of said “diplomatically” I might have got the job as head secretary in the department if my verbal English was a bit better. Not exactly in those words, but I knew what the boss meant. So I left that job and worked temporary for a time, earning very good money and making my plans to somehow shift off to another country.

Ok so I arrived in Switzerland ready to use my German. I was in Zürich and that was the local language – I thought. I realised on my first day that German was not the local language. The local language was Züri-tütsch (Zürich German) which sounded a bit like German cut off at the ends. Now my German was not that good, but speaking and understanding dialect was a bit exhausting to say the least. My boss’s wife was very helpful (I was living in the same building in rooms – it belonged to them) and had family connections. She explained the fine points of the local lingo which did help a bit. Coupled with a few words of Urdu that my boss now and again used in the family the foundations of my language salad had begun. I soon discovered, however that Zürich being Zürich and populated by many international gnomes working in banks, that English (actually American) was also used a lot in the town. If they don’t understand you in the shops, just speak English, everyone understands that. Actually the purpose of my stay was not really to speak English.

Luckily my boss also had an Indian restaurant, as well as having his office, where I worked during the day, so as my social life was more or less non-existent at the beginning I begun helping out in the restaurant in the evening. That really laid the foundations of my German, although speaking dialiect was a bit too much. I could say hello (Grützi), goodbye (Adieu) and thankyou (Merci) but that was about all. Note a few French words are used. The Swiss language can be a bit of a mixture. After 2 years of Zürich life I was thinking of going back to England, when my boss’s wife said if you would like to stay, put an advertisement in the paper, perhaps you might find something else. A lot of things happened at once. I had 2 offers of a job in Zürich and my mum told me in a telephone conversation that the company Robert Bosch in the village of Zuchwil (next to the town of Solothurn in North central Switzerland) was looking for an English secretary. I think my mum never forgave herself for that suggestion. I called Robert Bosch and got the job so moved off to this place called Zuchwil. Again a village with Swiss German, but a bit nearer to the French part of Switzerland. It was in this company that I met my Mr. Swiss (after one month of courtship we got married – it will be 38 years tomorrow) so that sealed my stay in Switzerland.

Back to languages, we lived in Solothurn. If you take the train to the next big town of Biel or Bienne as it is called (about 20 minutes away) you can start using your French. Biel is 60% Swiss German speaking and 40% French speaking. If you travel down the lake a bit in the third or fourth village they are already speaking French. I had learnt French six years in England, so had to polish it up a bit. I would add the French I learnt in England didn’t sound much like the French they spoke in Switzerland (or in France for that matter). My first son was autistic, the people advising us said it would be better to speak Swiss German at home. Up to that point we had mainly spoken English, although I had two step children who I spoke German/Swiss German with. Gradually, without noticing it I had started speaking Swiss German. There is one big advantage in Swiss German. The ends of the words sort of get lost in your throat, so you don’t have to bother much about the grammar. Well I suppose you do, but you can get away with a lot. Most people thought I was Dutch. Not so much because of the accent, but they don’t expect the English to learn a foreign language. After 40 years in Switzerland I still have an accent, but it is the letter “R” that gives you away. No matter who you are, if you are English you will never ever pronounced a German “R” correctly.

During this time my “thirst” for foreign languages had not completely left me. Now and again I could use my French and also Italian which I had learnt for a year in England in evening classes. I told you, I was just interested in learning foreign languages. I found a very easy way to speak French and Italian. If you don’t know the word, just take the English one and pronounce with a French or Italian accent. In most cases you will have found the word you are looking for. Italian is also spoken in Switzerland in the Southern part known as Ticino (Tessin for us German Swiss) as it borders on Italy. We have a fourth language called Romansch spoken in the Kanton (county) of Grisons in the Eastern mountaneous part of Switzerland where the goats and deer say good night to each other. Now this is a strange language, but if you understand Italian and Latin then you do get the gist of it. I do not speak it, but understand it a bit and the people living in this area are usually bilingual as you don’t really get through life speaking Romansch, so they also speak Swiss German. If you go on holiday to St. Moritz, Davos, Arosa, or Klosters for example you will hear this language being spoken. Naturally to complicate things Romansch also has about 3 or 4 different dialects according to which part of Grisons you live in.

Before I forget Swiss German is not just Swiss German. The Zürich people speak it quite quickly, the Bernese slowly, the Basle people somewhere in between and in the Kanton of Valais they speak swiss German with such a dialect that even some Swiss don’t understand them (they also speak French there). Apart from the 4 different languages of Switzerland I think nearly every town or even village has its own way of speaking. You eventually end up with about 200 or 300 different ways of saying a word in German. Then of course we have the Valser people living in the village of Bosco Gurin, on the borders of the Italian part of Switzerland where you go over the alps and come to the German speaking part. I went there once. A death defying journey in the car, at the end of nowhere on top of a mountain pass, but the village is there with people living there and speaking a language only they understand. If you walk in the restaurant it is like a Wild West film. Suddenly deathly quiet and everyone looks at you.

That would be the Swiss languages in a nut shell.

As I got older, the kids started doing their own thing I decided it was time to brush up my French, so did a course from work. Then I realised a sort of childhood ambition, I learnt Russian. I stayed with the course for about 12 years, but unfortunately such courses are always breaking down as the don’t have so many persistant supporters like myself and after starting up a second time I decided to give it up, although I do have a look at my books from time to time. The next language was Arabic. I stayed a year in the course, could read it and picked up a few words, but at the same time was still learning Russian, so the whole thing got a bit too much.

At this time I had started looking after the office apprentices in our department at work and some came from immigrant parents. I had one girl, she was Kosovo Albanian, so she gave me a few hints on their language. I learnt that everything Albanian has the word Schqip in it somewhere, and that the original inhabitants were known as Illyria. Then I was looking after a Turkish apprentice. I quickly learnt how to count to 20 in Turkish, bought myself a sort of tourist how to speak Turkish book, and having help from my apprentice, could soon say hello and goodbye. As a matter of fact others in the department also got interested and we were soon speaking a few broken words of Turkish. My apprentice at the moment who is leaving the department in two weeks is Croat. I didn’t have to bother with her language as she understood my Russian and I understood her Serbo-Croat. Actually all our apprentices speak Swiss German better than I can as they grew up in Switzerland.

I still make grammatical mistakes in German (as well as the rest of the languages), but I find the main thing is people understand me and I understand them. My Mr. Swiss once said it doesn’t matter where I am I always get into conversation with someone. I remember when we were staying at a hotel in London once and there were some Russians on the next table. His words were “don’t speak to them”. Well I mean they spoke to me so a Dobr Den (Good day) was the least I could say. Mr. Swiss has now found that it doesn’t really make any difference where we go, Mrs. Swiss always seems to get into a conversation with someone.

We were once on holiday in Mallorca (did I mention that I learnt Spanish for a year as well – but unfortunately forgot most as my Italian got in the way). Anyhow we were on a boat trip and there were some French people there. Mr. Swiss said I am sure you don’t understand them. I told him I didn’t very well, so I suppose they are from Marseille, which was correct. French people from Marseille speak different to the French people elsewhere. We were once having breakfast in our hotel in New York. The people on the next table were Canadians and speaking French Canadian. I even understood it a bit.

Speaking so many languages can be a problem in the brain. I once started translating for my dad when he was here what my mother-in-law was saying to him, but ended up translating the English to my mother-in-law and the German to my dad. If I happen to talk in my sleep (which occurs now and again) Mr. Swiss says it is like sleeping next to a foreign dictionary. Basically I suppose I think in the language I am speaking. Forgot to mention I sort of understand Dutch as well (if you understand German and English it is somewhere in between).
In 2 years 20 months I will retire. I don’t think it will become boring. At the moment I am thinking about perhaps starting to learn Esperanto. I belong to a blogging community, more for photos, where there a a few people, mostly Hungarian, that write in Esperanto together. Actually quite easy to understand. A Scandinavian language is also missing in my repertoire and then of course there is Chinese (too many letters) and Japanese (3 different alphabets). In any case I am sure my retired life will not be boring.