My children speak two languages

London-born Lesley Franklin* has lived in Zurich, Switzerland, for 20 years and her children, Marta*, 15, and Alex*, 10, both speak fluent English and German.

When I fell in love with Mathias* and moved to Zurich to live with him, I made a huge effort to learn German but I also knew I’d have to maintain my English because I was working for English companies. I’m an editor, so perfect written English is essential in my job.

My children were born in Switzerland and have always lived here. I didn’t make a conscious decision for them to be bilingual – it just evolved. They learned English because it’s my mother tongue and our family language has always been English. Mathias and I split up seven years ago, but during the 16 years we were together I always spoke to him in English, so it was obvious that I would be speaking to my children in English and therefore they would pick it up.

I was always aware that Marta and Alex would need to be fluent in both English and Swiss German. Apart from me, everyone in our local area speaks Swiss German, so they were always going to hear it more than English. However as a dialect, Swiss German is only spoken and not written. In the schools, High German – which is what the Swiss call the German used in Germany – is used. It’s also the language used for administration purposes and in most of the written media.

A jumble of bilingual family chat

From the day the children were born, I spoke to them in English and Mathias spoke to them in Swiss German. His English has never been very good, so it was easier for us to do it that way. When Marta and Alex were tiny, they had lots of exposure to Swiss German because we were sharing Mathias’s parents' house. Their late grandmother spoke a little English, but she and their grandfather always spoke to them in Swiss German. It’s just natural to speak in your own language.

Over time, during the children’s early childhood, as my Swiss German and Mathias's English improved, our family language at home evolved into a mix of Swiss German and English, often in the same sentence!

Now, if I say something to the kids in Swiss German or High German, they'll probably respond in German if we’re out in a German-speaking environment.

I speak High German at work and I sometimes find it difficult to switch back to English or Swiss German. The children will usually humour me for a few minutes before they tell me I sound silly and should speak English.

Switzerland: talking the talk

There are four main languages used in Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansch. The language you speak tends to depend on where you live, so because we live in Zurich, which is on the German side of the country, we speak Swiss German. On the Italian side the locals speak Italian and in the French part, French.

Swiss German is a dialect, which means it is a spoken language only. All writing is done in High German – essentially a foreign language. I can imagine it must be soul-destroying not to be able to express yourself in your own language. Without a good knowledge of High German, reading and writing are very difficult.

People do text in Swiss German, but because there’s no standard written language, sometimes things can be misinterpreted!

My language journey

Many foreigners who come to live in Switzerland don't learn to speak High German (or the local dialect), because most people they come across speak English. My experience has been different because my husband worked in a trade, not a profession, and most of his friends didn't speak English.

During my first five years in Switzerland, when I started learning High German, I could read bits of the newspaper but couldn't understand conversations because they were all in Swiss German.

I believe that total immersion is the best way to learn a language so as soon as I understood the basics of High German, I took myself off to Swiss German classes. Swiss German is very different to High German. Everything's different, from numbers and days of the week to grammar and pronunciation.

Bringing up your children to be bilingual with Swiss German as a second language isn’t really an advantage because only about 4.5 million people in the world speak one of the Swiss German dialects. The dialect spoken in Zurich (Zuritueuetsch, to give it one of several possible spellings!) is one of 27 different dialects. Just because people in Zurich understand what I say, it doesn't mean I understand or am understood by someone with, for example, a dialect from the Valais region.

When the Swiss speak High German, their accent is so poor that Germans often don't realise they're listening to German. The Swiss speak High German very badly. And High German speakers don't usually understand Swiss German. You can speak Swiss German in front of native Germans and, depending on where they were born, they might not understand anything you say.

Swiss schooling

There’s no national curriculum in Switzerland and the standard of English lessons here can be quite mixed. Not all schools employ native English speakers, which doesn’t help.

At my daughter’s previous school, she was getting really bad marks for English. I went along to talk to her teachers and said, “I'm really sorry but I don't think this is right. I can't believe this – she's bilingual and English is her other language.”

Marta had told me she couldn't understand what the teacher was saying in English lessons. When I spoke to the teacher, I couldn’t understand her either! The kids had no chance of learning English properly from her. Marta now goes to another school, where she’s making good progress and often leads the English lessons.

Although Marta and Alex are Swiss, when they were in primary school, they were given extra German grammar classes once a week in their lunch hour. These classes are available to anyone who’s bilingual or whose parent/s are foreigners.

There are lots of immigrants in Zurich whose parents don’t speak German, so my children have an advantage because their father does.

English for expats

There are so many expat communities in Zurich that most people manage to find a playgroup run in their mother tongue. When Marta and Alex were learning to talk, I took them to an English playgroup. Before they started school, all their extra-curricular activities – like dance and singing classes – were in English. I taught them a few English nursery rhymes and Christmas carols. Listening to pop songs in English has helped them too.

Their written skills in English are poor, and they are both quite bad at grammar in both languages – I think that’s one of the disadvantages of being bilingual. But they both read very well in English and German. We go to England once or twice a year and whenever we’re there they ask me for English books. Alex loved the Beast Quest series when he was younger and Marta has just read The Fault in our Stars and City of Ashes in English. By choice, at least half the books she reads are in English. Recently she had to choose a book to study for a school project and she chose The Book Thief. I’d read it with my book club years ago and I felt it was a difficult book to tackle in German, partly because it is almost twice as long when translated into German, so I suggested that she swapped to the English version. She found that much easier.

I’m really happy that they both enjoy reading in English, but it has made it difficult for Alex when he studies German literature at school. For a long time, his teacher was under the impression that his ability to read in German was a lot more advanced than it is because he’d already read – and more or less memorised – books such as Eragon in English!

When I moved to Switzerland I bought a Sky membership so we can watch English television and that’s all we ever watch at home. My kids grew up with Teletubbies and moved on to Dr Who and Glee.

I think Marta and Alex understand the importance of being fluent in English now they’re older, because they’re at so much of an advantage when it comes to the internet. Occasionally, their friends will ask them to explain how a game or page works, and that helps them appreciate how useful their English is.

On being bilingual…

I couldn’t say what my children’s mother tongue is. If someone asks them they always say English, but I feel they’re more comfortable speaking Swiss German because that’s what they spend most of their life immersed in.

I believe that to be truly bilingual you need to be able to read and write in both languages. And both languages, whether you speak them at home or not, have to be active, not stagnant. The internet helps a lot with this because people can immerse themselves in their mother tongue, through Skypeing relations, communicating in chat rooms or by downloading TV in their native language. This helps to keep the less-used language alive.

To my mind, there are only two good reasons to bring your children up bilingual: you’re living in a country that has another language and you have to embrace it; or one parent speaks another language. For Marta and Alex, growing up with two languages has been completely natural and they wouldn't have it any other way.

*Names have been changed.

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I had no idea Swiss German is

I had no idea Swiss German is only a spoken language. It must have been incredibly difficult for you to learn High German for work as well as the Swiss German dialect when you first lived in Zurich. Goes to show how lucky native English speakers are that most of the world understands us.

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