When adults move abroad, getting an education in the language of their new home country is often a necessary first step in the process of personal and professional integration.
This was also the case for me, and the four people interviewed for this article. We are from around the world, with different backgrounds and hopes for the future. But we all entered a language class at the Academia School in Bern with the same goal in mind: to learn advanced German.
Helen is a 28-year-old woman from Eritrea who has many irons in the fire: she is working and also learning German and mathematics. Helen came to Bern as an asylum-seeker in January 2017. She has a diploma in Computer Sciences from Eritrea and used to work as a maths teacher there.
When she arrived in Bern, she was first enrolled in an intensive language course from level A1 to B1. Through a friend that she met there, she heard about “Power Coders” – a three-month, full-time programme in impact coding. This enabled her to look for opportunities suited to her educational background and she then found an Informatics programme at Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz (FHNW).
A language is not only a language, but more importantly it’s a way into the inner worlds of a people and their culture.
To enter the programme there were a few conditions: she needed to have level C1 in German and to take a course in maths. Helen started an internship with the programme, taking a course in B2 level German on the side. Now she is doing the internship part-time, taking C1 level German, and the maths course two days a week. This is an exhausting schedule, but Helen has her sights set on the goal.
“It’s good to aim high,” she says. “I want to always develop, and in the end, it will be worth it”.
Helen feels that she has choices and possibilities, and this she is happy about. Even though learning sometimes feels difficult and exhausting – especially whilst being away from her family – she is positive about the future, managing to make the best of a difficult situation.
Language skills open new possibilities
The motivation to learn German is not always a professional one. Olga is 37 years old and comes from Romania. She lives in French-speaking Lausanne with her boyfriend from Bern. Olga has a bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s degree in management. In 2008, she moved to Switzerland for work in the field of management and communication.
Olga’s working languages are French and English, but at home she mainly speaks French. Given this, I am curious to know why she wants to learn German. It turns out her decision to learn German is partly a personal one.
The decision to learn a new language can also be to take advantage of an opportunity.
“I feel that in a country where 70 percent of the population is German-speaking, one should be able to speak the majority language,” Olga explains.
Also, if she knows German in her job, she can choose clients from the whole country. And of course, as her boyfriend is originally from Bern, she is set to stay in the country and possibly move to the German-speaking part in the future.
The decision to learn a new language can also be to take advantage of an opportunity. Elif is from Turkey, 47 years old, and came to Switzerland in 2015. She has a degree in sociology and worked as a primary school teacher in Turkey. Through a five-year programme at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she was sent abroad as a teacher of Turkish language and culture. Now Elif is teaching in different schools around the city and its neighbouring cantons.
Initially, in her situation, it was not necessary to learn German, but Elif sees learning languages as an enriching opportunity. After level B2, in order to develop her oral skills, she enrolled in a volunteer programme, doing leisure activities with people with disabilities.
She has also been taking courses with the Red Cross and, through these activities, developed a new goal: she wants to study social pedagogy, and work with people in need. To do this, she needs at least level C1 in German. She likes Bern and would like to stay here after her current contract has ended.
Learning as an adult can be simply for pleasure
As everyone in the class is multilingual, I ask about their experiences in learning German as an adult, and how it differs from when they were younger.
Elif says that learning German now is a pleasure. Her studies in sociology were taught in English and so it felt forced, but German is voluntary and she is motivated.
For Helen it is different; the thought of the importance for her of learning German quickly adds an extra stress factor. The stakes are high and the need to succeed is of the essence. She also says that learning German as an adult is more difficult than it was for her to learn languages as a child.
Olga also says that in a way it was easier to learn as a child. On the other hand, she now has more tools and resources, acquired through experience, which is an advantage.
Dialect adds a level of complexity
Sometimes, getting an education in the language of one’s new professional environment comes with additional challenges. For example, the language you must learn to integrate professionally in your new environment might not match the linguistic expectations of your new social environment. This is the case in places where the local dialect significantly differs from the “standard” or “written” version of the language.
This is also the educational challenge expat adult learners in Bern face.
Sometimes, getting an education in the language of one’s new professional environment comes with additional challenges.
In Switzerland “Swiss German” is what people consider their mother tongue. Though Swiss German is practically its own language, with distinct vocabulary and grammar, it is not officially a written one, but a dialect.
As I myself struggle with this, often feeling demotivated as the progress I make in class does not translate onto the street, I ask Sabine Faika, Senior Consultant at Academia Language school, about the possibility of studying the dialect and if, for integration, it would make sense to teach that rather than “high” or “written” German.
Sabine acknowledges the challenge students struggle with. However, she emphasises that high German is the language of written communication and that the students need to know this as much as the spoken language.
“Often the reason to start studying German is to reach the level necessary to obtain a work or residence permit. For this, an official language test is needed and Swiss German, as an essentially spoken language, is not used,” she explains.
Further Sabine says that students who start by learning Swiss German may become orally reasonably proficient, but struggle to respond in high German correctly. Conversely if they start by learning high German, they may not feel the need to learn Swiss German, but they may gradually learn to understand it anyway, which may be enough for integration.
A way into a new culture
I wonder if Sabine’s theory corresponds to the experiences of my classmates. I ask them how they feel about high German and Swiss German, and to what degree they feel that they have integrated in Bern.
When you plan to live in a country for the foreseeable future, not only for a couple of years, then it is necessary to learn the local language.
Having moved around a lot, Olga feels that learning languages is an essential precondition for integrating into a country. But what if, as happens to be her case, the language she is currently learning feels alien to locals like her boyfriend whose mother tongue is Swiss German?
“When you plan to live in a country for the foreseeable future, not only for a couple of years, then it is necessary to learn the local language,” she shrugs.
I personally do not need German much in my day-to-day life, but Helen is immersed in both languages. In her current job, she can mostly use English, but German is required for her future studies and for her maths course.
Helen’s course is taught in high German, but her classmates speak and ask questions in Swiss German. She says that this can be frustrating sometimes, but since it is their mother tongue, it is normal.
Now that Elif speaks more German, she is using it when communicating with people in cafés and shops. However, she says that the difference compared to speaking English is not significant, as people usually speak it very well. She acknowledges that the dialect makes things more complicated, but also stresses that learning German, as well as understanding dialect, is important in the integration process.
“A language is not only a language, but more importantly it’s a way into the inner worlds of people and their culture,” she says.
A federal republic composed of 26 cantons with federal authorities seated in Bern.
Official Languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh
German is spoken in the east, north and central regions (62.6%), French in the west region (22.9%) Italian in the south region (8.2%), and the Romansh-speaking native population is in Graubünden in the east (0.5%).
High German and Swiss German
58.5% speak Swiss German and/or 11.1% Standard German at home. The German-speaking Swiss are not a uniform group, but identify with the German spoken in their canton, for example Bärndütsch, the dialect of Bern.
Capital, or the “federal city” of Switzerland
Population: about 140,000
Canton: Bern, population: 1,034,977
Language: Bernese German, a dialect of High Alemannic German spoken in the Swiss plateau (Mittelland) part of the canton of Bern and in some neighbouring regions. There is much regional variation within Bernese German dialects.