Language teacher Christine Wälchli of SCW Sprachkurse in Zürich explains how to learn Swiss German and High German.
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Speaking Swiss German, reading High German
Some people believe that Swiss German is just a dialect of High German. But Swiss German is a spoken language with similar vocabulary and grammar to High German. In the German area of Switzerland, people read and write High German and speak Swiss German. Children learn High German when they enter school. Newspapers, books and official newscasts on TV and radio are in a ‘Swiss’ High German, also called ‘written German’ (Schriftdeutsch), which differs a bit from German in other countries. There are actually words that are only used in Switzerland, but not in Germany or Austria. Nowadays it is very trendy among teenagers to write SMS in Swiss German. This means it is absolutely not cool to write a SMS in High German!
Speaking good High German is very important for the upper class in Germany; aristocrats and academics do not speak a common dialect but a clear and pure High German. In Switzerland, however, everyone including the upper class speaks Swiss German. There are several different dialects within the Swiss German area; Bernese, Basel’s and Zürich’s Swiss German all sound completely different and have different vocabulary.
There are also several different dialects within the rest of the German speaking area, Germany and Austria. Nevertheless, most teachers in Switzerland recommend first learning good High German and then, with some improvisation, you may start to learn Swiss German. While living in Switzerland you will probably pick up quite a bit of Swiss German in daily life. And with the basics of German grammar it will be easier to transform High German into Swiss German.
Challenges and solutions
One difficulty for German learners in Switzerland is that High German is rarely spoken in everyday life. Listening to the language you are learning is important: by listening, we are training our intuition. Frequently watching German TV or listening to German radio is recommended. Another option is visiting Germany or Austria, the neighbouring German-speaking countries, for a holiday or to attend a language course. The Goethe Institute offers weekly courses in several German cities.
Another challenge is that Swiss people speak English quite well. If you try to speak German and a Swiss person perceives that are a native English speaker, they most probably will ‘help’ you by speaking English. They may want to improve their English or avoid using their High German, which may not be very good. Just respond in a friendly way that you are learning their language and would enjoy every opportunity to speak German!