Surviving Switzerland

an expat's experiences navigating the land of mountains, cheese and chocolate

Language Matters

on June 27, 2014

School has been out for a couple of weeks already in the States, but here in the Canton of Fribourg, we still have one more week to go. In honor of the school year that is ending, I wanted to share some of the language difficulties we have in our house. We are primarily bilingual French and English, but every once in a while a ciao, tchuss-semma, or mein Gott will work its way into our discussions. Most sentences, however, start in either French or English, get thrown in the blender with the other about half way through and then finish in the second language. Depending on the speaker, it’s not always very clear which language is being spoken when.

For example: towards the beginning of the school year, my daughter came bouncing into the kitchen before my morning coffee, and announced, “You know you can take beer bellies to school pour manger.”

The children always pack morning snacks to eat during recess. Usually, teachers recommend bringing apples or little sandwiches. At the mention of beer bellies, though, half a dozen gruesome images popped into my head: mash-ups involving Hannibal Lector, the Children of the Corn and any number of the zombie movies and shows that I’ve tried to avoid.

“What?” is all I could ask.

“Beer bellies,” she said again. “You can take them to school.”

“Beer…bellies?” Without my morning caffeine, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was trying to tell me. To compound the problem of bilingualism at home, some of the kids at school also speak Swiss German, Portuguese, Italian and a couple of other languages which must make for some interesting conversations. There are only 7 other kids in her class, but hey, who’s counting?

“Uh, huh!” She bounced around some more until, luckily for me, my husband showed up.

“Oh, you mean Biberlies?” he asked (pronounced bee-bir-lees).

“Yeah! Beer bellies! Tu peux les prendre to school to eat for the recré!” Bounce, bounce! My darling daughter was ecstatic by this point.

Turns out that they are spiced cookies with creamy filling and you can buy them at them the grocery store. Hope your summer is off to a great start!

Alp Horn Blowing Summer Market in Bulle, Switzerland

Alphorns at the summer market in Bulle, Switzerland

3 responses to “Language Matters

  1. angloswiss says:

    I had to study on that one as well. Biberli – yes we have them in the Kanton of Solothurn as well. At the moment it is vermicelle time, the brown spaghetti strings made of chestnuts in a pastry shell with whipped cream. Oh, the Swiss have something for every month/week and day sometimes.
    I speak Swiss German all day, it has slowly become my first/second language and my kids and husband all speak it with me, but I must say the Fribourger tütsch is a little complicated – a sort of misch masch with a bit of everything, but I understand it. I even manage with Valiser tütsch, although not exactly the easiest.

  2. La Renarde says:

    That is so typical of my brother and I. We just jump from French to English without thinking, with dashes of Chinese here and there. I think it is all part of growing in an international environment.

    I think it’s also probably a matter of generation. My father, who spent almost half of his life in China, can speak Chinese perfectly, and would speak in Chinese or in French without difference. But it will be Chinese OR French. He won’t mix the two. Probably because he grew up in a monolingual environment (those that word even exist?).

    My brother, myself, and most of my friends (even those who barely traveled), we grew up in international environment. We would speak one language at home, another at school, hear friends talking in all types of languages, watch TV series in whatever language we can find them, etc. We are also much more used to zapping between channels, having several tabs opened at the same time, etc. So I think we have a much more fluid approach to everything, including language.

    But maybe my perception is biased because I am used to these changes, and if I have to go to less international parts, my theories won’t stand?

    • What an amazing combination of languages! We stick with French and English at home, but try to help our older son with his German that he is already learning at school.

      I think younger people in general move easily from one situation or media pretty smoothly, there is so much more input than when I was young. Gosh that makes me sound old. The eighties weren’t that long ago, but it was quite different from a technological point of view!

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