Switzerland is like a box of chocolates

By on February 6, 2013

One of the most annoying things about learning a different language is learning how to pronounce the same letters of our alphabet differently.

Take the letter r for example.

As an American, I have grown up saying the r very short, and I never needed to learn how to roll it. In German, it needs to be rolled, not nearly as dramatically as Spanish or Italian, but just enough to make it difficult for me. I can get by with the tiniest of trills in most words, but sometimes someone gives me a word to repeat that requires lots of rolling, and I utterly fail.

Living in Switzerland also exposes me to French because all Swiss students — with the exception of me — are required to take it in school. I find the r’s in French even worse because they sound like something between a growl and a trill in the front of the mouth. For me it is just impossible enunciate.

Everyone in Switzerland knows more than one language, and that’s just a fact. Maybe they’re not necessarily fluent in each language, but they know enough to easily get by in another country. One of my classmates at school takes French, English, Italian, and Spanish in addition to the rest of her other classes.

I just recently learned that about half of my class of 24 students consists of foreigners. Some of them were born in Switzerland but have foreign parents while others have only lived in Switzerland for several years. This of course introduces other languages that aren’t even offered in school such as Serbian and Arabic, and who knows what else.

Just as I don’t always know what kind of chocolate it is that I’m about to eat when I’m chilling at home, I can’t always tell what kind of heritage a Swiss person has. Every time that I have a chance to ask a classmate about his/her background, I am astonished by what I learn. Sometimes when I ride the bus or take the train, I see someone read a book in Russian or hear people speak in a language that I don’t even recognize. One time in particular, I had assumed that a lady on a train spoke German, until she ordered some coffee, and I realized that she only spoke Italian.

Another annoying thing about learning German in Switzerland is that not even the Swiss speak perfect German. They normally speak Swiss-German, and that is practically a different language with almost no rules. Slowly I am learning to understand some of it, and I am beginning to recognize the differences in the 26 or so different dialects. However, every person pretty much has his/her own dialect.

When we sit around the table for lunch or supper, my host family will give me little language lessons. It is not unusual for me to learn how to say something with about three different variations — one from each member of my family.

The grammar rules in Swiss-German are also not quite as important as in High-German, and each word for "the" is shortened to one letter, but it is still very difficult for me to learn. I honestly feel like Dory in Finding Nemo, trying to speak Whale because the words sound similar enough that I can understand them, but the vowels are formed so differently that I feel embarrassed even trying to attempt them.

Overall, I’m becoming more accustomed to living in Switzerland, but I still get little culture shocks at random times. For instance, my host brother just had his birthday, and I wanted to bake him a cake with a recipe from home. I made sure that I first had all the less common ingredients that I needed, such as peanut butter, which is not as popular here as in the U.S., and buttermilk. I even had real measuring cups, so I thought I was fine until I started looking for the vanilla.

I searched high and low, but I could not find the little bottle anywhere. Eventually I asked where the vanilla was, and I was presented with licorice-looking sticks of vanilla. We did actually discover a little packet of extremely concentrated vanilla as a liquid, so I used that, and the cake turned out great, but now I know never to assume that I have all the same ingredients.

This month has been cold, and we’ve had some more snow, but when I wasn’t at school, I have been visiting other cities in Switzerland and making more friends.

If I just looked around myself, I could easily pretend that I am in the U.S., but that’s only like a chocolate covering. As soon as I meet new people and visit new places, I discover that really, they have a caramel or a hazelnut filling, and that makes this exchange year even sweeter.

Larissa Miller is a junior at Warwick High School. She is spending a full year studying abroad in the small town of Vordemwald, Switzerland. She will be living in all ways as a normal Swiss teenager and has agreed to share her adventures with readers of the Lititz Record Express. More SWITZERLAND, page A17