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Foreign languages

Foreign languages are a very uncomfortable place for most people. Most have been learning at least one in school for years, but never got it to the point where it can be used comfortably in daily life. Many like the idea of learning a new language, but never dedicate time to do it. When confronted by a tourist who needs directions, the brain stops working and the voice disappears.

Some of these statements are true for me, too. English is the only foreign language where I feel comfortable; with listening and reading very close to a native level and speaking with an accent, but good enough to get away from most conversations unscathed. Other than that, I can say “sausage” in German, “dance” in Spanish and a few proverbs in Latin.

And then I moved to Zürich.

Languages of Switzerland

The experience has been like taking someone whose only experience with water was drinking and showering, and dropping him in the middle of a cold ocean. Switzerland has four official languages and English is not one of them. Adding insult to the injury, standard German is used in writing in the German speaking area, but almost everyone in Zürich area speaks Swiss German which is different enough so even native German speakers have problems understanding it.

A map of Switzerland showing where different languages are spoken.

I heartily recommend a more thorough take on the complexity called “Languages of Switzerland”. I promise you’ll find some very interesting facts. For example, Romansh is one of the official languages and a direct descendant of the spoken Latin. It’s spoken by 1% of the population and has five dialects. Crazy, right?

The only comforting thought for me is that the top immigrant language and the fourth in general is Serbo-Croatian; it really helped on some occasions.

Languages of Google Zürich

Google’s Switzerland office is the biggest engineering office outside the US and draws talent from all around the world. It’s very diverse compared to some other more locally oriented offices, with the official web site boasting around 75 nationalities. Although the company language is English, people often speak their native languages with colleagues and friends during breaks and lunches. Let’s just say I’ve never heard so many in such a short timespan in my life. That’s without counting languages so strange to me that I can’t even discern them from others.

I have a feeling everyone speaks at least three languages and on occasion they go beyond that; eight languages is the current record I personally know of. That sometimes makes me feel genuinely uneducated. On the other hand, it also serves as a motivation, although I’m not sure how long it will take me to become comfortable with another language. It would certainly take less time if I practiced more and ranted less on how I don’t know too many of them :)

Learning, speaking and pronunciation

What is the best way to learn a foreign language? By speaking it from the start. Even if you know only two sentences, try to speak them out loud. I came up to that conclusion mostly from polyglots I had talked to, some good books I had read and from a way some very good learning systems are made, but also from my experience learning German.

Many people usually try to learn a language by reading and sometimes listening (to music, movies, etc). By doing that you can get to a reasonably good level of understanding written word, but only that. If you’re forced to actually ask a question or introduce yourself at a party, I bet you wouldn’t be able to do it or at least there is a very big chance people will not understand you, meaning your language is not very functional.

It happened to me a number of times in the last few months. I’m speaking English and sometimes people do not understand me, foreigners and native speakers alike. I was confused because I’m not that bad. What happened? I know a lot of words when I read them, but 90% of them I have never actually said out loud because my English conversations were too short and focused. My pronunciation was not clear and sometimes even incorrect. What had seemed as a minor difference to me was a stumbling point for my listeners. English, even if it seems “familiar” to a lot of people, has many pronunciation traps that are made obvious only when you dig in deeper.

Being a geek, I had to find a linguistics book that explains this problem in more depth. It turns out each language covers only a subset of all sounds a human speaking apparatus can produce. We often use sounds from our mother language to speak a foreign one and this is where the problems start. The issues are ranging from having an accent to mentioning someone’s mother if similar sounds completely change the meaning. And that’s only sounds, without touching the structure and other things. If you want to see the full range of sounds, International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is what you seek.


Having such diversity around you brings up some interesting points:

  • In most cases, your native language will be understood only by a fraction of the world’s population. In other words, almost nobody. It’s worth learning at least one of the more popular ones.
  • When we don’t speak a language, we distance ourselves from those who do. We find them different and erect barriers between us. I find that very sad. On the other hand, speaking the same language has a tendency to pull people together.
  • Other people don’t talk funny, we all do. We use different sounds and structures to convey the same thoughts. And it’s very important to follow that when speaking a foreign language because you won’t be understood. It certainly motivated me to try to speak “weird sounds” although I still sound silly to myself sometimes.
  • The languages are living and dynamic phenomenons. They change constantly, although very slowly so it’s hard to notice. If you’re a programmer, just image an evolution of a programming language stretched over centuries and not decades.
  • The world is much more interesting place than our daily routine suggests.

For someone who had thought foreign languages are fun as changing diapers, I must admit they are a source of fascination for the last few months :)

Danke und auf Wiederlesen!

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