How to Say Hello in Swiss German
Full transparency: This post is not, in fact, a story about how to say hello in Swiss German. It is, though, about language - and all of the frustrations, failures and victories that come with learning it.
But, let’s get that out of the way, so this title isn’t a complete lie. It’s grüezi (grew-tsee) or grüezi wohl (grew-tsee vollh) for one person, and grüezi mitenand for more than one person. And if you are in Zurich and really want to show off, throw in a “Merci vielmal” (feel-mal) for thank you.
OK, back to the meat of this post. I’m sitting at a coworking space in the middle of Zurich, one of my favorites in the city. I casually ordered an americano, said I wanted to pay with credit card, and watched as the barista began to pull the espresso shots, all the while silently cheering for myself. “You did that all in German! And you were so casual. She totally thought you were Swiss. Go, Alex, Go!”
But then, as she handed me my drink, she quickly rattled off a phrase that I understood but didn’t anticipate, and I was immediately thrown off my game. And as I was standing there, mutely smiling as I was quickly trying to both translate and work out a response in my head, a couple awkward seconds went by and she switched to English. Just like that, my small victory was gone.
Because I’ve finally arrived at that dreaded plateau everyone reaches while learning a new language.
I’ve mastered a basic list of vocabulary and have learned just enough to string together some rudimentary sentences. Not that these sentences that are all that useful, mind you (how often in a casual conversation do I really need to tell someone my age or the fact that I wake up at 7am), but sentences nonetheless, complete with a subject and a verb, and maybe even an adjective or a direct object if I’m feeling crazy.
I can understand numbers well enough to decipher the platform announcements at the train station. I can order beers and a coffee. Armed with a dictionary, I can read the local newspaper. I know just enough German to know how different German and the Swiss German dialect really is. I do, in fact, now know the difference between “bitte” and “gruezi.” And today, that is about the extent of it.
Because I’ve finally arrived at that dreaded plateau everyone reaches while learning a new language.
I’m not saying that is not progress, and that I shouldn’t be proud of myself. Trust me, I am. As a humble brag, I was even unanimously voted “Most Improved” in my A1 beginner class. But I’m at the point. THE point. If you’ve learned a foreign language, you know this point. The point when you can understand much more than you have the ability to speak. Even if I don’t recognize every word of German that is spoken, I can generally understand the comprehensive meaning of what was said. However, when I’m left to my own devices to reproduce the words, I’m at a loss. Ugh. Welcome to phase two.
This process has made me think about my three-year old nephew. He started speaking later in development than most toddlers, after he had turned two. And while it was clear he understood exactly what you were saying to him, he didn’t have the words to express himself. And so, the way he chose to express himself was with temper tantrums. A whole lot of them. Let’s just say my family realized what the terrible twos were all about.
But then, he started talking. Slowly, he learned how to use his words and how to communicate. His personality developed, he started responding and making conversation, and we all realized - this kid is hilarious! And a loving little brother to his sister. And smart, and sweet, and kind, and mischievous, and all the things we knew he was but he wasn’t able to tell us.
And that’s how I feel right about now. Because man, do I understand his frustration. It is SO frustrating to start to understand what is happening around you, but not being able to communicate. It’s language locked-in syndrome. And this, for me, is the most difficult phase. It’s the phase where I feel least like myself, when I feel most ashamed and embarrassed, and when I have to convince myself every day not to give up because this is just that - a phase. But it’s hard.
In Alex’s English-speaking world, I’m funny. I’m smart. I can make quips and jokes and observations about the world. I am polite and kind, but I can also be wry and sarcastic. I am political. I can debate and banter, I can ask questions and make conversations. In fact, English-speaking Alex is a great conversationalist. I simply can be myself, without having to try. I have the language to express myself. English-speaking Alex doesn’t just stand and smile helplessly when she doesn’t understand.
German-speaking Alex does. She is a 32-year old adult, but speaks like a child. “I eat cheese. I do not like meat. The apple is red.” In my German world, I apparently have the ability to stop time, because everything is happening in the present tense, whether it happened this morning, last year, or tomorrow. The German-speaking version of myself is timid and quiet.
English-speaking Alex is a great conversationalist. I simply can be myself, without having to try. I have the language to express myself.
I have started analyzing every missed language opportunity, replaying conversations in my head about what I should have said, or worse - translating what I did say and realizing it was completely incorrect: That I used the female pronoun instead of the male. Or I used the “we” form when I was trying to refer to myself. Or that I was inadvertently rude, like when the saleswoman at the grocery store offered me a free sample of salami and I just blurted out “Nein” and walked away. Come on, Alex. You couldn’t even manage to get out a “No, thank you?!” And just when German-speaking Alex thinks she’s got it under control, Swiss German rears its head to confuse things even more.
I’m being hard on myself, I know. I promised I wouldn’t be. But I am competitive by nature, and there is no bigger rival than my own ego. I’m trying to remind myself that the very fact that I am understanding German shows that I am capable of learning and remembering foreign languages. I’m reminding myself that I went through similar things with Spanish and Italian. The transition between passive use (listening and reading comprehension) and speaking is always a difficult one. This is just a phase.
With learning a new language, you have to find new ways to express yourself. That’s the beauty of it. You don’t remember a word, so you describe it in weird roundabout ways and hope someone will understand your “more poetic” phrasing. Like when I forgot the word for rain (Regen), and described it as sky water (Himmel Wasser). It’s accurate, at least. And calling it “sky water” certainly makes it sound a bit more beautiful than an inconvenience on your commute.
And hey, German is hard. These words are long. These sounds are foreign. It’s not like English or other romance languages, where you can build the sentence as you go, in parts. Because of the way German verbs and sentences are structured, you have to have the whole phrase you want to say in mind before you even start talking. Some verbs or prefixes go at the very end of the sentence - and by the time I get to the end of the sentence, I barely remember what I was talking about, let alone remember verb I needed to add. I imagine that Yoda would be an excellent German speaker. “Easy to learn, then, would German for Yoda be!”
With learning a new language, you have to find new ways to express yourself. That’s the beauty of it.
Learning a language follows the same up and down momentum as any new experience. There was my first German lesson - LOW. Then the first time I read and understood a sign on the tram. HIGH! Then I forgot an extremely simple word - LOW. Then, that unparalleled thrill when I successfully ordered a sandwich and thought to myself, “Wow. I just did that in another language.” - SUPER HIGH! Then I missed two weeks of lessons due to visitors and friends and completely regressed. LOW.
Peaks of positive moments when I am optimistic about learning German are invariably followed by valleys of discouragement. Fittingly, I’ve come to realize it’s like a Swiss hiking trail. There are no switchbacks and steady inclines. It’s straight up, then straight down. It’s true that this is probably the most efficient way to get to the top. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to feel the burn on the way up. Or feel despair when you suddenly lose all of that altitude gain during an unexpected descent.
But I guess the most important thing is that my confidence never drops to zero. It never drops to that level I felt after my first German class. I still believe, even during the low points, that this is something I can do. So perhaps the secret to success is to keep looking at the big picture. Accepting that I will have these ups and downs. And understanding that this period of frustration is all part of the process.
Languages always felt like a superpower.
Whenever people ask me what my superhero power would be (it comes up more often than you’d think!), my answer has always been the ability to drop into a country and immediately be able to speak that language. I think I was always influenced by Indiana’s Jones description of Marcus Brody when he was trying to throw the Nazis off his trail in The Last Crusade (The best of the three. Fight me on it).
“Brody's got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan. He speaks a dozen languages and knows every local custom. He'll blend in, disappear and you'll never see him again. With any luck he's got the grail already.” Of course, in the movie this couldn’t be further from the truth, and the next scene is Marcus asking if anyone speaks English. But since I was young, that idea always stuck in my head. Languages always felt like a superpower. Finding the holy grail at Petra wouldn’t hurt, either.
Maybe on the surface that’s just as realistic as flying or invisibility or reading people’s minds, but in a small way this superpower is achievable. I already know how to say hello in Swiss German, right?