I know I have it good with English as my mother tongue. All the advertisements that use English (which are abundant) are easily understood. I can read and understand HTML code, if need be, I can write it, too. Granted, that’s not on the top of everyone’s list, but it has served me well with what I do. I also write almost exclusively in English, too. Still, I don’t speak it as much as I did when, say, I was living in the States. Okay, there is very little usage for Swiss German in the States. But here in Switzerland, if I absolutely wanted to, I could speak only English. Believe it or not, it seems almost everyone would be glad to converse in English. But I try to blend in as best as I can; when in Rome, do as the Romans do!
I worked hard and long to learn to speak Swiss German as best I could. In doing so, though, my English has changed somewhat.
On the Phone
Once, on my birthday when my parents called to wish me a happy birthday, I wished them a happy birthday, too. That sounds like I’m losing my mind, but I know exactly why that happened. Growing up, every year we would call our grandparents on Christmas. The phone would get passed from person to person. Each person would say “Merry Christmas” and the answer was always “Merry Christmas to you, too!”. And that was exactly what happened on my birthday, the phone got passed to the next person who dutifully said “Happy birthday”, I went into autopilot and said “Happy birthday to you, too!” Big oops. That never happened again.
Usually it was little things when talking on the phone. When a Swiss word came to mind first and I would start to say that and quickly change to the English equivalent. Or even worse, without realizing it I might blurt out the Swiss word completely! Another oops.
Quite a few times, when I was able to suppress the Swiss word I still couldn’t think of the English one. On those occasions I took to describing what I wanted to say. I’m sure the people on the other end of the telephone where shaking their heads wondering what my problem was.
English or Swiss German?
What also happened a lot after learning Swiss was being able to stick to speaking whichever language I was speaking. I didn’t want to start mixing the two languages in a sentence and just use the first word or phrase that came to mind. I found it most difficult to speak to a Swiss who wanted to talk English but had a thick Swiss accent. Sometimes, as much as I wanted to talk English the Swiss accent kept floating me back to Swiss German. I like to think that I’ve gotten competent at sticking to English with anyone now. No matter how thick a Swiss Accent is being used.
At one point I got involved in an English language theater group. I thought it would be a great way to meet other native English speakers. The overwhelming majority of people in the group were English. I thought that was pretty cool. Once, an American who was here with her family for a year joined the group. We became friends. When I called her at home the first time her daughter picked up the phone. I asked for her mom. To my horror and surprise the child yelled “Mom! Some English lady is on the phone for you!” My, my, it was high time I got some American friends, for sure.
How’s my English?
When my parents came over, Ben and I showed them around Switzerland and Europe. One winter my dad wanted to buy a hat so we went to the weekly market. He tried on lots of hats and we had a great time. All the time I was speaking English with my parents and Swiss German with the vendor. My dad found the perfect hat and paid. As we were getting ready to leave the salesperson complimented me on my English saying I spoke really well. I thanked him with a huge smile, and we left.
The following comment caught me completely off guard. Ben and I had been in the States, visiting my parents. After being there for 4 weeks I was back talking like a native. Or so I thought. On the way to the airport to go home, we stopped at a diner to get some lunch. I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. The server did a double take and said “You’re not from here, are you?”
I said “No we’re visiting family.” thinking he meant I didn’t have a southern accent.
“No, I mean America, you’re not from America.”
“Why would you say that?” I had only ordered lunch, it wasn’t like we had had a long conversation, .
“It was the way you said ‘sandwich’ it was too correct” he pronounced it “sam-wich” and I had said “sand-wich”.
It just goes to show, you never know.