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Kategorien/Categories:    ›Sprachkultur/Language culture‹  ›EN‹   –  26.02.2010

Speaking in Tongues

Visiting Switzerland always makes me appreciate what multi-lingual really means. In a country with four official national languages, it is rare to find a person who only speaks one language. More commonly, folks are able to express themselves in at least one or more languages additional to their respective mother tongues.

Tarasp Castle, Engadin, CHCase in point: my recent visit to Scuol, located in the region of the lower Engadine. The narrow valley is part of the canton of Graubünden (or Grisons), one of the few pockets in Eastern Switzerland where Romansh (or Rumantsch; in German: Räto-Romanisch) is still spoken, a language used by only about 1% of the Swiss population. There I witnessed the following scene: while boarding, I asked the driver of the local ski bus for directions to the x-country trail. In German, of course - which he promptly answered. He then turned right around and continued his conversation with a local couple in the native Romansh. I listened, fascinated by the strange soft sounds and picked out occasional words that seemed familiar. After all, the language is derived from a variety of common Latin and therefore is related to Italian and French. Sure enough, a few stops further down, an Italian family hopped on the bus and the driver effortlessly conversed with them in Italian. Followed by a couple speaking in a very broad Swiss-German dialect… which our driver, too, handled with aplomb.

Now you could argue this was normal in a fairly busy ski resort hosting guests from all over Europe. All part of the service. But there was just something about the ease and grace with which the driver seamlessly moved from one language to the other that really struck a chord with me. It seemed totally natural. The canton of Graubünden is officially tri-lingual and municipalities are free to choose which language to make their official one. It therefore seems evident that a multi-lingual environment fosters multi-lingual capabilities in its population. It’s really a no-brainer.

Personally, I enjoy visiting a country where you have the choice of languages. “Allegra”, for example, means “Hello!” in Romansh, and is used as a general greeting everywhere – whether you meet someone on the hiking trail or enter a store. I much prefer using this universal greeting to the common Swiss German “Grüezi!”, which always sounds a bit weird and clumsy when uttered by my North German mouth. I guess our tongues just aren’t built for that. A revair!