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SWISS GERMAN

TEST: Is your German good enough for Swiss citizenship?

If you are planning on becoming a Swiss citizen, you are going to need to be able to prove basic competency in German. Do your language skills cut it?

A swiss flag
Photo by Patrick Hodskins on Unsplash

In Switzerland, gaining citizenship or permanent residency require you to reach certain formal qualifications for speaking a Swiss language, so we’ve put together some sample questions to give you an idea of the level required. 

Being successfully integrated means that they “should participate in the economic, social and cultural life of society”, according to the State Secretariat for Migration, which includes speaking at least one of Switzerland’s languages. 

Importantly, not only must you demonstrate a certain level of linguistic proficiency in a Swiss language, but it must be in the Swiss language spoken in your part of Switzerland.

If you are an American living in the German-speaking canton of Schwyz who speaks French perfectly, you will still need to demonstrate you can speak German in order to satisfy the residency and citizenship requirements. More information about that is available here

However if you do speak French and live in a French-speaking part of Switzerland, we’ve gone into the necessary requirements below. 

READ MORE: Is your French good enough for Swiss residency and citizenship?

This article relates solely to your language ability – applying for citizenship has several other requirements, including having to demonstrate knowledge of Swiss culture and history via the citizenship test.

READ MORE: The ten most surprising questions on Switzerland’s citizenship exam

What level of German do I need for Swiss citizenship and residency?

The level of language proficiency differs depending on the type of residency permission you want: residency permit, permanent residency or Swiss citizenship. 

Fortunately for new arrivals, you do not need to show Swiss language proficiency to get a standard residency permit. 

Generally speaking, those on short-term residency permits – such as B Permits and L Permits – are not required to show proficiency in a national language. 

There are some exceptions – for instance people on family reunification permits – however by and large people who have just arrived in Switzerland for work do not need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

Permanent residents however will need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?

For ordinary permanent residency – which is granted after an uninterrupted stay of five years or ten years in total – you need to demonstrate A2 level of a spoken Swiss language and A1 written. 

Citizens of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are exempt from these language requirements. 

For fast-tracked permanent residency, the language level is a little higher. You must demonstrate A1 written but B1 spoken. 

Demonstrating language proficiency must be done through an accredited test centre. The accreditation process is handled at a cantonal level. More information is available here

For citizenship, the level is slightly higher again. Candidates must demonstrate A2 level writing ability and B1 spoken skills. 

More information about language requirements – including what you need for Swiss citizenship – is available at the following link. 

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

What are the levels in question?

The current citizenship rules in place require German at levels laid out on the six-level scale of competence laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

From beginner to advanced, CEFR describes foreign language proficiency at six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. 

Keep in mind that despite these standards being adopted across much of Switzerland, they are imposed at a cantonal level. 

Cantons are free to set a higher bar if they wish, as Thurgau has done by requiring citizenship candidates to have B1-level written German and B2 (upper intermediate) spoken German. The rules are also stricter in St Gallen and Schwyz. 

The following however are generally in place across Switzerland. 

So what does A1 mean?

According to CEFR, someone with A1 capacity is a ‘basic user’ who “can use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type”.

A person at A1 level “can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.”

So what does A2 mean?

According to CEFR, A2 refers to basic users with an improved level of comprehension. Those in the A2 class “can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment)”. 

They “can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.”

So what does B1 mean?

B1 on the CEFR scale is defined as being able to “understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.”

A B1 candidate “can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken” and can also “produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest.”

In other words, you are not required to be able to speak perfect, error-free German, only to be able to make yourself understood and understand any replies you are given. 

Spoken B1 German is the standard required both for citizenship and for permanent residency. 

The following speaking, listening, reading and writing tests, as laid out by Germany’s Goethe Institute, relate to B1 competency. 

The nitty gritty

A full B1 test written by the Goethe Institute involves testing on four components: reading, listening, writing and speaking. You are not allowed to use a dictionary at any time during the test.

Keep in mind that the exact specifications of the test you take in Switzerland may not directly correspond to the following, however the questions themselves are a guide of the level required. 

The reading component takes 65 minutes and involves having to comprehend several texts and answer questions about them.

The listening component requires you to listen to several pieces of audio and state whether statements about them are true or false.

The written component takes an hour and requires you to write a letter as well as express your opinion on a topic.

The spoken component takes 15 minutes and is done in discussion with a partner who is also taking the exam.

Reading

The following questions come from a section of a sample test by the Goethe Institute. The text, which you can find here, talks about a project to create electricity in a village by using biogas. You need to decide which of the following options makes the statement true.

In diesem Text geht es um… 

  1. die neue Technologie von Eckhard Meier?
  2. die umweltfreundliche Stromproduktion in Feldheim? 
  3. einen Studiengang an der Universität Göttingen?

Die Wissenschaftler wollten zeigen, dass… 

  1. ein ganzes Dorf von modernen Energien leben kann? 
  2. eine Bio-Gasanlage mehr Strom produziert, als ein Dorf braucht? 
  3. man größere Mengen Strom sparen kann?

Damit die Idee auch in anderen Dörfern funktioniert… 

  1. benötigt man viel Geld. 
  2. braucht man genug Platz für die Technik. 
  3. muss die Bevölkerung dafür sein

Listening

For this section you will have to listen to audio of German people talking. The format of this section varies: for example, it could be a news report, an interview or a recorded discussion.

Here are some sample questions from a past B1 paper, in which you hear five short texts at the start of the audio (listen here). You have to decide which of the following statements about the texts are true.

Text 1 

Frau Stein soll… 

  1. die Chipkarte mitbringen?
  2. zehn Euro bezahlen?
  3. Zurückrufen?

Text 2

Herr Thomas… 

  1. möchte, dass Frau Brahms einen neuen Vertrag abschließt?
  2. braucht Zeugnisse von Frau Brahms?
  3. ruft später noch einmal an?

Text 3 

Auf der Autobahn gibt es Stau wegen… 

  1. einer Baustelle? 
  2. des Berufsverkehrs? 
  3. eines Unfalls?

Text 4 

Welcher Zug fällt aus? Der Zug nach … 

  1. Bern?
  2. Genf?
  3. Lausanne?

Text 5 

Vorausgesagt werden… 

  1. Gewitter an der Elbe?
  2. Temperaturen unter 10 Grad?
  3. Starke Regenfälle im Westen?

Reader question: What does being ‘successfully integrated’ in Switzerland mean?

Writing

In the written section of the exam you are required to compose three texts. You are given them all at the same time and so you can chose which one you begin with but you will have to complete all of them in the 60 minute time frame. 

The first task requires you to write an email to a friend addressing the following issue:

Sie haben vor einer Woche Ihren Geburtstag gefeiert. Ein Freund/Eine Freundin von Ihnen konnte nicht zu Ihrer Feier kommen, weil er/sie krank war

The email should be around 80 words in length and address the following three points:

– Describe the celebration.

– Which gift do you find especially great and why?

– Suggest a time for a meeting.

Spoken

In the spoken component of the text you must present a short speech on a topic as well as discussing a scenario with your discussion partner.

In the following situation you need to discuss what to do with your partner. 

Ein Teilnehmer aus dem Deutschkurs hatte einen Unfall und liegt im Krankenhaus. Diese Woche möchten Sie ihn besuchen und ein Geschenk von der ganzen Gruppe mitbringen. Nächste Woche kann er das Krankenhaus verlassen. Da er allein lebt, wird er Hilfe brauchen. Überlegen Sie, wie Sie ihn unterstützen können.

The discussion should last for three minutes.

You can find the full exam paper with the correct answers (at the bottom) HERE.

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For members

OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why it’s almost impossible for foreigners to become fully integrated Swiss citizens

Applicants for Swiss citizenship are asked to prove a stellar level of integration into Swiss society. This makes the naturalisation process slow and intimidating - which is no accident, writes Clare O’Dea.

OPINION: Why it's almost impossible for foreigners to become fully integrated Swiss citizens

Foreigners come and go and are plentiful, too plentiful. Being a Swiss citizen, however, is viewed by the Swiss as an exceptional and complex role, not suitable for everybody.  

The onus is on you the applicant to prove yourself exceptional enough to be Swiss, in naturalisation-speak, “successfully integrated”. It’s a high bar that you probably won’t fully reach but you need to at least show that you’ve made a good effort. 

A relatively small pool of people go through the naturalisation process – around 35,000 per year out of 2.2 million foreigners. You can only apply for ordinary naturalisation in Switzerland when you have lived in the country for 10 years and you are in a financially solid position. The requirements have the effect of disqualifying people with less money or education. 

Those who qualify for the simplified naturalisation route, including spouses of Swiss citizens, also have to prove they are sufficiently integrated into Swiss life. 

READ ALSO: Would you pass a Swiss citizenship test?

An array of requirements 

The thing is that the authorities know that anyone who submits all the relevant paperwork and passes the language or local knowledge tests is sufficiently integrated. But they’re looking for something more, a certain je ne sais quoi, something that will make them feel good about sharing the great honour of citizenship. 

This will come out in the all-important interview or interviews. It could be your involvement in the community through volunteering, or it could be knowing the names of the statues in your town square, or being friends with someone the interviewer went to school with. It could be something in your attitude, a certain humility or enthusiasm. They’ll recognise it when they see it; you’ll be none the wiser until you get your decision letter.  

I mentioned the paperwork and tests. When you see the requirements, you understand why it’s mainly highly-qualified, financially secure people who advance along the track to citizenship. 

People walk in Bern's main station.

People walk in Bern’s main station. https://www.thelocal.de/20221121/german-disaster-office-warns-of-regional-power-supply-interruptions-in-early-2023/

The State Secretariat for Migration gives a definition of integration, most of which is amply covered by the documents you have to submit. Not surprisingly, the financial requirements loom large. 

You can expect to have to submit about a dozen documents. These include certificates that can be purchased from different official offices, like a confirmation of residency, confirmation of no criminal record and certificates to show you have not been pursued for unpaid debts. 

As well as that, you’ll need the usual civil documents, character references, proof that your taxes are up to date, pay slips and so on. 

Not only are you not allowed to have claimed social assistance benefits in the three years before applying, you must have repaid in full any social assistance benefits claimed while living in Switzerland.  

READ ALSO: Which parts of Switzerland naturalise the most foreign residents?

As for language, you are supposed to be able to communicate in a national language in everyday situations. Most cantons require a language test for the ordinary procedure. This is known to be a major barrier for some immigrants who may speak Swiss languages in their everyday life but are completely out of their comfort zone when it comes to written or oral tests. 

Swiss citizenship is gained by descent or naturalisation, not by being born on the national territory. Currently, a quarter of the population is foreign, one of the highest rates in Europe. That’s one in four residents of Switzerland who don’t have the right to vote. 

The irony is that voter turnout is comparatively low in Switzerland, where it rarely goes above 50 per cent. So the Swiss themselves are not ideal Swiss citizens, considering many of them don’t vote, get into debt, pay their taxes late, need social assistance and don’t know their statues.  

Nevertheless, under the bottom-heavy direct democracy system, voters ultimately have more power than parliament or the government. Because of this dynamic, every new voter essentially dilutes the voting power held by the rest. 

If all of those foreigners became Swiss, the current pool of Swiss voters would have less say over how the country is run at federal, cantonal and local level. But don’t worry, that’s not going to happen. The pool of voters is expanding slowly and carefully through restrictive naturalisation. 

A person studying

Applicants for Swiss citizenship have to prove their language skills. Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

The integration problem 

Testing people’s degree of integration by interview can be a cover for arbitrary and unreasonable treatment, with little accountability, unless an extreme case hits the headlines. At best, it’s a wasteful charade. 

Of course, there are nice stories of friendly, informal officials who wave people through. You might live in a commune where they like your “sort” or where you’ve built up personal connections that work in your favour. 

But no-one should have to face the fickleness of a personal assessment which can quickly turn into humiliation when someone is trying to pry or catch you out. The naturalisation process gives nosy officials carte blanche to be intrusive.

READ ALSO: Eight thing you should know about applying for Swiss citizenship

Sadly, the naturalisation system is based on suspicion. It is designed to root out the bad apples and the financially vulnerable, and therefore demands complete openness from applicants. This is partly why long-term foreign residents are voting with their feet by not applying. 

The classic 1978 Swiss comedy film Die Schweizermacher (The Swissmakers) poked fun at two immigration officers, who made themselves ridiculous as they went around snooping on applicants for Swiss citizenship. Have we really progressed? 

I’d like to put myself forward as a Schweizermacherin. Give me the files and I’ll clear the backlog in a fraction of the time. If you can’t read the effort, goodwill and patience in those pages, you’re choosing not to see it.  

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