For members


Five places to learn (Swiss) German for free in Zurich

German is not an easy language to learn, particularly Swiss German. The City of Zurich knows this and has several offers for free classes for immigrants. Writer Parul Chhaparia lists five of them.

Swiss German can be incredibly difficult to learn, but the journey is well worth it. Photo by Chris Lutke on Unsplash
Many foreigners want to settle in Switzerland. Photo by Chris Lutke on Unsplash

Let’s accept it. Learning German is not easy. And if you try to learn Swiss German, it could be as tricky as nailing jelly to a tree.

However, the difficulty is not the only reason many immigrants don’t pick up the local language as much as they would like. Sometimes, it is just that you are working too much to find time to learn, or you are unemployed and find these courses quite expensive, or you are a homemaker who does not need much language skills, so why invest time and energy?

Even then, if you have been living in Switzerland for some time, you must have been motivated to learn the local language at least at some point. The good news is that most of the city authorities in Switzerland recognise these reasons and, therefore, offer free German courses to motivate people to learn the language more socially.

READ ALSO: 5 modern Swiss novels to read this summer

In this article, we have compiled some of the German learning programs that are offered for free by the city of Zurich for various focused groups of immigrants.

AOZ Fachbereich Gesellschaftliche Integration

AOZ is an independent public law institution in the city of Zurich. It fulfils social assistance and integration promotion tasks for asylum seekers, refugees, and other immigrants. In addition, AOZ has been actively offering language support to immigrants.

The institution offers free German courses at three locations in the city: Letzipark shopping centre, Pestalozzi Library Oerlikon, and Langstrasse.

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your German good enough for Swiss citizenship?

According to Samantha Sengupta, the project manager for the Societal Integration Department,
at AOZ, the project started way back in 2008-09 when ‘learning Deutsch’ was not mandatory.

“The idea was to motivate people to come and see how they can learn Deutsch to integrate better. So we have been trying different ways, and currently, we have three locations in Zurich where these free classes are conducted,” Sengupta said.

Any person who lives in the city of Zurich can participate in the program. “The program is successful. We see many participants coming for the course. They decide how long they want to stay in the program. Some stay just for a few weeks, others for two to three months. It is mostly people considering to integrate and have low budget who come for this program,” she said.

You can find more information here.

Learning German is hard work, but worth it (Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash)

Gemeinschaftszentrum Buchegg

Even if you have been living in Zurich only for a few weeks, you might have discovered the Gemeinschaftszentrum (community centres) in your area.

They offer a diverse range of socio-cultural activities to those in particular areas. In addition, some of these centres also organise Language conversation café (Sprach-café) meet-ups.

The Gemeinschaftszentrum of Buchegg conducts its Sprach café every Tuesday from 10 am to 11 am. The sessions are currently conducted online and don’t require any prior registration.

You can find more information here.

READ ALSO: 15 ways to swear like a Swiss German

Gemeinschaftszentrum Leimbach

Like the Gemeinschaftszentrum Buchegg, the Leimbach centre also organises a Sprach-café face-to-face meetup weekly. According to Michalina Gründel, the teacher at the Sprach Café, “the program’s objective is also to bring more immigrants together to socialise with participants from other communities.”

“The program is for everyone. One does not need to have prior knowledge of much German, but it is important to have an A1 level. This is a common rule at GZ Leimbach,” Gründel said.

Gründel has taught many participants for the last couple of years at GZ Leimbach. Most of these participants are from local or nearby areas. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she organised online classes. “I had to switch to online lessons, but it worked better than I thought. Some days I would have more participants online than live,” she said.

You can find more information here.

READ ALSO: ‘Just so fun to say’: Are these the best Swiss German words to learn?

Gemeinschaftszentrum Loogarten

The Loograten Community has recently started its Sprach Café. The event takes place every Tuesday between 2 pm to 3 pm, without prior registration.

The program’s focus is to brush up your German in a more fun and social way than in a complete school-like setting.

You can find more information here.

Interact Language Tandem

Founded in 2017, Interact is a non-profit organisation to promote linguistic and cultural exchange between German and foreign-speaking people in Zurich.

The association organises language tandems in various languages, including Arabic, English, French, and Italian. The project is supported by the Kanton Zürich Integrationsförderung.

You can find more information here.

Many other places, such as Fachschule Viventa, supported by the city of Zurich, offer German lessons at a very reasonable fee without making a hole in the pockets of the immigrants. The city of Zurich website also provides a databank of different German courses suitable for various groups.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Tips for learning Swiss German from those who have

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Why does Swiss German have so many French loan words?

French is often crowned the world’s most beautiful language and has, for centuries, infiltrated Switzerland’s German-speaking region. But why did so many French words end up in Swiss German and which are most commonly used?

Why does Swiss German have so many French loan words?

In the western hemisphere of the 16th century until well into the 19th century, French was considered the world language and courts all over Europe began to emulate the culture made popular by the French nobility.

The French language eventually replaced Latin as the dominant language in science and many Germans figured that it would be easier to adopt what’s already there, rather than spend time finding German language equivalents for scientific terms – much to the detriment of German purists who fought this during the 17th century.

But while much of Europe was embroiled in a game of catch-up with France, the situation was quite different in the Deutschschweiz. The German-speaking part of Switzerland already had an identity of its own, an identity that had as a matter of fact already been intertwined with both the French language and its culture.

For many years, the Swiss had sent a great many mercenaries to serve in the French army up until 1798, while the sons of Bernese patricians were raised in French before taking up administrative posts in French-speaking Vaud (1536 until 1798), then under the rule of Bern. Meanwhile, Solothurn, the resident city of the French ambassador, was almost considered an exclave of France.

Even today, many young people living in German-speaking Swiss cantons travel to the French-speaking part, or Romandy, to work as au pairs and improve their French language skills.

It is not difficult then to see why the Deutschschweiz had an easy time embracing everything French, particularly the cantons bordering the Romandy.

Same, same but different

Though some French language words, known as Gallizismen, that are commonly used in the Deutschschweiz appear to be the same at first glance, they have over time undergone a pronunciation shift and are no longer pronounced in French, but rather in a Swiss German-French mashup dialect. Hence, they are considered both French and Swiss German.

One such example is the word Merci, which you will hear as often as – and in some German-speaking places even more frequently than – the casual Swiss and standard German counterpart Danke.

Unlike the French Merci, which is pronounced MerCI – placing the emphasis on the latter syllable – the Swiss from the Deutschschweiz pronounce the word as MERci, stressing the first syllable instead.

In fact, this is the case with most polysyllabic French words. But there’s more.

In addition to giving French words the Swiss German pronunciation treatment and oftentimes completely forgoing the French accent, some words have also taken on a slightly different meaning.

If you happen to be in a hurry in Switzerland, you’d use the word pressant to express this. While the word in French translates to urgent or pressing, in Swiss German it means to be in a hurry.

In fact, if you’re in a rush, you would say “Ich hans pressant”, rather than the standard German “Ich bin in Eile”.

And when on the road…

If you spot an adult riding a bicycle on the Gehweg or Bürgersteig and reprimand them using the standard German words for pavement, you may be met with a confused (and slightly offended) look.

In German-speaking Switzerland, Trottoir is the word most commonly used for pavement, while the standard German or Hochdeutsch equivalents are seldom heard, if altogether unused.

Likewise, while you’re busy being annoyed that you’ve encountered a rulebreaker – don’t worry, it’s a Swiss thing – remember that using Velo rather than the German alternative Fahrrad may just make you win the argument.

Most commuters living in German-speaking cantons may know that you will be required to pay for a Billet – not a Fahrtkarte – before you head off to find the right Perron, not Plattform, to wait for your train.

In Switzerland, it also makes sense to purchase an Abonnement with the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways), though you’ll also (eventually) get your point across if you ask for a Reisekarte as they would across the Germany-Switzerland border.

READ MORE: 4 things to consider when buying a travel card in Switzerland

Beware of false friends

While the German speakers of Switzerland have a jolly time reinventing the French language to fit their needs, this love for experimenting has also led to a handful of false friends over the years.

Some German-Swiss will fight tooth and nail to convince you that the Swiss German Friseur (or Frisör) is in fact derived from the French language – simply because it sounds French – but this is not the case. French speakers still very much refer to hairdressers as Coiffeur. Ironically, so do many German speakers in Switzerland.

Similarly, the Swiss German favourite Blamage may well have a French twang to it and is often confused as being on loan from the Deutschschweiz’s French-speaking neighbours. Yet, the word – which can loosely be translated to shame or embarrassment – isn’t known to the French.

Handy vocab for on the go

If you’re visiting the German-speaking part of Switzerland from France or the Romandy and find yourself overwhelmed with the gazillion dialects coming at you from every angle, here are some French words you can use on your trip:

Glacé, not Eis (ice cream)

Portemonnaie, not Brieftasche or Geldbörse (wallet)

Couvert – Umschlag or Briefumschlag (envelope)

Duvet – Bettdecke (duvet)

Adieu – Auf Wiedersehen (goodbye)