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How to assimilate

April 12, 2011

How hard could learning another language really be?

All you freakishly-brilliant Euros out there who attended trilingual schools and prefer reading literature in French but academic works in German and answer, to the question, how many languages do you speak, shall I include only spoken languages? really have no idea how good you have it. Growing up in a monocultural town in Australia, my world has always been an English one (well, unless you count double dutch, fluency in which would qualify you as “bilingual” at my primary school) where even my school-year German and Japanese language teachers were Australians whose knowledge of past participles and subjunctives could barely conceal their broad accents. Learning another language was like learning how to knit: there was a vague sense that while it was a worthwhile endeavour, but we all knew it was a waste of our time.

Living in an all-English society (and I’m not talking about a nominally English city, like London, in which one can hear every language in the world being spoken whilst walking down Oxford Street) it’s pretty easy to take six years of school-level German and call yourself a brilliant linguist. No-one is any the wiser when you mumble a few  verbs together in a sentence and tell them you just recited Goethe’s most famous works. So you can imagine my surprise when I moved to Germany and realised my grade 12 Australian high school German teacher hadn’t quite passed on to me the vast knowledge of verb conjugation I believed I had possessed. Whereas ‘guten tag’ and ‘danke schoen’ had previously elicited my parent’s pride and admiration, in Europe I had landed smack bang in the middle of a country in which multilingualism is so rampant that if you ask a French person whether they speak English, they’re not unlikely to answer “only a little bit” and then turn back to their English translation of War and Peace.

Learning a language – really learning a language, not just the lyrics to Nena’s 99 Luftballooons, is a seriously daunting, mind-bending, wrenchingly painful, exhilarating, endless process. At this age, I think it’s never something you actually complete, but rather something you struggle with and rail against and fall in love with and scorn and run back to again and again. It is a worthwhile but thankless process.

Given my clear ambivilance about living in Geneva, my decision to move here a second time round was primarily motivated by my drive to once and for all get a firm grasp on the French language. Where better place than a small town in which not only do the people speak French, but according to those in the know they speak a much slower, easier to understand version of French than the Frenchies themselves. Sounds like a recipe for fluency by the end of the year, right?

Wrong. Though it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, Geneva has been so infiltrated (bastardised?) by expats that people literally have to advertise in the classifieds to find someone to speak French to. Most of us work in English in offices populated, primarily, by English-speaking people, and after work we socialise with other English-speaking people or go to movies in English. Yes, much of this is by choice, yes we all play a large role in perpetuating the clear division between internationals and locals, and yes there are opportunities to speak French if one seeks them out. But if you don’t, it is sadly possible to live in this city and possess no more French than that required to order croissants, bread and alcoholic beverages.

The bizarre flipside to this is that often it is impossible to find a person who speaks English. In clear protest to the abundance of English speakers here in Geneva, many locals have taken on themselves to punish us by refusing to admit they speak English, even though they too have English-speaking colleagues and socialise with English-speaking people. Upon attending the local government office, where one must spend at least 8 hours in purgatory before being rewarded with a work permit, I was informed by two different people at the Service Etrangers et Confederes (The Foreigners and Confederate Service) that they didn’t speak any English. This is a lie. I’m sure I saw the English version of War and Peace hid in the corner of their desks.

The only solution, then, to avoid your own guilt at living in an English-speaking world within a French-speaking city, and to get your own back at the bitter Genevois who pretend they can’t speak English, is to just bite the bullet and learn French. A few tips for language schools in Geneva*:

UNOG language school

From talking to a few people, the language school at the UN is probably the best-run and best value for money in town. It’s open to the staff of the UN, other international organisations and NGOs, and members of permanent missions, and is free for UN-staffers and relatively cheap (around 500 CHF for a 12 week, 4 hours a week course) for everyone else. Beware – the process of applying is laborious and ridiculously complicated, much like everything else at the UN. But I am assured the wait is worth it.


If you’re recently arrived in Geneva and you’re not lucky enough to work for a big company or bank who pays for your language courses, this is your second best option. You can join a class pretty much every week, they are cheap and simple and run at pretty convenient times, after working hours. The downside is that the classes are quite large (10-15 people) and, if you’re unlucky like me, you’ll get stuck in the one with the old British man who likes to talk a lot about the motherland.


If you can’t find a class time or level that suits you at Migros, try IFAGE – it’s basically the same concept, same cost and same quality of teaching.

The expensive classes

Berlitz and Inlingua both offer high quality teaching for lots and lots of cash (up front, no less). If you’ve got the dosh though, they’re meant to be very good.

Ecole du Monde

I once went for a trial French course here and it was really good. The people are a little kooky but it has a nice, school-type vibe, and the lessons were vibrant and interesting. Only problem – they run morning classes from 9am to 12pm. If you can get the time off, though, I’d really recommend it, especially because they’re cheap!


* I have literally been to 4 out of 6 of these places. And I still don’t speak French. Which does not reflect well on my ability to learn languages, but shouldn’t tell you anything about the quality of the courses.

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