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Bilingual countries and districts: How it feels to grow up in a language minority

Updated on September 2, 2012


A big hello to fellow language nerds. I grew up in a bilingual district of Switzerland and would like to tell you how that felt. This will be a personal but authentic report!

Switzerland´s languages

Switzerland. Beautiful landscapes, mountains, rivers, lakes, grassland, forests, and.. valleys. Yes, many of them. Valleys come with a clutural thing: different ways of talking.

There are 4 different languages and cultures here.Over 60% of Switzerland is Swiss-German speaking. Be careful not to confuse: we read and write in high-german (as in Germany) but talking is entirely different. Moreover, every valley, too, has a different dialect. Almost 30% is French speaking. Then there is Italian and about 1% of the population speaks Romansh, an aincent latinate language.

Bilingualism in Fribourg???

I grew up in the "bilingual" canton (= district) of Fribourg/Freiburg. A canton that has both German and French speakers. I normally use "bilingual" with a sense of sarcasm, because it was mostly French where I grew up. Without French, I would have been lost. I grew up German speaking in a French speaking canton. French, though, is a minority in the country of Switzerland. Got it?

29% of the canton Fribourg/Freiburg are German speaking and 63% are French speaking. See this article in German about the language.

I would like to tell you here how it felt to grow up in a minority in a minority. It is a very special combination if you think about it. I will not glorify anything here and solely include my personal experiences. I have not discussed this extensively with other people form my hometown recently, but we always felt similar. Yet, what could we do? It was our reality. 

Bilingualism it is often thought of as:

"speakers are as proficient in one language as they are in the other and have as much knowledge and control over one language as they have of the other."

There are many people like that, but I personally think that you can never reach that level for both languages at the same TIME. You will always be a little bit better in one thing at one language than the other. It´s the language you are thinking in in this very moment that is your first language. But switching is made pretty fast, at least for me.

What I want to talk about here, however, is another problem. The cultural problem that arises, when 2 languages ( = cultures) are so closely together. I use the term "bilingualism" in a sarcastic way because for me - and my environment - bilingual simply meant the Swiss-Germans speak proper French, the French only speak French.

Extract from the article:

In einer Französisch sprechenden Familie aufgewachsen, besuchte Claudine Brohy die deutschsprachige Schule, was eher ungewöhnlich ist, denn in Freiburg sind es meist die Deutschschweizer, die zweisprachig sind.

Brought up In a french speaking family, Claudine Brohy attende the German speaking school, which is rather unusual, as in Freiburg, most bilinguals are the Swiss Germans.

It really is that way. I have experienced it like that. So German speakers make more effort to learn the other language than the other way around. Therefore I will remain secptical to that term for the rest of my life. Anyway, lets read on..

Reality looks different man

I am sorry that I have to disappoint you: Things were offered on a plate of gold, weren´t they? It was nothing like this romantizised imagination of "bilingualism". People often come to think that everybody in this canton speaks both languages equally. That you will be understood anywhere with both languages.. It is not that way.

When I want to be cold and straight to the point - and I know i will be hurting some French-speakers here:

Bilingualism in Fribourg means simply that:

German mothertongue people speak: German and French

French mothertongue people speak: only French.

-> That is what bilingualism in Fribourg/Freiburg means. Don´t know about other cantons, but that is the fact.

And now, let´s get straight to the point. Why do I say that?

My personal experiences and things that I disliked when in Fribourg:

  • There can be 100 German speakers and one Francophon. We would all talk french.
  • There can be 100 French speakers and one German speaker, we would still talk French dude. Of course! Did you expect something else?
  • Humiliation by teachers: I often had the impressioin that our French teachers at school were humiliating us. Not only was the level of proficiency disproportionately higher than in the rest of the country, it would not get adapted to the overall level of the class. That way, the pupils with German mothertongue were disadvantaged due to their past and origin = culture. For example: I grew up speaking german mostly, we started French in grade 3 (which is per se already really early). We did not start at age 0 and therefore had less years of French tuituion than the other pupils living in a French- speaking city who heard it every day. And due to ouf french speaking relatives, I had even more experience and possibilitiy to learn than others.
  • Origins do matter: depending from where you lived, you had the choice of going to German or French speaking school. For example, back in the days, if you were living in the city boundary of Fribourg, you could only go to French speaking school. If you lived in a suburb of Fribourg (maybe 2 streets away from where you live) you could choose if you want to send your child to a German or French school. We are all equal, but some of us are more equal than others.
  • In a shop: expect to be ignored unless you order in French. The best case scenario is this however: you order in German, get French as answer. What´s the point of talking German then?
  • Official letters often came in French, without even asking.
  • If you call a helpline from fthis part of the country, you area automatically leaded to a French speaking operator.. Of course, did you expect something else? Did you expect that you could chose?
  • If you arrive to Fribourg by train the loudspeaker will say "Nous arrivons a Fribourg". No translation, but we only just left Bern 15mins ago??? Why? Get off and look around you. Then you will understand: the station has a sign, like any other train station here has. It says "Fribourg" (= french way of saying it). And this canton prides itself to be "bulingual"..
  • Humiliation on the streets: Every so often I would hear the French speakers rant about us "ahhh les swiss allemands".. (= oh these Swiss-Germans!!) The cultural difference??
  • No chance to find a job there without knowing French. However, no problem to find a job without knowing German.
  • Phone call from the dentist assistant, who knows german and can clearly SEE that our last names are German, our address is German.. leaves a message on the answering machine: French.. I once had an emergency and had to call them. Boy, I learned fast how to explain a broken tooth in french and how to INSIST that it was an emergency...
  • Some streets in Fribourg-town have 2 names, at least a French one and sometimes also a German one. Simmilar thing with names of towns/villages: The German village names all have a French equivalent (or at least a French way of spelling it), too which is being used sometimes. The French ones have French names. SILLY me.. now I got it!! Language follows this paradigm!

Explanation by the author

I wrote this article to inform you how it feels to grow up in a language minority. I gathered these information in my very onw past. It is my reality and not somebody elses. It is my comment of a so called "bilingual" district / city which in reality is not. I tried to give you accurate information on how I experienced it to live in a so called "bilingual" disctrict of Switzerland. I know well that there are probably several places like that on earth and I also know about countries, in which they were forced to stop talking their mothertongue. Since for me language is culture, it means that a ban of a mothertongue always also means a ban of your own culture.

The positive thing about it all was simply that: It was a big advantage for me to learn the other language easier and in one way - yes we were simply forced. I am still thankful though for knowing French quite well. However, - when I think back - it was often very frustrating.

I hope you enjoyed this article and now fire with the critics! I know you want it.. :)

Further reading, if you are interested

Sorry about the ads here

Hubpages considers this article as "commercial". I don't know why, but I had to accept it and tick the box "this hub is commercial".. in order to publish it. .. Sorry about the ads. Not my intention.

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    • Tanja Wanderlust profile imageAUTHOR

      Tanja Wanderlust 

      7 years ago from planet earth

      HI Michel..

      I read that you have been ignored and probably mistreated ..

      I also work as waitress and barmaid and I am always extremely polite. I also know that waitresses sometimes ignore people, who have been extremely rude to begin with towards staff. So could there be a connection Michel ??? Just wondering??

      My question to you:

      What is the connection between to my topic (how it feels to grow up as a minority in a minority) and you having been served by a waitress who by coincidence HAPPENED to be german speaking with other people?? I whonder....??

      Thanks Michel, for proving what my article says..

    • profile image

      michel BESSY 

      8 years ago

      your article entices me to report my experience in FRIBOURG where i spent 2 days as a french tourist coming from VALENCE in the rhone 12,my wife and i,were ravenous and entered a restaurant in the town centre.The waitress came to our table to take our order.I spoke in french and her face expressed exasperation as she didn t even went to the bother of specifying she couldn t understand me.She only shook her head despairingly.Thereupon,i proceeded to order in English.To no avail as the waitress simply abandoned the struggle and found refuge in the kitchen from which the chef came to our aid and quickly took down our order...........In the afternoon,after a restorative nap we strolled down a narrow street and decided to have a drink in a pub.a few people were chatting at the bar and hardly deigned to cast a glance at us .Obviously the woman in charge of the place was among them and ignored us superbly.I kept waving my hand to attract her attention.In vain,so after a while ,i mustered my courage and trekked to the the counter where everybody was engaged in what sounded like an exciting conversation in german.I positioned myself behind the lady and coyly enquired if we could have a coke.She half turned to me with a pained look and resumed her chatting.At that ,i walked back to the table where my wife was twiddling her thumbs.Just as we were about to leave towards more hospitable places,the woman was coming with 2 cokes on a tray!

    • Tanja Wanderlust profile imageAUTHOR

      Tanja Wanderlust 

      9 years ago from planet earth

      Thanks for your somment Seth

      I think its a really interesting topic. There seems to be a huge difference between reality and "said of how things are... or ought to be, or peoples perceptions or wishes" who knows.. At least I learned french!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I live in Montreal and I deeply disagree with you, Beth100. I don't know about Ottawa but in Montreal there are so many anglophones who don't even make the least effort to try to communicate in French and demand that they be adressed in English as if it were their obvious right, without even saying a polite "pardon, je ne parle pas français." To relate to Tanja's article I think they are much more closer to the French Swiss(if what she says is true). And bilingual signs in anglophone provinces? Please. The only bilingual signs I saw were in post offices and airports(which is the same in Quebec, by the way) and even when I tried to communicate in French in the Toronto airport I had only one guy who spoke it fluently and another lady who spoke only two words: "allez-y" with a terrible pronunciation. Others just stared at me blankly as if I were speaking Chinese or something. In Montreal? Every single candy bar wrap and booklet has English written on it and shopkeepers will automatically switch to English as soon as they hear "hi." And yet for some reason so many anglophones feel that French is being "imposed" to them while they basically live in a linguistic enclave, which is why the authorities are trying their best to keep this province francophone. And they are doing a good job.

    • Tanja Wanderlust profile imageAUTHOR

      Tanja Wanderlust 

      10 years ago from planet earth

      Thanks Beth.. I know people don't dare to write about it. So I did it. I whonder if its the same with other "languages" or only with French? Does anyone know?

      Language police?????????????????????????

    • Beth100 profile image


      10 years ago from Canada

      You have me laughing in stitches!!! As you are aware, Canada is a "bilingual" country (French/English), and I can attest to the fact that it is the same here!! :D I work in the Nation's Capital - both languages are spoken fluently. But like you, one francophone in the meeting, and the meeting is spoken in French. One anglophone in a French meeting, and it is conducted in French. ha ha ha Oh yea, there are bilingual signs all over the country, except in Quebec where signage is only in French (the English is so small that you would need a magnifying glass to read it!). Just to top it off -- there is the Language Police. Yes -- a police force that walks around in Quebec ensuring that your signs are in French/English and never just English (but, hey, only French is acceptable). Go figure. And, yes, you are correct -- language is very much influenced and a facet of culture. You cannot have one without the other.

      Loved your article! I'll be laughing all night long... finally, another who understands!


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