Four years ago, when I made my first trip to Switzerland to visit my new-found cousins, I had good intentions to teach myself some German prior to the trip. I bought a book with an accompanying audio CD. Well, I went through the first lesson and never opened the book again. I told myself that the Swiss dialect was quite different from textbook German, and that most of my Swiss cousins were fluent in English anyway.
I did pick up a few words here and there while I was in Switzerland. On the few occasions when I was on my own and I needed to communicate with someone who spoke no English, I somehow managed to make myself understood in broken German.
On my first morning in Othmarsingen, the little town where my great grandmother was born, I set off to explore the town without my cousin Werner in tow. I went to the village church where my great grandmother was baptized. I wanted to ask if the church was open. In the churchyard there was an elderly lady who did not speak English. I knew that "church" was "Kirche", and somewhere I had picked up that "open" was "offen". So I said "Kirche... offen?", and she smiled and replied, "Ja". "Danke," I said.
After visiting the church, I went to a small restaurant for breakfast. (I had to go there, because it bore the same family name as my great grandmother!) In this little, non-tourist town there was no English menu, and my waitress spoke only a smattering of English. I managed to order a meal. I still remember that "orange juice" is "Orangensaft". While I was eating, there was a gentleman seated at a nearby table who kept looking my way with curiosity. I later found out that he was another cousin of mine, Werner's brother... one of the few cousins who doesn't speak much English.
One day I took the train on my own to Zurich, which is only a half hour away. I stopped at a stand on the street to have some lunch. Looking at the German menu I was able to order a sausage, some potato salad and a soft drink. I still remember that "potato salad" is "Kartoffelsalat". (Zurich is an extremely expensive city, and that little lunch cost the equivalent of $30!)
I will be returning to Switzerland this summer, and I will be surrounded by my mostly English-speaking relatives. Nevertheless, I decided that this time I should have a bit more German under my belt. I found a free website called "Duolingo", and for the last couple days I have been spending some time there trying to pick up some German. It seems to be more interesting and fun than the book I bought some years ago. I already have learned a few more useful expressions. A native speaker pronounces the phrases, and I try to imitate the sounds. I am sure that my pronunciation is atrocious, but if I am able to make myself understood, that is all that matters. After finishing a few lessons, "Duolingo" tells me that I am 4% fluent in German. Ha! That's being extremely generous!
From Switzerland, I will be traveling to Norway, where one of my Swiss cousins currently lives. I could also try to learn some Norwegian on "Duolingo", but I fear that I would end up mixing the two languages. From what I read, virtually everyone in Norway is quite fluent in English, so I think that I will simply learn a couple phrases, like "Hello" and "Thank you".