Enfuvirtide – Engystol – English / “We get […] sometimes even ten customers a day” – by Stephanie Naujoks

English in the pharmacy in Basel

Have you ever wondered how present English is in pharmacies around you? How is it perceived and how often is it used in a country with four national languages? I interviewed six workers about this. Working in two different pharmacies in two different locations, the only thing that unites them: their work in Basel pharmacies.

Through my interviews, I wanted to get a grasp of how English is used in this place of work and what strategies the workers use if they can’t speak English all that well. The first pharmacy I visited is located outside of the city centre, in a residential area. To avoid confusion between the pharmacies, I will be referring to this one as RA (“residential area”). The second pharmacy I visited is located directly in the city centre. I will refer to this one as CA (“central area”). Four of the workers work in RA, the other two in CA. To get an idea of how much they all interacted with customers, I asked whether they spent more time working directly with the customers or working in the back. All six of them mentioned their work being split pretty evenly. When asked how they felt about their English proficiency, most stated that they rated their English to be bad to decent. Their main problem areas were that they felt like they were able to understand most of the English but could not speak it well enough themselves. A lot of them also expressed that they didn’t feel confident enough either. Most of that insecurity seems to stem from the fact that most of their English education was in school which they finished long ago. Because of this, they struggled with remembering vocabulary.

To assess whether they used English regularly in their work context, I asked how often they had English speaking customers. The workers from the central pharmacy noted that they had English speaking customers on a daily basis: “There’s a lot, we get for sure five, six, seven, eight, no, sometimes even ten customers a day that speak English.”

The workers themselves lead this back to their central position, noting that they get a lot of tourists coming in as well as English speaking office workers. One worker also mentioned the prominent position of expats in the city. In the RA pharmacy on the other hand, the workers observed much less English-speaking customers. Sometimes they would have several English-speaking customers, while sometimes they would have none. But they all said that there was an increase, while the workers of the CA pharmacy stated that their number of English-speaking customers was relatively stable at a high level. When asked about how they deal with such customers, many said that they would try to communicate with them at first and if they could not, then they would reach out for help from someone more proficient. One worker mentioned that she could handle simple interactions where she did not have to talk too much. If the interaction required i.e., giving advice, however, she would rely on someone else with more vocabulary.

I was curious to see whether it made a difference to them if the customer had English as a (perceived) first language or second language and with which they had an easier time communicating. This specific question got a lot of interesting answers. Most of them mentioned the difference between the two to be rooted in the customer’s accent and speed. On the question with which they could easier communicate, they were split between first and second language. One of the workers had noted that she found it easier to understand American English and led that back to her time in the US as a child. On the other hand, another mentioned that she felt less restraint when talking to a customer with English as a second language if they were not that proficient either.

Lastly, I was also wondering how English was perceived at the workplace outside of customer interaction, which all noted to be the only instance they used English. I was especially curious if English was especially valued in this line of work? When I asked them, they mentioned that it was more about all the possible languages, not specifically English. The pharmacist I interviewed, who is the employer of some of the interviewees, mentioned they were looking to represent all the languages a little, not just focused on English. Two of the workers also said that they felt it was very dependent on the location of the pharmacy: “Well, I think it always depends on the location of the pharmacy, I would argue. Because I think [in the city centre] it’s surely an advantage if you know English, because you got a lot of English customers. [The employer] also said, when I applied, that it would be good if I knew English, because there are just a lot of English customers.”

At the same time, they mentioned that English did not play much importance in their hiring or that they could balance it out with other languages, namely French. Except for one worker, they all expressed very positive attitudes towards the language, sometimes even expressing regret of not being able to speak better English. The same people also expressed almost enthusiastic willingness to take language classes to improve their English. 

To conclude, English is ever present in pharmacies in and around Basel, especially in more central locations. Even in the less central locations, it seems English is becoming more prominent. It is also important to note that it does not take a dominant position over other second languages.

All interview excerpts were translated from Swiss German.

By Stephanie Naujoks