“Bitte senden Ameisen Mörder” – “Please send an exterminator over” – by Aisha Giger


Asking Swiss employees about their English use and the challenges they face

A city like Basel, which is located right next to the Dreiländereck and houses two of the biggest pharma companies worldwide, attracts people from various cultural but also linguistic backgrounds. The employees of a small property management company at the boarder to the city would very much agree with this statement. Working with a lot of people who move to Basel for work and are looking for an apartment also means that communication can sometimes be challenging, especially if a client does not speak one of the national languages. When meeting people who speak another language, people often make use of English as a common language to communicate (lingua franca).

For this research project, I asked the 15 employees of this company to answer some questions on their English use with a survey. I feel it is necessary to point out that this company is based near Basel and only manages apartments and houses within this region. Therefore, the service they provide is very local to this area. In my personal opinion, this makes these questions even more interesting as it is not an international company that already expects its employees to be able to speak English when hiring them. Out of the in total 15 employees, 10 participated in this survey. When asked to rate their English skills, the answers varied immensely. While some reported to be “almost fluent” one rated their skills as “practically non-existent” and commented that they use the online translator DeepL for all communication in English. Fake it till you make it is what they say!

All participants mentioned that they would love to improve their English skills further. However, most do not feel any pressure to do so for their job, which makes it a more personal desire. Having said that, the areas in which they wish to improve themselves is very much business related and focused on professional conversations with clients or work specific vocabulary. This led me to believe that English is generally seen as an important language to know in their line of work. What surprised me were the answers on how the participants perceived the importance of English in the workplace, which brought up a small generational conflict. The older employees in the company (>45) did not perceive English as important in their occupation, while all of the younger employees (<45) did. While talking to some participants about this, the idea was brought up that the perception of English use of older employees is based on their work experience in the past, in which English skills were not as necessary as they are today, and were rather seen as a bonus. However, all participants agreed that the need for English skills did actually increase over the last years. All younger employees even felt that people who do not speak English are at a disadvantage when looking at job opportunities, communicating with clients or even in terms of prestige among co-workers.

The employees of the company are split into four teams according to who works together the most, but they also have to interact with other teams, multiple times a day. Most reported to use English very rarely but at least once a week. This use is very much focused on communication with clients and not with co-workers. A clear majority actually said they never use English during in-office communication. This is not very surprising, considering that all employees speak German fluently and work in a local service business.

Due to Basel attracting so many people with different backgrounds, it is very common to use English as a lingua franca when neither speaks the others language. This is also reflected in the answers of the employees. Even though their most common reason for using English at work is to communicate with English speaking clients, many also reported using English as a lingua franca regularly. They do have to use English the most when showing an apartment or speaking to clients to prevent misunderstandings that could cause problems in the future, such as not knowing which responsibilities a tenant has or being unaware of local renting laws.

While all of this is not seen as a burden by the employees, they did make some comments on how it is really appreciated if a client tries to communicate in German, as most still feel more comfortable holding professional conversations in their first language. Sometimes it is simply easier to switch to English in such situations.

Consequently, English is clearly a key part of the property management profession, especially in a city like Basel. While this might not be surprising to some, it is still very impressive to see how different people view the role that English in a workplace holds. Nonetheless, as everyone who has ever worked a people-oriented job probably knows, sometimes even the best language skills will not prevent you from thinking: “Jesus Christ! I explained this to you five times already!”.

By Aisha Giger