English in an international student organization – by Simone Roth


For my project, I was interested in the language practices of an international student organization, based at a university in the Swiss German-speaking part of Switzerland. The organization creates events for exchange students to get to know each other and explore Switzerland and the city the university is located in.

Of the 25 members who organize the events for the exchange students, 11 are local students with Swiss-German as their first language and the other half of the team is made up of internationals working long term or in internships, or who are doing their Ph.D. or masters at the university. Among them are speakers of Italian, Spanish, French and Standard German as their first language. The organization’s official language however is English. When looking at their official communication channels such as social media pages and their informal communication channels on telegram, all the information and communication is presented in English.

However, the organization’s spoken language practices differ from their written ones. For this project, I am specifically interested in the team meetings, which take place every two weeks. There. only the team (without the exchange students) meets and discusses organizational topics. To analyse the spoken language practices, I recorded and observed one of their meetings. At this specific meeting four members were present, three of which speak Swiss German as their first language and one French speaker. During the observation I noted down moments, where the participants switched from English to Swiss-German. The first half of the meeting was spent organizing the inventory, which was newly created. For that task, three team members counted and named the objects the organization owns (such as cutlery, pens, sticker, flags for example) and the other team member noted them down. The whole interaction took place in a rather unstructured and informal way.

During this task, the three Swiss German-speaking team members often inserted single sentences or words in Swiss German while speaking English. Even more so, when the French-speaking team member left the room to place things in the inventory-locker, they almost exclusively spoke Swiss German with one another and switched back to English when the French-speaking team member entered again. Swiss German was also used jokingly. For example, when the team was unsure about how many pens there were in an unopened box, Emil shook the box saying “eeh locker fufzig” (easily fifty) in an exaggerated way in his Swiss German dialect and the others laughed.

The official part of the meeting was much more structured and Swiss German was used less, mainly when a Swiss German-speaking member of the team did not understand what was said or when clarifying something between two Swiss German speaking people. In the given examples, the names of the team members were changed and the translation of the parts in Swiss German is given in brackets:

Gertrud: In the meeting protocol of today?
Ingrid: sorry?
Getrud: aso ins hötige meeting protocol, oder? (so into the meeting protocol of today, right?)
Ingrid: yeah

However, when Ingrid and Emil, who are both Swiss-German-speaking, were disagreeing with each other, Swiss-German was used to make an argument stronger:

Ingrid: ähm but I would think in general it makes sense to just have split the entire budget into the six cause because maybe yes you have, I mean you couldn’t. It doesn’t have to be exactly one sixth for each you know but you can say because it is employability we do a little bit less, we have a lot of sports events so we do a little bit more health and wellbeing
Emil: I just think ähm it’s just if someone does any event, we are happy that there is an event you know so, in German I would say mer send froh wenn öberhaupt öper ergend en event macht
Ingrid: jojo ich weiss was du meinsch (yesyes I know what you mean)
Emil: so and if we just can have a look that every cause is kind of abgedeckt (covered). It is really hard to say in advance you know and also many events can also be several things it’s not really, it’s a bit äh (laughing) spongy, schwammig (spongy) to exactly say which cause it is

Here, Emil struggles to state his case in English and chooses to explain his point also in Swiss German, to make sure Gertrud understands him correctly. Gertrud answers in Swiss German to say that she understood what he meant. Neither they nor the third present Swiss German team member translate the Swiss German parts for Margot. This might be because the conversation and the argument are taking place between Gertrud and Emil exclusively. However, it makes it difficult for Margot to enter the discussion at all since she does not understand every part of it. The other team members do not acknowledge this at all, which could be a way to invite her into the conversation.

            The examples show that, even though the official language of the student organization and its written language practice is English, Swiss German still plays an important role in the team’s spoken language practices in meetings, for example through humour or when disagreements or misunderstandings between two Swiss German speakers occur. This could result in a disadvantage for the non-Swiss-German-speakers, since they might not be able to follow all the arguments being made and become excluded from the discussion. However, it is important to point out that the majority (75%) of the team members present during the meeting I analysed was Swiss German speaking. The meeting dynamics might be different with more people present and/or a more diverse group when it comes to the languages they speak and understand. It would be interesting to analyse a meeting where more team members and a more diverse language group is present.

by Simone Roth