GW Expat: Junior gets a taste of the multilingual lifestyle

This had to have been the most awkward experience in my life. After about a week of orientation, my fellow classmates and I gathered at a hotel in Nyon, Switzerland (20 minutes outside Geneva) where we would meet our homestay families for the first time.

The reception room was spacious and boasted tables of drinks and refreshments. The wine and cookies however were left untouched as I, and 25 other frightened students, clung to the walls nervously awaiting the strangers we were to refer to as “mom.”

This was worse than any gym class nightmare. The trick was naturally not to be picked last even though we had of course been pre-assigned to families, but pride was still up for grabs. To make things more complicated however, it was also important not to be picked first so as not to leave the safety of the group too soon.

Time passed and more and more families came and left. The dominating fear that my host family had actually forgotten about me began to settle in and melt away all other superficial concerns.

Just as I was about to acknowledge the fact that my worst fear was currently being realized, my host mother and sister rushed in. My mother apologized for being late and explained that she had just flown in from Colombia the night before and was therefore busy running errands.

Overcome with relief simply that my family was now present, I was able to regain a rational state of mind and engage in conversation, starting with “What were you doing in Colombia?” My host mother explained that she was born and raised in Colombia but had been living in Switzerland, save for a brief stint in Miami, for the past 20 years.

As soon as we arrived home, my host mom had the family and I gather around the computer so that she could show me photos of the recent trip. I proceeded to learn more about South America that day than Switzerland.

Additionally, I was now realizing that not only did my host mother speak French and English, she also spoke Spanish, Italian and had aspirations to learn Arabic. Her four children – ages 16, 18, 22, and 25 – also speak four languages and are learning German.

Luckily, my mother’s Italian boyfriend was staying for the week and he too was still learning French. He still had me beat, however as that was his third language. At least at dinner I had someone to laugh with as we desperately tried to keep up with the lightning speed of French teenage conversation.

At the end of the day the sad fact remained that only their cat speaks fewer languages than I and this is only speculation.

I have discovered however that being multilingual in Switzerland is not uncommon. When I went out for lunch with my host brother his friends asked me in which language I prefer they speak. This struck me as not only an extremely polite question to ask but an enviable one as well.

Most university students in the United States study only one other language in school. Becoming bilingual is often a sign of a high level of education, but in Switzerland it is the norm.

Due simply to its location, Switzerland is influenced by its neighbors on all sides and is home to four national languages including German, French, Italian and Romansh. The country prides itself in its policy of neutrality and maintains itself as a worldwide negotiating table.

Yet all is peaceful in this neutral state. Recently the Union D?mocratique du Centre (UDC), a popular political party of Switzerland, launched an anti-immigration initiative. The disturbing posters call for stronger immigration reforms in the interest of national security. Interesting, I thought I had left that behind.

In Geneva, upward of 40 percent of residents are foreigners, with 22 percent overall in the country. My host mother explained that some Swiss citizens fear that immigrants are coming to take advantage of the high wages and job opportunities, depriving the Swiss of what belongs to them.

I found this of course illogical, as I have yet to meet a typical Swiss therefore defying the notion of “us” versus “them.” Part of what I love about my family and the country as a whole is its international integration and awareness. Here there is a great respect for diplomacy, research, human rights and languages. Which is why I believe the UDC initiative will surely fail.

Until then, I will continue to live in my Latin villa in the Alps. Perhaps if I am lucky, I will return home with more languages than anticipated and then be able to call myself truly Swiss.

The writer is a junior majoring in international affairs.

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