Should You Learn High German Before You Learn Swiss German?

Short answer: yes. I think so. It certainly helped me to learn Swiss German after I knew the basics of High German.

When it comes to learning Swiss German, many people wonder if they should learn High German first. I say, as someone who went through the whole Switzerland B1 permit residence process, absolutely yes.

Here are the reasons why:

  1. There are only so many resources available to learn Swiss German
    This means that you almost sort of have to learn High German first. Unless you have a Swiss partner or work in an environment where Swiss German is spoken.

    But then again, you probably don’t work in an environment where Swiss German is spoken if you speak don’t speak either Swiss and High German. So yeah, you should basically learn High German first.
  2. You need to know High German if you live in Switzerland anyways! Everything you get in the mail from the government in the German speaking part of Switzerland is written in High German. Almost everything printed and displayed in Switzerland is in High German, therefore you have to learn High German at some point. The newspapers are all in High German. Every sign, you guessed it – High German.

    You might as well go the easier route and learn High German first. You can get by only knowing High German in Switzerland, but if you cannot read High German and somehow only speak and understand Swiss German, reading the High German that is everywhere could be difficult for you.
  3. You will likely have to learn High German if you are a non-EU citizen to remain in Switzerland
    If you are a non-EU citizen like I am then you will have to learn High German to stay in Switzerland if you are the spouse. As of 2019 the spouses of the primary permit holders have to learn German (in Zurich Kanton it is level A1 mündliche/spoken).

    These tests are all in High German — the writing, reading, listening and speaking. The TELC is a High German test. Your results are sent to some town in Germany. They are NOT IN SWISS GERMAN at all. The people administering the tests may be Swiss citizens (I am not sure about this; maybe they were German for me), but they speak High German only in the tests (at least in my experience taking two different German tests, the FIDE and TELC).
  4. There are very few online teachers for Swiss German
    That means they will likely cost more per lesson than High German ones. My personal experience is that they do cost more. So learning High German will be cheaper than Swiss German.

    If you learn High German, you will be able to understand more TV and movies that speak High German. I don’t think there is a single movie spoken in Swiss German that is popular outside of Switzerland but there are many High German movies that are. “Das Boot” and “Inglourious Basterds” anyone? Just kidding about that second one. Sort of.
  5. You can learn High German through reading which is basically impossible for Swiss German
    This opens up tons of resources that can be interesting. You can not learn Swiss German through reading, really at all. Reading can be a really fun way to learn.
  6. High German is transportable and economically valuable. Swiss German is less so.
    Say you live in Switzerland for five years and then move elsewhere. If you only learn Swiss German and you go to speak Swiss German with some German speakers you meet in Thailand or somewhere, they will likely not understand you.

    But if you know High German, you can use those language skills all over Germany and Austria in addition to Switzerland. So the language likely has a much higher economic value than just Swiss German.
  7. The Swiss permanent residence and citizenship language requirements are in High German (or another national language)
    If you end up staying in Switzerland “forever”, then when you go to get citizenship in a million years, guess what language the test will be in. High German.

    Read about this here (this link is going to go bad in a year or two; I would really appreciate it if you email me about it if it is). This is because High German is (weirdly), a national language, and you must be able to speak a national language to gain Swiss citizenship.
Famous Zermatt village with the peak of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps

Once you know High German, it becomes much easier to begin to learn Swiss German. You can start listening to YouTube videos, which will help you to be able to understand Swiss German, since it is the primary language spoken in the German speaking region of Switzerland. Most Swiss German videos do not have English subtitles so you can only listen to them.  

Once you know some High German, it will be much easier and more fulfilling to listen to only Swiss German because you will actually understand some of what they are saying. Trust me it is very frustrating to listen to a Swiss German video and not understand anything! Once you make a breakthrough and recognize a new Swiss German word, it will be very pleasing. At least it is for me!

What Level Should You Be in High German before starting to Learn Swiss German?

In my opinion, when you know the basics of High German, so something like A1-A2, I think you can go ahead and start learning Swiss German. This is because if you don’t know the basics of High German, you will literally understand nothing of Swiss German.

When you actually understand what people are saying in Swiss German (because almost nothing is written in Swiss German so it is primarily a listening exercise), it is only then that you are even learning anything at all. If you can’t match the High German words to the same ones in Swiss German, you are learning and understanding nothing – you are making zero progress (and it frankly is not super fun). For me, it took 9-12 months of learning High German.

I was level A2 reading/writing/speaking and A1 listening (because listening is my worst skill always, for some reason) when I took the TELC and FIDE exams. After taking these High German tests and passing them I could relax a bit and have more fun  learning Swiss German.

You Should Practice Listening to Swiss German more than Speaking

Because people can understand High German and you can only hear Swiss German (since it is not a written language), it makes sense to basically only practice listening to Swiss German before you try to speak it, in my opinion.

Then once you have listened to tons of Swiss German, you will just automatically be able to speak some, since your brain will have acquired it, like we do as babies (though slower unfortunately). Then you can impress your spouse and Swiss friends when you toss out a Swiss word or two.

Autumn cityscape of Zurich, Switzerland

One More Tip

I stumbled upon a Swiss German podcast one time. I could understand way more of what the woman was saying than for Zürcher dialect. It is Basel dialect, which is different than the Zurich one. But it’s still way more similar to the Zürcher dialect of Swiss German than High German or any other language.

This is just my experience as an American English native speaker – that I could understand this women much more. I do not know why this is (maybe because she speaks slower or that all speakers of the dialect speak slower?). But you could start listening to her podcast first when you begin to learn Swiss German. Again, no idea why but listening to her definitely helped me to break into Swiss German.

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