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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

From ‘natel’ to ‘ça joue’: The Swiss French words which help you sound like a local

From “schmolitz” to “panosse”, some words and phrases common in the French-speaking part of Switzerland are different from their equivalents used in France. Here is the vernacular you should master if you live in Suisse Romandie.

From 'natel' to 'ça joue': The Swiss French words which help you sound like a local
No, the chalet is not crazy. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Each of Switzerland’s main languages – German, French and Italian – are shared with a larger and more influential neighbour. 

These three languages – when added to the unique Romansh language – makes for a diverse linguistic spectrum. 

It might come as a relief to foreigners living in one of the French-speaking cantons that differences between the Swiss version of the language and the one spoken in France is much smaller than the difference between standard German and Schwyzerdütch.

Except for some specific words and expressions, people in France understand their counterparts in Romandie much easier than is the case between Germans and Swiss-Germans.

READ MORE: ‘Just so fun to say’: Are these the best Swiss-German words to learn?

The Local recently asked its readers what are the most important Swiss-French words to know.

Which parts of Switzerland speak French?

Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

From the answers we received, several respondents mentioned the numbers. 

As anyone who has tried to learn French will tell you, the numbering system is particularly difficult – especially when you get in the double figures. 

The Swiss French numbering system is different to that of original French, with Swiss French using the words septante (seventy), huitante (eighty) and nonante (ninety). 

The Romands decided to simplify these words from their original French versions: soixante-dix, quatre-vingt, and quatre-vingt-dix, which literally translate to ‘sixty-ten’, ‘four twenties’ and ‘four twenties-ten’. 

However, regional differences are also at play here: Geneva uses the French version of these numbers, possibly because of its close proximity to France.

Some readers also mentioned the expression “ça joue”. Literally translated it means “it plays”, but in the Suisse Romande it means “yes, it’s alright”.

Other words and expressions mentioned in the reader survey were: “carnotzet” (a small bar), “bonap” (Bon appétit – enjoy your meal), “si jamais”, (if ever), vélo (bicycle), “ouais” (slangy oui – yes), and “tout de bon” (all the best).

READ MORE: Have your say: What are the most important Swiss French words to know?

Suisse-Romande versus France

Aside from the numbers mentioned above, some words and phrases used in this part of Switzerland are uniquely “Romand” and if you use them in France, chances are you will be met with a quizzical look.

Natel: Mobile phone (“téléphone mobile”)

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Panosse: A wet broom (“serpillière in France)

Y a pas le feu au lac: Literally, this means “there’s no fire in the lake”. But what it actually means “there is no rush, no urgency.

Faire schmolitz : Wine drinking ritual in which two people decide to befriend each other by passing from the formal “vous” form to the more casual “tu”.

Schmoltz! Photo by Monstera from Pexel

Etre déçu en bien: Be pleasantly surprised (être agréablement surpris in France)

Ça va, le chalet?: Are you crazy ? (ça va pas la tête ?)

Tchô bonne: Have a good day /evening (bonne journée /soirée)

Lolette: a pacifier for babies (tétine in France)

Quart d’heure vaudois: This means a slight delay, not only in Vaud but in other Romand cantons as well (être en retard” in France). Please note that a similar expression doesn’t exist in the German-speaking cantons, and for a good reason: Swiss-Germans are rarely late.

‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

Tenir les pouces: Just like in Anglo countries, crossing fingers brings good luck in Suisse Romande. But in France, you’d have to “croiser les doigts”.

Tenir les pouces: universal sign of good luck. Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Lost in translation?

If you are not totally familiar with the intricacies of the French language, keep in mind that these expressions have a different meaning in French than in English. Or, they may not mean what you think they might:

Préservatifs: No, these are not artificial food additives (“conservateurs”), but condoms. The latter is commonly found in food, the former usually isn’t.

Hors-ligne: This is often seen on buses in the Suisse Romandie. This doesn’t mean the bus is transporting horses; it does mean it is not in service.

Voilà, there you have it: some typical expressions you are bound to hear in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Tchô bonne! 

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READER INSIGHTS

‘My son finished without life skills’: Are Swiss international schools worth the fees?

Many international families are drawn to live and work in Switzerland and many put their children in international schools. Parents and former pupils give their views on whether the huge school fees are worth it.

'My son finished without life skills': Are Swiss international schools worth the fees?

Switzerland has a high proportion of international schools for its size: roughly 100 different schools, spread across 10 cities teaching the International Baccalaureate and IGCSE, among others. 

Zurich, Geneva and Basel have the largest concentration of these schools, although international schools can also be found in cities such as Basel, Lausanne and Montreux. 

International Schools: well-resourced & good life preparation

Respondents to the Local identified some clear benefits in sending children to an international school.

Many thought that international schools provided excellent preparation for college and careers.  

Giles Hopley, 44, a Briton who lives across the border in France, but sends his children to school in Geneva stated: “My daughters study the International Baccalaureate which was a very demanding program but provides a great preparation for university studies.”

Isabelle, originally from Singapore replied: “Yes (to international schools) if your child wants to study outside Switzerland for higher education later on.”

Julian, who lives in Geneva told The Local, regarding international schooling: “It provided an excellent all-round education and a network of friends and contacts that is still important to me today and more relevant than my university or business school.”

The other key benefit of international schools that the reader highlighted was the ability to cater to students with special needs. 

An American living in Schwyz responded: “My child has learning differences and the public schools in our area do not have the resources to provide necessary accommodations.”

Isabelle Leong, who was previously quoted, added: “(It’s a good idea) if your child needs additional or specialised support.”

An anonymous respondent summarised the benefits succinctly when they stated: “The advantages are more opportunities for social activities, sport and interactions with other international families.”

Patrick Lamphere, an American, said that the scarcity of information about local schools in English was the deciding factor in sending his children to an international school: “We opted for private schools because it was impossible to find official information on the Zurich public schools in English, and what the programs were available for German Learners.”

Another anonymous respondent answered: “We chose an international school as we did not want our children doing the Swiss curriculum, which involved testing kids at 12 or 13 years old.”

READ MORE: Swiss school or international school: Which is best for foreign parents?

Language, work culture and low cost: the case for local schools

Other respondents to the survey felt that local schools offered an education equal to, if not better than that provided by an international school. 

Katherine Amman, an American replied: “Children from state schools are introduced into the work culture early.”

Giles agreed: “I have colleagues who speak well of the Swiss state system I understand state teachers are quite well paid in Switzerland. This must create a better, more motivated school environment.”

As did Isabelle: “Local schools are great for kids to pick up German, to make friends with other kids who live in the same village and are low cost.”

Others highlighted the disadvantages of sending children to an international school.

Victor Bullain, an American noted: “International schools can lead to slower integration with local kids.”

Katherine Amman was straight to the point: “It was very expensive and my son finished without any life skills.”

What is your impression of international schools in Switzerland? Did you send your children to one? Was it worth it? Let us know in the comments section below.

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