I have been in St.Gallen for quite a few years now and have heard the following comments regularly:
“Its not possible to live in St.Gallen without German”
“Its not possible to find a job in Switzerland without German”
“Most Swiss people don’t speak English”
“Its really hard to fit in without speaking Swiss-German”
All of which are complete rubbish. The one thing all of these statements have in common are that I heard them exclusively from fluent or native German speakers who have never tried to get by without German and assume it can’t be done!
Firstly, I know many people who have found gainful employment with no more than basic German. There are a lot more opportunities like this down the hill in Zurich, but if you find something in St.Gallen, don’t worry about being isolated. I find that many people, especially those with higher education, will speak perfectly functional English. They normally voluntarily switch language when they hear how bad your German is!
Here are the key times when language has been an issue for me:
1. Secretaries and receptionists. Going to the doctors, dentists, schools etc. is normally fine for the actual appointment as the professionals always seem to speak excellent english. The trouble tends to be booking the appointment as the receptionists struggle with high German, let alone English. Best technique is to book appointments in person with a pen and paper ready. Or get some one to phone for you!
2. Tax Office. The officials in the tax office speak English fine, but they are not (or they said they weren’t) allowed to give out official advice in English. They were however totally happy for me to write to them in English and they answered in German. Happily I solved this with a very useful tax advisor who does everything for me now.
3. Work HR. Why is it that so many companies fail to employ an English speaker in their HR teams and yet want to employ international staff?! Your co-workers will get you round this minor issue.
4. The Hauswart. This is the person who sorts out all of your problems in the flat on behalf of the Landlord. This can be an issue, many don’t seem to speak English. Find a friendly neighbour who does and ask them to help. Or only rent an apartment if the Hauswart speaks English. Mine does 😉
Lastly, don’t ever worry about phoning emergency services. Speak slowly and clearly and they will understand and help. They speak English! As do many banks, the telecoms, the insurance companies etc. Basic rule though is, before you sign up, check that their helpline works in English. If it doesn’t, don’t sign!
Even the local kids speak English to me…!