Surviving in St.Gallen without speaking German

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…!


German language schools

As long as you aren’t relying on German skills to get a job, then it is very easy to survive in St. Gallen without good German. However if you want to do more than just survive and are maybe looking to stay longterm then you should probably consider a language school.

There are to my knowledge 5 language schools offering adult courses and I have personally studied at 4 of them and know plenty about the 5th – unfortunately the 5th (AIDA) was only for women…. I have added in example costs for guidance only, so check their websites for up to date info

Klubschule Migros
Located in the Hauptbahnhof building, the Kluschule has probably the most reliable set of teachers and courses. This was the first place I went and didn’t appreciate the value of well trained and stable teachers until I tried a few other places and ended up coming full circle to Migros.
Cost: CHF 1000 for intensive 20 day course (60 hrs)

Only a couple of minutes walk from the train station and fairly good reputation. They have a number of good teachers but the turnover is higher than Migros and atmosphere wasn’t very conducive to non-German speakers – ironic for somewhere teaching German!
Cost: CHF 1400 for intensive 20 day course (100 hrs)

Not a bad choice, but a little off the beaten track. The school is near St.Fiden train station close to numbers 9 and 3 buses not not close enough to any to be convenient. Felt like there were too many people on government benefits studying there so motivation levels weren’t so high.
Cost: CHF 1680 for semi-intensive 10 week course (112 hrs)

Again a good location, a couple of minutes from the main station. InLingua has gone through a number of changes including of ownership and has had a high turnover in teaching staff. Ironically, I thought the teaching material was the best of the schools I went to and I had a good teacher at the beginning. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t stable and reliable. Since I went, there has been another change of ownership and the website certainly looks nicer….
Cost: CHF 1580 for intensive 6 week course (90 hours)

This school is a few minutes from the city centre near the main UBS and Credit Suisse and is exclusively for women.  It actually has a really good reputation for the education and price, but I just couldn’t get in ;-), so I am taking someone else’s word on its quality! Classes are specifically organised to fit around school times and school holidays.
Cost: CHF 990 for 1 semester, Aug to Jan (roughly 20 weeks) 2 hrs per day,days a week (120 hrs)

Private Teachers
If you are interested in having private individual lessons, most schools offer individual lessons for about CHF 80-100/hr.  If you find a qualified teacher independent of a school then the going rate is from about CHF 60-90 per hour. I’m not going to recommend anyone in particular though as it is an individual choice and depends on who you feel comfortable with.

Good luck with your studies!