The Coronavirus pandemic – An opportunity to improve your German skills

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The entrepreneur Charles Quensel knows the economic landscape of northwestern Switzerland like the back of his hand. After a steep career at Nestlé, Novartis and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, he was active as a headhunter and filled vacancies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland with the best minds in the world. In the interview with EasyDeutsch Basel, he explains how important German skills are in the job market and why it makes sense to invest in an improvement of your German skills, especially in the current Coronavirus pandemic.

EasyDeutsch Basel: Mr. Quensel, let’s assume that I have a job in the pharmaceutical industry that doesn’t require any German skills and that I’m completely fine without speaking or understanding a single word of German. Why should I bother learning German?

Charles Quensel: There is no straightforward answer to this question. If you are in the middle of climbing the Charles Quensel: There is no straightforward answer to this question. If you are in the middle of climbing the career ladder in a large corporation, Switzerland will probably remain just one of many stations on your career path. If you know that you will leave Switzerland in just a few years, it is understandable that your motivation to learn German is low.

Charles Quensel

EasyDeutsch Basel: What if I know that I actually want to stay in Switzerland?

Charles Quensel: If you have a family and a house in Switzerland and see your future here, things may look different. For people with kids who go to local schools and with swiss friends and neighbours, life without any German skills will be difficult. Throughout my career at Novartis I’ve had several expat colleagues. Some had been in Switzerland for more than a decade and still didn’t speak or understand a single word of German. It’s not surprising that the professional relationship between such expats and some local colleagues became burdened over time. That’s a situation that I myself wouldn’t want to be in. Such examples show that professionally it’s possible to get by in Switzerland without any German skills. But you won’t be able to make friends with such an attitude. I like to think of the Swiss as open-minded people. Still – when it comes to such cases, you start to wonder at some point why or even if such people really want to stay in Switzerland.  

I have to stress that I have also experienced the complete opposite. A few years ago, a woman who didn’t speak any German moved into my neighbourhood. The first thing she took care of was learning German. Just a few weeks later she was already able to converse in German with me. Today she’s fluent in German and is socially active in our neighbourhood. If you want to blend in  in Switzerland, you must leave your isolated expat bubble. Knowing the language is essential. 

EasyDeutsch Basel: The case you’re describing is impressive. Still – it’s probably an exception rather than a rule that people don’t speak German after so many years in Switzerland?

Charles Quensel: According to my experience, sufficient German skills are a must in areas like marketing or sales. I’ve seen many applications from people whose German skills were closer to A2 than the B2 companies are usually looking for. 

EasyDeutsch Basel: In Switzerland, networking is considered crucial for finding a job – even more so than in most other countries. How important are sufficient German skills in your experience when it comes to networking?

That’s true. Especially in highly specialised industries it’s crucial to have a good network. Whether it’s for your personal or your professional network: Investing in good German skills makes sense, especially in a country like Switzerland. In the US it’s very easy to socialise and establish contacts to people. But they often stay very superficial and it’s difficult to become close friends with someone. In Switzerland it’s the exact opposite. It’s difficult to make the Swiss trust you – but once they do, the relation is usually very close and survives even major shocks. Good German skills are crucial in this process as they send a signal: “I’m open-minded, I want to be able to communicate with you, you’re important to me”.

EasyDeutsch Basel: Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we’re in the middle of the biggest economic crisis since several decades. Many people are in short time work, afraid of losing their job or have even lost it already. Does it make sense to invest in better German skills in this situation?

Absolutely! People who learn German send a clear signal that they are willing to make an effort and that they want to blend in. This attitude helps a lot. Learning foreign languages is something that I’d recommend in general. Knowing foreign languages broadens your horizon and opens up many possibilities – in networking, in private life or even just for your hobby. Learning foreign languages is crucial.

As you see, investing in German skills makes sense, especially in the current crisis.

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