Why you should learn Hochdeutsch first (and not Swiss German or Austrian German)

Hochdeutsch means ‘High German’. It is essentially a standard form of German. It is the official language of Germany, but is also understood in the German speaking areas of Switzerland and throughout Austria.

This post talks about why it may be more beneficial for you to learn Hochdeutsch first.

Why not learn Swiss German?

The situation with Swiss German is complicated. There is ‘Swiss German’ and ‘Standard Swiss German’.

Swiss German

  • Swiss German consists of many dialects. German speaking areas of Switzerland have many different dialects. People from one dialect can usually understand a person using another one. It depends to an extent on where in Switzerland the speaker comes from and the dialects they were exposed to when were growing up. In some dialects sounds exist which do not exist in others. If someone is not used to hearing another person’s dialect, the person often asks the others to repeat what they have just said. Despite this, most of the time they usually understand each other, even if the odd word is not understood.
  • Swiss Germans use Swiss German amongst themselves. However, people often switch to Hochdeutsch as soon as they know another speaker does not speak a dialect.
  • Most people in Germany or Austrian will not understand a Swiss dialect (depending on their upbringing). Accordingly, if you learn a Swiss dialect you are really limiting yourself to using the dialect with Swiss German speakers. Indeed, in business transactions as soon as you deal with someone from say Germany or Austria you would use Hochdeutsch.
  • By contrast you could learn Hochdeutsch and speak to people from Germany, the relevant parts of Switzerland and Austria without problem. In any event if you learn Hochdeutsch first, you should find it easier to learn a dialect if you decide to learn a dialect.

Standard Swiss German

  • Standard Swiss German is a variation of standard German. People usually write it, but do not speak it. You however will hear it on things like TV news reports.
  • There are several differences between ‘Standard Swiss German’ and Hochdeutsch, but the main difference is the vocabulary sometimes varies. In Standard Swiss German, for example ‘Billet’ means ticket (taken from French) whereas in Hochdeutsch you would say ‘Fahrschein’.  If you learn Hochdeutsch you would be able to pick up the differences after a while.

Regardless of the above, in the German speaking area of Switzerland people will often switch to Hochdeutsch as soon as a non-national does not speak a dialect.

You would not usually use any form of Swiss German outside of Switzerland. Most people from Germany and Austria would struggle to understand it (depending on their upbringing).

If you learn Hochdeutsch, the vast majority of German speaking Swiss nationals will understand you.

Why not learn Austrian German?

Austrian German again has dialects, which again Austrians may speak with each other to a certain extent. However, outside of Austria most people would struggle to understand an Austrian dialect (depending on their upbringing).

In Austria people widely use Standard Austrian German. Standard Austrian German is very similar to Hochdeutsch, but the main difference you would notice is the vocabulary sometimes varies (e.g. ‘Paradeiser’ = ‘Tomatoes’ in Standard Austrian German, but ‘Tomaten’ in Hochdeutsch). Pronunciation can also be slightly different.

Regardless of the above, you can use Hochdeutsch throughout Austria.

Summary

Both Switzerland and Austria have their own dialects, which most people are unlikely to understand outside of their national borders. If you learn a dialect you are to an extent limiting yourself to speaking to people from that country.

However, if you learn Hochdeutsch you can communicate throughout Germany, the relevant parts of Switzerland and throughout Austria. Hochdeutsch is essentially a standard form of German.

If, of course, you are planning on living in Switzerland or Austria for a number of years, you may wish eventually to learn the local dialect. However, Hochdeutsch is more useful overall for communicating to everyone from Germany, Austria and the relevant parts of Switzerland. Most people would find it more beneficial to learn Hochdeutsch first and then the local dialect.

Feel free to get in contact with me to discuss the above post or if you wish to learn Hochdeutsch with me. (For more information about my foreign language tuition sessions, please click here).