From the beginning of our conversation, Anna and I agreed that the Swiss are reserved, not very open, and not too emotional. Of course, they are very polite and friendly, but finding friends or good acquaintances is quite challenging. Even foreigners who have lived in Switzerland for years have mentioned this. Locals are reluctant to include others in their close circle of communication, which must be considered when trying to socialize.
To avoid feeling isolated, it's worth paying attention to expat communities, which are quite numerous in Switzerland. These are open, multilingual, and multicultural platforms where joining can expand one's social circle, help find friends, and learn many interesting things about Switzerland and other countries around the world.
Learning the language as the foundation for socialization
To integrate into the local community, knowing the language of the country you reside in is essential. It's crucial for communication, employment, and overall successful integration. Therefore, language proficiency is always a top priority for immigrants. Anna shared her experience of learning German, including the internal resistance she faced and how she gradually overcame it.
"I learned German both in school and at university, but I never used it in practice. I had some foundation, but it wasn't conversational. So, when I came to Switzerland, I started taking German courses that didn't last long, as they were conducted voluntarily. Then I tried to study the language independently but couldn't keep the discipline. Now, I have individual lessons with a teacher from Ukraine. I want to reach fluent communication; otherwise, I can't manage. However, I work and can't find time to attend classes, so my path is individual lessons. In this case, I have the flexibility to choose when to study. Of course, learning the language becomes much easier when you are surrounded by it in everyday life. Everything accelerates when you hear the language in shops, on TV, or in public transport. I try to speak German in stores, even though I want to switch to English, but I force myself not to do that. I must admit I had quite a resistance to learning German. Everything irritated me. But at some point, I realized that what irritated me was that I didn't understand anything. When I wanted to express something in the words I wanted and at the pace I wanted, I couldn't do it because of my limited vocabulary and knowledge. That's when I realized I didn't want to learn the language; I just wanted to know it. However, learning a language is hard work. And any task requires time and patience."
Advice for those aspiring to master a language:
- Realize that learning a language requires effort, and you must dedicate considerable time to it.
- Give yourself time for reflection and acceptance.
- Choose a pace and learning format that suits you best.
- Take small steps if you don't have the energy for big ones, but always move towards your goal.
"When I started taking lessons with a teacher," says Anna, "it was just one lesson per week. It was very little, but it was my small initial step. Even now, I have only one lesson per week, and I know that when I feel more settled, I will increase it to two lessons, not to overwhelm myself. This is a normal gradual process. I understand that I must get used to the fact that German exists, it needs to be learned, and I can't avoid it. But still, I believe that to feel noticeable progress and to be able to praise myself for something, I need to study the language every day."
"I must also admit that, from the beginning, I didn't pay enough attention to learning French. I work in English, and all my acquaintances are either Ukrainians or foreigners who communicate in English. Therefore, I didn't have an urgent need to learn French. For a while now, I've only had a basic level of language proficiency. I never fully mastered it on a professional level. I can communicate at a fundamental level in shops, markets, administrative or municipal offices, but I need more than that for work. And I deeply regret that at the beginning, when I could have studied intensively, I didn't do it."
"Now I understand that I need to dedicate one to two hours daily to language learning, at a minimum. The formula that works effectively for me is: spend the same amount of time studying extra as you do during courses or with a teacher."
English as an alternative
Many Ukrainians in Switzerland choose to learn English. This might be a little farsighted for integration into local environments, but it does make sense. English can be helpful in many countries and even back home in Ukraine. Moreover, one can find work in Switzerland even with minimal English proficiency. This option can be a good compromise solution. However, of course, it's pretty individual, and each person has to choose.
How to Socialize Without Knowing the Language
It is possible to socialize even without a high level of knowledge of the local language in Switzerland. Finding a job is feasible without full proficiency in the language, although it may not be an office job but something more straightforward. Nonetheless, taking advantage of such opportunities can accelerate socialization and language learning, as being part of a workplace community motivates a person to communicate, understand colleagues and thus provides more incentives and opportunities to learn the language.
Regarding socialization, a lot depends on a person's traits. It's possible to have a basic level of English, not know the local language at all, but still successfully establish communication with locals. This depends on one's confidence and desire to connect.
Additionally, many activities, such as hobbies or sports, do not require language knowledge. This is one of the vital characteristics in Swiss people - they like to involved in various activities. There are many sports associations and interest groups. Participating in group sports like football, volleyball, or activities like trekking or hiking can help a person enter new social circles and make connections, even if they can only exchange a few simple phrases with others.
Joining interest-based clubs allows people to bond much faster.
It is equally important not to lose touch with fellow Ukrainians. Finding local Ukrainian organizations or associations helps to stay connected with the community, avoid isolation, and find emotionally and psychologically closer people than residents. It also helps to maintain ties with one's home country. For example, in French-speaking Switzerland, there is the organization "Ukraine Reborn," with which I actively collaborate.
Dealing with Pressure
Many people in another country do not know what to do, whom to turn to, or where to go. At this stage, it is essential not to pressure oneself or demand impossible things. Taking a little pause, calming down, slowing down, and giving oneself time to find answers is important.
We often do not allow ourselves to cope with new challenges naturally, but it is necessary to do so. It's crucial to treat oneself with understanding and listen to oneself. The most challenging part is to catch oneself in the moment to understand all those emotions. Our thoughts quickly take us elsewhere, and we might not even notice it.
Therefore, we must learn to "catch ourselves" in the moment, pause, feel, and ask ourselves questions. When completely puzzled, seeking help from a professional, like a coach or a psychologist, can be helpful. Nowadays, many coaching initiatives can assist. I invite anyone in need of advice to reach out to me.
Volunteering is another excellent way to socialize. Almost every place has organizations or associations that assist immigrants in various aspects of life. It's worth offering help there.
Firstly, it does not require language knowledge, at least not at the level we may not have yet. Secondly, it provides an opportunity to connect with Ukrainians, foreigners, and local volunteers. Thirdly, volunteering gives meaning to life because when we help others, we, in a way, help ourselves.
I hope our experience and advice with Anna will help Ukrainians who found themselves in other countries due to the war socialize faster and find their place.
For more on integration, read my first blog, which contains helpful advice and insights.