Learning a language means opening yourself up to a new way of seeing the world - raising curiosity, not judgement

The Power of Language

“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things,” wrote the famed 20th-century American journalist Flora Lewis. And it’s something that Katie Ditchfield, Class of 2019 (2005-19), took to heart during her time learning German at ZIS. “The practical use of the language really helped to motivate me to learn,” says Katie. “I swam for a local team for many years, and it was crucial for connecting with my teammates, and understanding what the coach wanted from me.”

Katie has just graduated from the University of Warwick with a degree in International Management, during which she opted to take German courses in addition. Having studied on the international track, she achieved higher level German for her IB Diploma, and during her degree had a placement year at KPMG in Cologne, working entirely in German. She has just begun a graduate role within commercial banking in London and hopes to continue using her German, professionally and for fun, in the future.

“At ZIS, all the teachers were so enthusiastic about German, which really helped,” she says. “I started at the school aged four, so I’ve been learning it all my life. Although the bank where I currently work doesn’t have a presence in Germany, the country is a huge hub for banking and business. I’m sure it will always be a useful language in that environment, and overall, speaking German has opened up so many opportunities.”

Talk to any parent considering a move abroad and they’ll tell you that the chance to immerse their children in another language is a major plus point. At ZIS, students at all levels – from complete beginners to fluent speakers – access a rigorous and effective German programme that ensures they can make good – and swift – progress.

“Language is more than just acquiring a new set of vocabulary and grammar structure,” says Claudia Monnet-Schleuter, Head of World Languages at the Secondary Campus. “Learning a language means opening yourself to a new way of seeing the world. When we’re able to perceive the world through more than just one lens, it makes us more open minded in our interactions with others – it raises our curiosity rather than our judgment.”

When we're able to perceive the world through more than just one lens, it makes us more open minded in our interactions with others

In the Lower School, German teaching begins in Preschool. Making learning German fun is always vital – but particularly for this age group. So games, personal projects and exciting stories are central to everything. Topics grow with the students – from talking about family in Grade 1 to discussing conflicts with friends in Grade 4. And, of course, there is an emphasis on using German in real-life situations.

“Local integration is a key goal for both the school and the German department,” says Elena Salassa, German lead. “So we have lots of field trips to places like local farms, or the Technische Hochschule, where we encourage the students to use their German. For example, during one of the field trips, it was great to see Sami in Grade 5 engaging with members of the local community when building an igloo with his friends. And when Mr Salierno, our local police officer, came to do traffic training, it was delightful to see how engaged two little Kindergarten children, Hanna and Elena, were, and how many questions they asked.


A staircase joke

Some words in German have no direct translation in English: here the term refers to coming up with the perfect response or comeback just too late, after the conversation has ended and you've moved on - you are already on the next step.

the Power of Language

“There are also many parents that are new to Switzerland who are learning German alongside their children. This comes in particularly handy for both sides when learning new vocabulary and practising challenging grammar topics. What is more fun for kids than correcting their parents?”

Philip de Wit (Grade 5) arrived at ZIS in September 2020 speaking only Dutch. He had two new languages to learn – English and German – from scratch. Three years into his German tuition, Philip has progressed from speaking no German at all to Level B. “The teachers have all really helped me,” he says. He is particularly enjoying being able to use his German in everyday life. “When I go to a sports camp or get groceries or go into town, I can speak German to people. I understand when people or children speak German to me and I feel I could ask for help if I need anything.”

He’s also keen to expand his language range and learn French and Spanish, too. “As few people speak Dutch outside the Netherlands, the importance of learning foreign languages was always clear to us,” says Camilla Perera-de Wit, Philip’s mother. “I have great admiration for the progress that children make at this age in learning new languages, which I have seen with my three children over the past three years in both English and German. It enables them to build new friendships and feel connected to their surroundings.” Small classes and individual attention have been crucial to Philip’s progress, she says. “The teachers are able to focus on the individual. With Philip, vocabulary learning was crucial: he gets a test every week and focusing on that learning curve has helped him get to the next stage. There is also a lot of focus on speaking and interaction, which is very helpful too.”

Once they reach Middle and Upper School, ZIS students continue to be taught using a communicative approach, emphasising the interaction of students with each other, the teacher and the wider world. “It is less about grammar drills – though structure and grammar have to have their place in the classroom – and more about application,” says Claudia. “We use authentic materials as students progress. For example, at the intermediate level, we switch from adapted easy readers to novels for young adults or children. By then, students have the language competency to deal with those, and the stories are much more engaging to them.”

A playful attitude is key, she says, with students encouraged to just get out there and try to communicate. “In speaking activities, it’s more about just getting your message across. When we go to a country where we don’t speak the language fully, it doesn’t matter whether our grammar is correct, as long as the other person gets what we want to say.”

Teachers are always looking for new ways to make their classes interesting and stay up to date with the latest thinking. “Teachers see themselves as learners, too,” says Claudia. “Just this year, we’ve adopted a new way of teaching grammar in a visual and kinaesthetic form. And we’re always trying to extend our local connections and seeing how we can use our environment more effectively – Zurich’s libraries, theatres, festivals and cultural events – or creating connections with local schools and clubs.”


Peas tally

A pedantic person obsessed with precision and fine detail - a pea counter. An equivalent in English might be a 'nitpicker'.


Lower School Principal Catherine Jolly says that learning a language in an international school brings extra benefits

“International schools try to value, embrace and build up the importance of all languages. It’s not just about getting up to speed in English or German as quickly as possible. It’s about who you are – as a child and as a family. And that means valuing the language you speak at home, as well as the languages you learn. In fact, research shows that if a child has a strong home language, learning another one is much easier.

“That’s why at ZIS, along with our language teaching, we encourage parents to set up Wednesday afternoon language clubs to enable students to speak in their home languages. We educate parents to ensure that they know the importance of reading and speaking in their home language. And we are also working with Zurich canton to help our pupils access external home language lessons and sessions within school hours. At ZIS, all languages are important – because they are an important part of who you are.”


Language feeling

The instinctive or intuitive group of the natural idiom of the language. If you have das Sprachgefühl, then you subconsciously recognise what is grammatically accurate, just as you would with your native language.


And once students start thinking about their future careers, German often becomes key. Emma Parkinson (Grade 12) spoke no German when she joined ZIS in Grade 4, aged nine. She found the ZIS approach to German language learning highly effective. “I really enjoyed the little scenes or skits we had to come up with around themes or topics, or books we’d read. Reading German books was also so useful, and I learned a lot about German culture from them, as well as the language. And, of course, we were encouraged to speak it. For me, that’s the most important part.”

After graduation, Emma hopes to go to university in the UK, and then return to Zurich for a PhD or Master’s. “I want to study biochemistry and lots of pharmaceutical companies are based in Switzerland and Germany, so German is definitely a very useful language for me,” she says. But her biggest German achievement, she believes, was getting her Swiss passport – for which she had to take an exam about Swiss culture and history written entirely in German. “That would have been impossible for me if I hadn’t started learning German from such a young age.”

Learning German enables our students to build new friendships and feel connected to their surroundings

And whatever career path students choose to follow, the values they learn in their German classes will stay with them throughout their lives, says Claudia. “The open-mindedness, curiosity, risk taking and tolerance which language learning encourages are vital to creating a supportive and inclusive environment at school. But what pleases me so much is that our students then become great ambassadors and take these values out into the world.”