Portrait: Hans From Switzerland – An International Life Full of Languages

Babbel’s user portrait of 69-year old polyglot Hans shares tidbits about his love for languages.

Presenting the latest chapter of our Babbel user portraits — a snapshot of users’ lives and experiences learning a new language. Want to share your own story? Let us know in the comments section below!

Today we introduce you to multilingual Hans from Switzerland. This 69-year-old polyglot isn’t just a passionate language learner — he’s also a linguist, an organist, a marketing and database expert, and a website developer! Here, he talks about his mother tongue of Romansch, his love for foreign languages and cultures (he’s currently learning Swedish and Welsh), and how his language skills helped him land his dream job.

Born and raised in the southeastern Swiss canton of Graubünden, I grew up speaking primarily Romansch — my mother tongue. Romansch is a language spoken by 40,000 to 50,000 people, representing only about 5% of the Swiss population. Though I was taught exclusively in Romansch until the 4th grade, my father spoke German, so I learned both languages from an early age.

When one grows up with a minority language as his native language, he has little choice but to learn at least one other language. It was perhaps because of this that I became such a fan of languages, and so fascinated by other countries and cultures. From early on, I longed to live abroad and to take advantage of the many opportunities that life might present to me.

After graduation, I decided to study languages in Zurich, namely English and the Romance languages. One couldn’t exactly consider me a “straight-A student” — I was more an adventurer with a great passion for life and foreign cultures. During my studies, I spent extended periods in the UK, working as a freelance English translator — of all things — for a Swiss patent attorney. After this, I decided to change my major to Spanish, and spent a semester abroad in Spain (a trip I decisively extended, ultimately dropping out of school). I had fallen in love with Spain, and wanted to spend as much time there as possible. First, I lived on the mainland and then some years later on Mallorca (where I opened, with some friends, an artist’s bar called La Bohemia). It was in this bar that I met my wife Maribel, to whom I have now been married for over thirty years.

Back in Switzerland, I worked the next 10 years for an American stock exchange company. Though I ultimately lost this job, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After almost a year of unemployment, I finally found my dream job in my mid-40s; for this, I have my knowledge of languages to thank. In my new position, I got the chance to work as a Manager of International Business Relations for “Technology for the People,” a now defunct Geneva NGO mandated by the Swiss government. At the time, and to my great fortune, they were seeking a multilingual employee. I was thrilled, and my family and friends were speechless (after all, I had no university degree)! With this position, my task was to foster cooperation between European and Asian companies — exciting, international work with responsibility and the chance to make many new contacts. During this time, I also learned Chinese, which until now has been my greatest language challenge. Eventually, because of my knowledge of Chinese, I was even able to work as a delegate for the Chinese Foreign Trade Ministry.

After this exciting international experience, I taught nearly ten years at the international Institute Informatik, in the French speaking part of Switzerland — Genf and Montreux. Here, I taught Computer Science in English to students from all over the world. In 2013, already retired, I fulfilled yet another dream by passing my organ examination. Since music was a lifelong hobby of mine, I now work with pleasure as a professional organist, sometimes even for weddings. Privately and professionally, my passion for music, languages and distant cultures has accompanied me throughout my entire life.

Today, I speak eight languages in total: Romansch, German, English, Spanish and French at a native-speaking level, as well as Italian, Catalan and Chinese. At the moment, I’m learning Welsh and Swedish, the latter of which I studied 40 years ago at the University of Zurich. Now I’m refreshing my knowledge of Swedish with Babbel, which is a lot of fun for me. I first encountered Welsh in 1971, when I traveled across Wales in a Mini Cooper; my interest in Wales and its language has always always remained.

I love everything about language learning: the melodies, the structures, the idioms, the writing, the adventurous feeling one gets when first attempting to speak. Languages don’t just enrich our lives and connect us to other cultures, they also keep our minds fit and active.