ETH Life - wissen was laeuft

Die tägliche Web-Zeitung der ETH Zürich - in English

ETH Life - wissen was laeuft ETH Life - wissen was laeuft
ETH Life - wissen was laeuft

ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
Rubrik: Mittwochs-Kolumnen
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Publiziert: 09.05.2007 06:00

German – a foreign language

Anke Neumann und Nadine Schüssler

(Deutsche Version der Kolumne)

The other day, we were in the cafeteria and something quite ordinary happened. In fact it was so ordinary that we hardly noticed it. Our new Chinese colleague was looking at the menu, trying to interpret the ingredients of the creative names of the various lunch offers. Okay, sometimes this is not easy for us, either, but she could not even tell what the basic incredients were, like if it was chicken or pork. No wonder, they were displayed in German. Thus, she was left – just like all the other non-German speaking members of ETH –two alternatives: either ask the colleagues to translate or take a chance and try anything. For one week this might be fun but after that, it’s just annoying, even more so if the person cannot or does not want to eat certain foods. Sooner or later he or she will stop going to the cafeteria for lunch, and not only miss out on a cheap meal but also a great deal of social activity with his or her colleagues.

But missing translations for cafeteria menus are only the tip of the iceberg. One of the major goals of our university is to attract the best of the best from all over the world in all fields and on all levels. Without a doubt, this is a great goal, as foreigners, especially talented ones, will enrich our daily lives and bring forth new ideas to our venerable institution. However, in the heat of the international brain campaign, we somehow forget to let these people know that they will have to struggle at times at the ETH, if they don’t have any knowledge of German.

One problem, for example, is that many of the websites and administrative forms of the ETH are available in German only. And, if there is an English version, central information is often missing. For foreigners who want to get more familiar with the Swiss system, and especially the ETH system, the websites can give them lots of headaches (Leo can only help so much). A short look at the brought some interesting, though varying results: First of all, the websites for the doctoral administration have changed during the last months. All information and documents, even the regulations for doctoral studies, have been translated into English. We were enchanted! However, the website of human resources – recall doctoral students are also employees – brought us back to the “German only” universe.

Besides these technical shortcomings there are some other, more dramatic problems for someone who does not speak German. For example during coffee breaks, when meeting dates are appointed, ingenious ideas are created, and the social contact within the group is fostered, non-German speaking persons are discriminated and miss out. Obviously, nobody does this on purpose, but often those who need to ask for translation and explanation feel left out. This can even lead to feelings of isolation, and take away the joy of working and being at the ETH and in Switzerland.

About the authors

Before Nadine Schüssler arrived at ETH, she studied Industrial Engineering and Business Administration at the University of Karlsruhe (Germany). In September 2004 she started her doctorate studies at the IVT and now spends her time with modelling transport demands.

Though she loves to do a lot of things like travelling, cooking, watching movies, and meeting friends, she was a little bit afraid that her life in Zurich might be dreary. Hence, she joined the board of AVETH after only a few months at ETH. Right from the beginning she liked the good working atmosphere. Since July 2005 she is co-president of AVETH. Her major concern is the representation of scientific staff’s interests in the political bodies of the ETH, such as the University Assembly (Hochschulversammlung), where she is member of the board (Ausschuss).

After her decision to finish her studies in chemistry at ETH, Anke Neumann extended her time far away from the Baltic Sea, where she started university. She began working on her PhD thesis in October 2004 at the Institute for Aquatic Science and Water Pollution Control. There, she tries to tame the combined forces of clay minerals, iron and organic pollutants. In the AVETH board she puts her energy on the support of the Associations of the scientific staff in the departments. Additionally, she excited the board members for this Summer Special Edition of the AVETH News. In the meantime she tries to maintain her friendships, do a little bit of sports and be close to the mountains.


Co-Presidents of the Academic Association of the Scientific Staff at the ETH, AVETH: Anke Neumann and Nadine Schüssler. gross

Another big issue for foreigners is dealing with resident permits and the migration office. When things get bureaucratically Kafka-esque, negotiations can get hard even if the foreigner does speaks German. If one doesn’t “sprach the sprach”, one can nearly forget about getting things sorted right from the beginning. Hardly any B-permits are issued any more, instead more and more doctoral students get L-permits. These permits have been designed for people who stay only for a couple of months, not years. With such a permit it becomes very hard to get a bank account, sign a cell-phone contract or even rent an apartment. Furthermore, with such a permit it becomes nearly impossible to travel to the EU if you are not an EU citizen. Thus, such students can’t go to conferences or even work together with EU-partners on projects or papers. Finally and maybe worst of all, with an L-permit, your family is not allowed to come and stay with you. Thus, what kind of motivation is this for some truly brilliant people to want to stay in Zurich and do good research. ?

Since it is one of ETH’s clearly stated and emphasized goals to increase our “internationality”, our school has to inevitably address what it will do about all these problems. It is certainly not enough to recruit the best of the best from all over the world. These people also need require good surrounding conditions so that they can focus on their studies, research and work. Some improvements are easy to achieve: translating cafeteria menus, official ETH websites and forms to name only a few things. Others are more difficult to deal with, for example, negotiations with the migration office. Individual persons can easily get lost in their fight against a system in which hardly any systematic approach can be found anymore. However, the ETH board should have a completely different standing.

And last but not least, there is the integration of those who finally made it and are here at ETH. This is a task for each and every one of us. In the end, we all are “the ETH” and very often the small everyday things make the big difference. Therefore we need supervisors who stipulate and stimulate a good social climate in their groups. Granted, language barriers are a big issue. There are German-as-foreign-language courses, which are highly booked. But they usually start when terms start and they cost lots of money and time. Doctoral students usually have little money, and even less time. Once again, supervisors should jump in and help to make their staff’s life easier not only at ETH but also in Zurich in general.

After all, we would all benefit: If people from all over the world are coming to our school, they each bring a little part of this world directly to us. This enriches our work, our studies and our life. In addition, people who stay in Switzerland after leaving ETH are usually those who are well integrated and feel themselves at home here. By staying, they could pay back the Swiss society a great deal of for funding their education. Even if they move on, they will go out into the world and tell everyone what a great school ETH is and what a marvelous time they had studying, working and researching here.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

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