Switzerland, 24.04.2019

Expats, the Foreign Nationals and Integration Act, and German

Last Saturday the front page of the economics section of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung urged expats to learn more German. Indeed, Zug was mentioned in particular as so many expats live here.

The article referred to the new Foreign Nationals and Integration Act (AIG), which came into force on January 1 this year, Article 58a of which sets out what is required of foreigners to ensure they integrate. Not only are they expected to respect the values of the Federal Constitution, but endeavour to take part in the Confederation’s economic and cultural life and increase their knowledge of German, French or Italian, depending on the region where they live.

It was explained that while expats who come to work here from non-EU and non-EFTA countries, for example the USA, Australia and India, are not specifically expected have to prove they have knowledge of the appropriate language spoken in the area they (intend to) live, the family members who accompany them do have to prove that they have registered for a language course before they come, enabling them to achieve at least the A1 level, the lowest of six grades relating to the acquisition of the foreign language, after twelve months; this enables them to use and understand basic everyday expressions and simple sentences relating to certain specific needs.


Indeed, when it comes to the first renewal of the B permit, after one year, the authorities are to check whether the persons in question have actually undertaken such a course and can duly produce the certificate. If this is not the case, then the permit could be annulled. While the Indian programmers or American investment bankers themselves are not required to show they have achieved a certain proficiency in German or French, they are certainly made to feel that this would be most worthwhile. In reference to Zug, it was mentioned that a certain pressure was exerted on managers or lawyers working here to make an effort to learn German, particularly when their non-working spouses are expected to.


It appears however that the Swissholdings Association, which represents the interests of multi-national companies in Switzerland, has not focused on this matter as much as it should have done. However, based on a survey conducted by the NZZ itself, some firms such as Novartis, Johnson&Johnson and ABB, which are known to employ large numbers of expats, very much support their employees in learning German, with employees at Novartis being made fully aware of the requirements of the AIG at the outset. Indeed, even on forms sent to potential employees, their attention is drawn to the linguistic requirements the partners of successful applicants are expected to fulfil, namely the test following twelve months’ residence.


So far it appears that such prior notification has not had an adverse effect on recruitment of specialists at either Novartis or ABB, whereas Johnson& Johnson had not yet evaluated the effects of such demands, demands which are indirectly related to result of the referendum in 2014 in which Swiss people voted to restrict immigration levels.


Not that these AIG stipulations just affect those with B permits. Those who wish to apply for a C (settlement) permit, very much sought after by expats who do not have a limited contract with their employer, are expected to have achieved at least the A2 level in the spoken language of the area in which they live and work, and the A1 level when it comes to the written language. This applies to the afore-mentioned nationals of non-EFTA countries and nationals of those EU countries with which Switzerland has no settlement treaty.


It goes without saying language schools have been delighted by the new requirements; in fact there are some three dozen such schools offering courses in the Zurich area, one head of such saying how much better woman were at them than men. The Berlitz language schools recognise how busy professional people are with their own jobs, let alone finding time to learn a foreign language, so they are very flexible in the times they can offer. And these days there is always the possibility of keeping in touch with a language tutor via Skype, for example, even when on a business trip.


This article is based on one by Dominik Feldges.      

Photo by Keystone