Last week a friend of mine calling from England misdialled my number. A woman answered and my friend, who doesn’t speak a word of German, assumed by her Swiss accent that he was speaking to my wife. He continued with “Hello, how are you?”

She apparently recognised who it was and replied that she was well and enquired after his health. Their conversation, in English, continued covering, amongst other things, details of her brother’s knee operation and how she was disappointed that they would not be able to take walks in the mountains together for some while. My friend expressed his sympathy knowing both my brother-in-law and our love of walking. Eventually after more than five minutes of catching up on the news, my friend thought he had better move on to the purpose of his call and asked “Is Paul at home?”

There was a long pause then an extremely puzzled voice eventually asked, “Who is Paul?”

The truth slowly dawned on both of them as they realised the error and humour of their situation. They parted amicably after another couple of minutes laughing about the mix-up. However, this true story struck me as an amazing example of just how widespread the English language is in Switzerland. With every year that passes there is less and less reason for me (and all other Swiss residents with English as their mother tongue) to learn another language.

From cinemas that show films in their original language – 90% being English - to TV Commercials and poster advertising, English is increasingly popular. A slogan is not a slogan unless it’s in English. Look at Swiss towns. Arosa: Fun 4 You to Zürich: Downtown Switzerland and even my town, Thalwil, has the ambitious motto High Life & Low Tax.

I asked a teenage school class of why they liked English. “It’s cool!” was their universal reply. It is not only cool, but also politically correct and makes economic sense. Swiss advertisers need print only one poster for all three language-areas and offend nobody in the process – “No drinks - no drugs – no problems”. As more and more Swiss businesses adopt English as their ‘house language’ and schools start to teach English to younger children, I am forced to wonder where this will all end.

Can we soon anticipate a backlash against English? Will Switzerland, like France try to ban English? Already there are grumbles from Swiss employees working in International companies who find themselves forced to speak English because their English-speaking colleagues can speak nothing else. “Why do we have to hold a meeting in English for one person?” is their plea “why can’t they learn German?”

A good question and the simple answer to this is that, although an English-speaker’s brain and a Swiss brain are identical, they have not been nurtured in the same way. The former has been starved of second-language development, while the Swiss mind has been over-watered and over-fertilized. I once met a young lady from Colorado, who told me she was fourteen years old before she realised that there was any other language in the world than English. (This is more surprising because the name of her state is Spanish.) You can live your whole life in Britain or large parts of America and never hear a foreign word spoken. TV and movies are in English, the number of top twenty hits in the US and UK over the last forty years in any other language but some variant of English can be counted on the fingers of one hand. So monoglotism is instilled into ‘Brits’ and ‘Yanks’ in the same way that every Swiss milk carton is a rallying call to be a polyglot.

As I watched the opening ceremony of Expo 02 with the songs in English, I wondered whether the tidal wave of English will be free to wash up unchallenged to the very doors of the Swiss parliament? When today’s school children are old enough to be voted a seat in the chamber, will they find the coolest and most political correct way to communicate with the other language areas is in English? Unthinkable? All that is holding back a total English take-over are those who cannot speak it. But when today’s generation of lovers of English reach middle age that obstacle will be gone.

The purpose of language is manifold, it represents identity, character and history. But most of all it is to communicate. And if that is what is achieved in the Bundeshaus in say the year 2030, by using English, then it will be adopted.

However, please be aware that far from being a simple language, English is illogically complex providing plenty of pitfalls for those who like to use it. Our local handyman had his van painted with the large words “Small Jobs, Big Jobs, Problem Jobs”. When you learn that big jobs is what every child in the UK uses to describe the discharging of their bowels (like Gschäftli in dialect) – the mind boggles at what problem jobs might entail – and how a handyman can possibly help.