Some may find this a bold statement, but I feel very strongly that you need to learn German if you’re an English-speaking expat living in Germany.
Find out why you should learn German and where to learn it in Berlin.
As Berlin is such an international city, a lot of people seem to think that you don’t need to have a command of the German language in order to live in Berlin. I’ve read countless and, unfortunately, very misleading articles informing expats that understanding German is not necessary. Even worse are the complaints I’ve heard from expats that Germans don’t know enough English!
I won’t get into how much these things bother me. So I’ll hold back and spare you from a long rant against poorly written articles that perpetuate misconceptions about living as an expat in Berlin, and also against the small group of ignorant expats who love to complain.
To a certain extent, it’s true that you can get by speaking only English. I personally know people who’ve been in Germany for years and never bothered to learn German. They seem happy, and perhaps it somehow works for them. Based on my own personal experience, I feel that their Berlin experience would be so much richer if they tried to get a grasp of German.
My advice for any aspiring and current Berlin expats is to learn German to the best of their ability. If you’re planning to stay in Berlin for anything beyond a brief vacation or the three-month tourist visa, it’s important that you make an effort to learn the language. Even just learning a little bit of German will go a long way.
Learning German is especially essential for those looking to find a job in Berlin. It will increase your chances at finding a job and set you apart from other candidates who are lagging behind on the language front.
The first time I moved to Berlin, I didn’t make a proper effort to study German. It was due in part to not knowing if I wanted to stay in Berlin long term, balancing multiple freelance clients, and dealing with some personal issues.
Moving home to Canada made me realize how much I missed Berlin and that most of my troubles during that time could be traced back to not knowing the language! I knew I wanted to come back to Berlin again someday and regretted not learning German so much that I immediately enrolled at the Goethe Institut in Toronto. I eventually reached the A1.2 level.
My efforts were not in vain and really helped me upon moving back to Berlin. I can now better understand conversations happening around me and can get by in fairly simple situations.
However, I’m still at the beginning of my journey. Being able to read a restaurant menu and order in German isn’t enough. Unfortunately, I still have an irrational and intense fear about speaking German in front of other people, especially those I know! I need to get over it and jump back into the language learning game again soon.
I can personally attest to the fact that there will be plenty of times when you absolutely need to know German. Here are some scenarios:
When I moved back to Berlin last November, I went to my local Sparkasse to open a bank account. It turned out that none of the staff on duty could speak English very well, and they didn’t feel comfortable helping me. They asked me to come back and set up an appointment for the following week with one of their younger bank tellers who speaks English. Also, when I was in Sofia for the weekend back in January and an ATM “ate my bank card for breakfast”, I had to enlist the help of a German-speaking friend to call Sparkasse and put a hold on my account until I could go to the branch and order a new card.
The staff at government offices like the Ausländerbehörde, Bürgeramt, and Zollamt, are notorious for speaking only German. Even though they deal with foreigners on a daily basis, it’s their way or the highway. If you can’t speak the language, then you need to bring a German speaker with you to your appointments. This can be especially daunting for those who are new here and don’t know anyone. When I first moved here, my landlord helped me by letting me hire her intern, who came along with me to the Burgeramt. Depending on how many times you visit a government office, it’s either going to get very expensive or you’re going to annoy your friends who will tire at bailing you out.
Some restaurants only offer menus in German, and their wait staff may not be able to speak English very well, if at all. Unless you have the time to run every dish on the menu through Google Translate, there’s a good chance you’re going to frustrate the wait staff and get bad service. Maybe someone in the kitchen will spit in your food! Or you’ll be forced to order under pressure and end up selecting something random from the menu. When I first came to Berlin, I received many “surprise” dishes as a result of this happening.
Try troubleshooting a jammed printer that only has a menu in German! At work in Canada, I could handle printers like the IT pro I am. Here, I stare blankly at the screen and attempt to solve the problems by pushing random buttons (which always works) or opening up the printer looking for the jammed paper, getting toner ink all over myself in the process. Of course, I’d usually end up making the problem worse and frustrate my co-workers who had stuff to print as well. In the end, I had to beg their assistance and, by their request, write down the step-by-step instructions for solving the problem on my own the next time. Not embarrassing at all …
Not learning the language will actually make some locals dislike you, and you may encounter some of that famous Berliner Schnauze! When some Germans find out you’ve been here for years and haven’t bothered to learn the language, they may refuse to engage you in conversation and say unkind things like “typical American!” with disgust in their voice. A British girl I know from a neighbourhood coffee shop, who actually speaks German fairly well, recently told me about how their delivery man spoke down to her and started lecturing her about not knowing German. Luckily, her German boss came to her defense by telling the old man to stop yelling at her, informing him that if he ever said anything like that again, his coffee shop would cancel their contract with the delivery company.
It’s an unfortunate reality that you may have to deal with here, and there won’t always be a superhero boss around to come to your defence. And to be very clear, this is not the norm. Most Germans are very kind and friendly people, who’ll appreciate your willingness to try to learn their language.
If you’re like me, you’re also going to want to become friends with both expats and Germans. I can’t tell you how much my world opened up in Berlin after I became good friends with a small group of Germans. Oh, dating one helps too! Having German friends is a good thing. But the bad part is that each time I get together with them, everyone still speaks English with me. It isn’t really nice on my part to expect that they adjust their behaviour because of me. So with that in mind, I’m going to enroll myself into a class ASAP!
Wondering where you can learn German in Berlin? Here are some options:
CHERYL HOWARD – Over 32,000 people follow Cheryl’s travels and expat adventures in Berlin. Filled with wanderlust, Cheryl has been to 31 countries, stretching across four continents. Upon falling in love with life in Europe, she left her life in Toronto behind, quitting her job, selling everything she owned and moving to Berlin.