Since moving to Germany, I’ve been appalled to discover that I must have something of a British demeanour. Maybe it’s the translucent skin, the enthusiasm for self-deprecating humour, or even being consistently poorly dressed for the cold. But it is surely the only explanation for being spoken to in English before I’ve even attempted speaking German.
The frequency of these incidents alongside the sheer volume of English speakers in the city has been cause to revisit a hotly debated question: do you need to speak perfect German to live in Berlin?
The debate circulated recently in the international press, after Deputy Finance Minister commented that “it increasingly drives [him] up the wall that waiters in some Berlin restaurants only speak English,” adding that speaking the local language is “something we can and should expect of every immigrant”.
On the other side of the debate, the excellently-named Ramona Pop, a Green Party MP, praised the city’s bilingual nature, particularly if it wishes to attract “young, urban entrepeneurs and specialists”.
We’ve now lived in Berlin for three weeks. My boyfriend is a total German beginner, I’ve been at the same “not a beginner but definitely not kidding anyone” stage for years, but we’re keen to progress and become less painfully “Brits abroad”. We’re set to take lessons in our respective English-speaking workplaces, and plan on enrolling in schools in our spare time, too.
But whether we need to embark on these is no longer in question; having commuted in the city, bought groceries, ordered food, navigated intimidating paperwork and more, I really believe you should try to learn German while living here. It will positively shape your life in Berlin. While it will not be a simple, short process, personally I can’t see us feeling truly acclimatised in this city until we feel more confident in communicating with those around us.
That’s not to say I don’t understand why some aren’t in so much of a hurry to formally learn. Germans teach their kids English from an early age and it genuinely seems that everybody you encounter will have at least basic understanding. Whenever I have struggled with German, the person I’m speaking to will switch to English with near-disconcerting ease. This has been useful for more meaningful exchanges than ordering a Mezzo Mix, such as registering my address and being fined on the u-bahn (I’m over it…honestly…)
I also appreciate that very often, when attempting German, you may well be spoken back to in English so perfect you can’t quite place if the speaker might be native. While this might make life instantly a little easier for you, it does hamper your own efforts to show willingness to practice German. For that reason, I understand that putting your German to practical use isn’t a given outcome here, regardless of your ability.
But the fact that such a huge number of the population speaks English shouldn’t discourage you from trying altogether. In the last three weeks, already there have been instances when I’ve resented not yet having a more sophisticated understanding of the language. For example, finding a doctor and trusting a new hairdresser with my tresses would be significantly easier if I didn’t need to meticulously research where I could find the nearest English speakers. Spontaneously booking to get my hair chopped cannot be a thing while my German isn’t quite up to par, and for the sake of my split ends, this is not ideal.
Plus, the process of learning a language needn’t always occur in a strictly academic setting which transports you straight back to those long afternoons at school. Personally, I’ve found my German slowly improving through the most mundane, every day activities; watching local television with subtitles, opting to read the actual German menu in restaurants, and in a move which feels very retro, reading titles at the video store (I know!) and mentally translating them to English.
So, can you get by in Berlin with little knowledge of the local lingo? Sure, just about. But should you? No, because you’re missing a fucking brilliant opportunity. Learning German and attempting to speak it in your daily life is basic courtesy, encourages social cohesion with your new community, and will ultimately help you feel more comfortable in the city. Whether you plan to stay in Germany in the long term or otherwise, learning a language is an experience which will only enrich your life, and there’s no more rewarding way to do so than when already shacked up in the country.
Lastly, I do understand that flippant “just learn the language!” comments seem to disregard the enormity of the task at hand. Not everyone is so enviably gifted than to just take to learning a language with ease. But like with many challenges, the appropriate course of action is often to give it your best shot instead of admitting defeat (or in this case, mutter a flustered “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”). It will never go unappreciated to try your best at German, then to slip up, rather than brazenly ordering your morning brew as though you’re back in Blighty. After all, did you really move here to do as you did at home?
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