Thursday, 9 February 2012

Can everyone in Germany really speak English?

So often, when people have asked me how much German I’m able to speak or how my German is coming along and I tell them it isn’t great, they utter the response “it’s okay, everyone in Germany speaks English anyways.”

What a relief that is for a foreigner, coming over to Germany with little speaking ability, hoping to get a job or even get by in daily life, to know that it will always be okay. To be clear, it’s not just travelers who have passed through Germany throughout European adventures, but the local Germans as well who tell me this. Well, I’m going to be real with you and the glass bubble you are living in is about to shatter. Not EVERYONE in Germany speaks English. Is it likely that the staff who works in the tourism industry (a.k.a. hotel and hostel staff, transit workers, and customer service reps in retail or food and beverage) can speak English or at least enough to communicate with you. However, if you are going to live here, you might want to keep that phrase book handy. I would like to illustrate this point by recapping the interactions I have had over the last 4 months with German shop owners and whether our interactions were successful.

Did they speak English?

The young girl who sold me a pair of boots earlier this week:
Yes. She had no difficultly answering my questions about a protector spray and how often to use it.

The bank teller that assisted me in opening my bank account:
No. She didn’t speak any English and Matt had to do all the talking for me.

The various baristas who work at Starbucks and other chain OR locally owned Coffee Shops:
Yes or to some degree. Starbucks employees generally switch to English as soon as they hear my attempt at speaking German and everyone else will switch to English if I’ve not understood the question but generally only a few simple work related phrases such as “something else?” or “for here or to go?”
Side note: “Zum Mitnehmen” which is the German term for “to go” is one that you should commit to memory. After failing to understand the question to many times, and then eventually just pointing at the door, I got Matt to write out the phrase for me. The next time I went to the coffee shop on my way home from work, I was excited to finally be able to tell the barista in German. I ended up butchering really badly and I think I said “zum Mitigehen”. While I remembered the first word, I didn’t pronounce it properly. The barista smiled and stood at the counter with me repeating it slowly and breaking it down until I got it.

The pharmacist at the Apothek who was filling the prescription I was asked to pick up:
Yes. She was easily able to explain how often each medication should be taken and how much.

The pharmacist who served me the next time I went into the same Apothek to pick up some throat lozenges:
No. Luckily they don’t require directions and with a bit of concentration, I was able to understand the price she was saying.

My employers and Matt’s co-workers:
Yes. They all speak English. In fact, Matt’s co-workers are English teachers and the mother of the family I work for is American.

Our landlord: 
No, not a word of English. A teacher at Matt’s school found this apartment for us and brought us here when we first arrived in Nurnberg to do the introductions and ensure we understood the lease. From then on, Matt has been communicating with our landlord but with the speed she speaks at and dialect she speaks in, even Matt has difficulty understanding her sometimes.

The taxi driver in Berlin, the ticket checker on the train, all of the hostel check-in agents, and the customer service rep who sold me my monthly underground railway pass:
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. All of the above Germans spoke enough English to assist me along my travels.

A lady who called me about my resume sometime in late October:
No. She didn’t speak any English and I know very little German, needless to say, the conversation was VERY AWKWARD. A few hours later, she sent me an e-mail in German which I used Google to translate. Basically, it said that most German employers need someone who can speak a good degree of German, that she didn’t think she could help me and then the whole thing ended with an exclamation point !

The people who work at the Post Office, selling stamps or helping you send a package:
To some degree. Things like “how many would you like” “sign here” or whatever the price is.

And my favourite encounters are those with the elderly Germans who approach me for directions or when I’m walking with the kids. They generally don’t speak any English and when I tell them that I don’t speak German (which I do say in German), continue to talk to me anyways, repeating their thoughts or questions as if all of a sudden, it will translate itself and I will be able to understand them. Juliet and I caught up with an older woman walking down the street and kept pace for a few minutes. During this time, the woman began talking and asking me the same question over and over. I felt as though she was commenting on the weather and asking if Juliet was my child but I really couldn’t tell and Juliet was too shy to translate. Luckily, we were walking up a hill; she eventually grew tired and stopped to stare at the castle we had been walking around. I sped up a little bit, pulling Juliet with me as I tried to create some distance. It was an awkwardness I didn’t care to repeat.

So don’t expect everyone you come across will be able to communicate with you. You should definitely take at least one beginner course and learn the basic phrases, numbers and pronunciation of letters and words so that you won’t be at a total loss if the person you are trying to communicate with doesn’t speak English. This is especially important if you want to live in some place other than Berlin or Munich, where the English speakers are fewer and far between.

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