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I was recently speaking to a German about learning the language, and he said not to bother – whether planning a permanent move or only a short visit, you can get by just fine, as everyone there speaks English anyway.

I was wondering: How true is that? Does really everyone know English? How much of the population is comfortable speaking it? Are people happy speaking English casually, or do most people still prefer to converse in German?

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  • 11
    May be it depends on the city. I live in Munich. And initially people speak German. When I tell them if they could speak in English, they oblige. Most of the people in shops, stores, public transport also spoke English in Aachen, Frankfurt and Berlin. However, in places like Augsburg and Lindau, there was a dearth of such people speaking English. – trollster Jul 28 '16 at 10:25
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    Can you please specify where you are going? Germany is a large country and things like these often varies in large cities/small villages. – JaneDoe1337 Jul 28 '16 at 10:37
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    Especially if you're going for a long time, you should consider not only what's necessary, but what's desirable. You might be able to get by knowing only English, but you might also have more opportunities (for example, social opportunities) if you can also speak German. I lived in the Netherlands for 6 years, where the level of English is far higher than what I found in Germany, and while I didn't need to learn Dutch, I am certainly glad I did, and I would recommend anyone moving there to learn at least a little bit of it, depending on the intended duration of stay. – phoog Jul 28 '16 at 12:18
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    For context, I found English to be much more widely spoken in the Netherlands and Sweden than in Germany, but more so in Germany than in France and Belgium. – user2194 Jul 28 '16 at 14:07
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    Many people (including me) are happy to talk to a tourist in English, or any other language we happen to know, but are generally resentful of people who have been living here for years and still know no, or very little, German. Also, if you aren't from the EU and don't speak German, you'll have a hard time getting a permanent residence permit. – Guntram Blohm Jul 28 '16 at 15:54

11 Answers 11

81

It is correct that you can get by just fine with English, but if you are looking to build relationships with people, you need to work on conversing in their native language.

With English, you will be able to get through life, buy what you need to buy, and get done what you need to get done. However, you will never become a part of all common life relationships - people know and speak English, but they will have limits expressing themselves, and especially in larger settings will find it bothersome to speak English all the time. For example, if you are at a party, everyone will speak German; if you get into a discussion, they probably will speak English with you. But you miss on all the discussions in German going on around you.

I estimate that less than 5% of Germans are able to express all their interaction needs in English without limitations; all others will just -- more or less -- limit how much and what they talk about accordingly.

Of course, it is easier in cities and gets worse in the countryside. But that is not the point.

  • 13
    I fully agree. All of my English speaking colleagues eventually learnt at least some German. However in large cities (esp. Berlin) you will find parallel societies where you can get along with Turkish, Russian or English only. But this also limits your perspective of Germany a lot. – Jan Jul 28 '16 at 11:34
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    Unless someone learns German to a very high standard, the interaction will still be limited. – Ian Ringrose Jul 28 '16 at 13:43
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    @Ian with limited understanding of German you still get a lot more out of a conversation in German by listening than you would get out of a conversation in English when the other guy only has four years of rusty school-English. – simbabque Jul 28 '16 at 15:11
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    Another factor: not all signs are bilingual, and having enough familiarity with a language to decipher signs in public places and shops is very, very useful. – phoog Jul 28 '16 at 15:43
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    @Willeke: In my (somewhat outdated) experience, the English lessons in German schools don’t make you a particularly proficient English speaker. For that, you need to converse with native speakers, watch English-language films, read English-language books etc. Nowadays, lots of this can be had on the Internet; but for people who are now in their mid-thirties and upward, it was much easier to get exposed to English in cities where there are cinemas that will at least occasionally show original versions, public libraries with a foreign-language section and an English community. – chirlu Jul 28 '16 at 17:15
63

As a foreigner having lived in Germany for about 20 years, I would imagine it to be very difficult to cope in everyday life without knowing the German language. For a short visit as a tourist, you can of course get along well with English.

In Germany, English proficiency varies greatly and depends e.g. on age, education level and to some extent where in Germany the speaker comes from. Younger persons and persons with higher education are more likely to have at least knowledge in English required for casual conversation. Persons who grew up and attended school in East Germany before the German unification, may very well have no knowledge in English at all.

If you decide to move and settle here, you will at some point most likely need to enter legal contracts (e.g. for tenancy or employment). You can not expect these to be available in English. You can also not take it for granted that you will be able to interact with the authorities in English.

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    Very important information about East Germany, even East Berlin (in the quarters which aren't hip and thus didn't have a large influx of Westerners). East German people whose school time ended in the early 1990s tend to know some Russian but almost no English. – Peter A. Schneider Jul 28 '16 at 13:20
  • "You can also not take it for granted that you will be able to interact with the authorities in English." I find this very surprising. In England, where very few people speak multiple languages, the one place you /can/ expect to be able to interact in your own language is when interacting with authorities. Maybe it will take a while to find a speaker of an obscure language, and maybe you'll end up with one of those stupid phone translator services, but it will happen. – Dan Sheppard Jul 28 '16 at 18:29
  • @PeterA.Schneider while it is true that Russian was the predominant first foreign language at schools in the GDR at extended secondary school (EOS) a second for. lang. was mandatory... which in the most cases has been English. So it's safe to assume that up to 15% of those leaving school before 1990 (should) know some English. Major hindrance for most of them today might be not using this skill on a regular basis. – Ghanima Jul 28 '16 at 20:06
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    @DanSheppard It depends on the authority you interact with. If it's for routine things like adress registration or even extending your residence permit the people working there are often explicitly instructed not to speak any other language than German for fear of miscommunication (which of course just results in the opposite). But if, say, police or a court wants to talk to you they are going to find a way. – neo Jul 28 '16 at 20:08
  • @Ghanima I had French as a second language, only 15 years ago. I can't even say "My name is..." and "I live at ..." anymore. – Christian Apr 16 at 15:21
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Slightly different angle than the accepted answer: For a shot or medium visit: don't bother. German is actually a pretty difficult language to learn. This only makes sense if you think you can get to a point that you speak better German than most Germans speak English. In most areas, that's a pretty high bar to meet and it would take a significant amount of effort and time to match this.

Even my 87 old mother who lives in the middle of nowhere and has been out of the country less then 10 times can converse pleasantly enough in English with the US partners of her grandkids when they visit.

If you want to live there, you should absolutely learn the language: but that's more or less true for any country you you live in. Speaking the local language is a huge benefit.

  • I agree for a short visit but for a longer period of stay you should at least learn to understand the language. (Which might be much easier than learning to speak it.) – Willeke Jul 28 '16 at 16:21
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    For practical purposes, sure - but you'll get a lot more good will if you make the effort. I found that German isn't a difficult language to learn the basics of, because at the basic level it tends to follow fairly straightforward rules. Learn the rules, and you've got enough to work with. The umpteen versions of "der/die/das" are kind of optional when actually talking! :) I also found that Germans are generally happy to use a "standard pronunciation" version of German instead of a local-accent version with foreigners, which is something that doesn't happen in English-speaking countries. – Graham Jul 28 '16 at 19:12
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    @Graham I agree fully. I can speak reasonably well in German and understand most of what they are saying. But I won't try to write it. But for speaking you can do it by ear: if it sounds right it is usually close enough. And Germans in general are quite forgiving that a foreigner mangles the language a bit. They appreciate the effort you make. – Tonny Jul 28 '16 at 20:25
  • @Graham: Your mileage may vary. I typically find it annoying when specifically US people find out that I'm German and try to talk German to me. Most Americans grossly overestimate their "fluency" and it comes across more like "look, how smart I am". I pulled my kids out of high school German class, since the teacher's German was terrible and a lot worse than the kids'. I think one should quickly converge to the language that works best in any given situation. Sometimes that is German but chances are it will English in the vast majority of cases. – Hilmar Jul 29 '16 at 11:41
  • OTOH, my son's mother-out-law is in her 60's and speaks essentially no English at all (from East Berlin). Also, if you live in rural BW, you only need to get to A2 proficiency to beat many of the local tradesmen and government officials. – Martin Bonner Sep 11 '18 at 8:03
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I depends where you go. Even my half-remembered high-school German was very useful, possibly even essential when visiting a small town in the former East on business. The engineers spoke fluent English. The younger staff spoke pretty good English. The shift foreman spoke next to no English (but fluent Russian). Hotel and restaurant staff varied from passable English to none at all (with most knowing just enough to handle check-in and ordering food).

This was a few years ago (2009, some the demographics will have shifted a little, but not much) in an area that got quite a few visitors especially cycle touring.

In the former West, you'd get by absolutely fine without any German, but you'll have a better time even in the tourist areas if you can be polite in the local language and have a go (my opinion, but a general rule for me).

7

After four months experience in Austria and Germany combined, it was shared experience that if a German-speaking person knew English well, it was because they were Austrian (or Swiss). Most (90%?) Germans did not know English well enough for recreational conversations.

(addendum)

While being a tourist in Germany, even in big cities (Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne) English was useful for the basics (where is the WC?) but German quickly became better for everything else. In small towns—where I tended to spend most of my time—English was of little use. This was mostly in 1999, though more recent trips in 2006, 2009, and 2014 have done little to change my impression.

Even in Austria where every student learns at least four years of English (since at least the 1950s), small mountain villages are full of people rusty to very challenged using English: a little bit of German goes a long way to making them more comfortable.

  • While I have noticed years 20 ago to that English was much better taught/learned in Switzerland than in Germany, these days the difference is smaller, specially by the group of people who grew up with internet. – Willeke Jul 28 '16 at 16:31
  • Maybe this should rather be a comment than an answer. – mts Jul 28 '16 at 16:34
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    @blackbird57: I have amended it; Is that better? – wallyk Jul 28 '16 at 17:39
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    @wallyk Please define "recreational converstions". 90% seems like an exaggeration. – problemofficer Jul 28 '16 at 18:14
  • @problemofficer: Well, it would be any conversation not business related, talking to someone with no particular purpose. Granted, 90% has some error in it. The actual number could be anywhere from 75% to 95%. This occurred mostly in the huttes of Austria where I would meet large groups of travelers from Germany. Late in the season it was mostly Germans trekking from hutte to hutte. Only a few others. – wallyk Jul 28 '16 at 18:39
6

I spent a year of my degree scheme working in Erlangen, located in the traditional and often stubborn Franconia. I turned up with limited German, and had intended to learn the language in situ. However, due to my employment there being in an international office and language learning becoming a more expensive mission than anticipated, I ended up not leaving fluent, as I had initially anticipated.

To relate this to your questions:

I was wondering: How true is that?

English has Germanic roots. You'll be surprised how much vocabulary you'll be able to translate through guesswork. A guidebook for reference along the way may 'save' you from ever truley needing to learn the language while still surviving (it worked great for me!)

Does really everyone know English?

Big cities and what was West Germany has a very high percentage of English speakers. In the old East Germany and 'traditional' states you may find that the older generations (i.e. those 40+) do not speak English well or at all, especially away from the big towns, but anyone below 30 or so has had to complete compulsory English at school so will almost certainly have stronger English than you will German.

How much of the population is comfortable speaking it?

Especially if you have some basic German, politely try and say that you'd be able to communicate better in English, I never found anyone that wouldn't give a bit of English a go. Occasionally their English was poor, but they were 1 in 100 cases. Anyone in medicine or engineering will almost certainly speak English very well.

Are people happy speaking English casually, or do most people still prefer to converse in German?

I began a system at parties where I would be spoken to in German and respond in English. People will of course prefer to speak in their own language, but if you are a foreigner and making friends, I found almost all I met to be very accommodating and supportive folk, willing to communicate in the most mutually beneficial language.

Be polite and learn enough German to buy dinner and ask for directions, but for almost all other responsibilities I believe that it is true that many Germans would find you struggling with their language endearing but ultimately a waste of time when they can and will speak in English with you.

5

As a german more used to reading and writing (but just occasionally talking) in English I can confirm most of the answers here. You might find that when asking Germans beforehand how good their English was the answer usually would be a harsh overestimation of their own actual capabilities in doing so, mostly because they had good grades in school (where they kept talking German all the way usually). So if you write something down probably many people will understand you, but better dont expect them to answer in a way that wouldn't remind you of a kid with a very limited vocabulary. It depends a lot on education of course. The average Joe around here will tell you that he doesn't speak English. In Frankfurt you might find many more speakers, because it's Frankfurt (shouldn't compare to any other German city). So if you exclude Frankfurt, where you might just do ok, the chance that you meet a person with good enough English for a solid conversation is maybe 2-5% (Frankfurt more like 5 - 10), best. If you want to raise this number you should limit yourself to sentences like "I will go to a café and get a coke" using mainly simple expressions, which might not satisfy you much. And you should speak slowhowly. You will even find people trying to talk to you thinking their English is good enough for it. Usually they are wrong.

TL;DR if you want anything more from social events than getting you need for survival, better try to learn German. Else you will find yourself sitting around alone most of the times.

  • 2
    Where is "around here"? Are you in Germany? – wallyk Jul 29 '16 at 0:18
  • "around here" is the area between Mannheim and Darmstadt. yes indeed I am. – Clydefrog Jul 29 '16 at 7:19
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tl;dr: Use every chance life gives you to learn something new.

Your german friend felt for wishful thinking, when he assumes knowing german in Germany will bring you no benefits. Also it seems like learning something new looks like a burden, which it is if you think of endless courses to fully comprehend all words and rules (which will neer happen).

It is incredibly hard to learn any language without actually using, so every time you visit ANY country it's an opportunity you should definitely take. Learn at least this six phrases (no excuses allowed):

  1. Hello
  2. Goodbye
  3. Yes
  4. No
  5. Sorry
  6. Thank You

If you're not a language person write it on a piece of paper. You can extent your vocabulary at any amount. How much to extent is influenced by several factors:

  • The people you spend your time with (young, smart, international, west-oriented people rather speak english)
  • The time you will stay there
  • The intensity of your stay (personal and business)
  • Your learning skills
  • Your learning opportunities (local intense courses)

Frankly, you will figure out if you feel the need to learn more or decide you have better things to do.

  • 1
    That's great advice, but it doesn't really address the OP's main concern – user2194 Jul 29 '16 at 11:08
  • You're right, maybe I am answering the meta question. – Karsten Gutjahr Jul 29 '16 at 11:11
3

Most of these answers focus on talking to people. But there's more to living in a foreign country than that! In my experience, in the part of Germany near Basel, CH:

  • Many official web sites are only in German.
  • The web sites of many tourist attractions are only in German. Sometimes they're also in French, and sometimes also in English, depending on what part of Germany you're in.
  • Most train announcements are only in German. ICE trains often have announcements in English and French as well, but for local trains, only German.
  • Most signs are only in German.
  • Most employers will expect you to have excellent knowledge of German, unless the company is very international.
  • Most government officials, sales clerks, and office employees will expect you to speak German.

While there are always unpleasant exceptions, for the most part I've found people to be very patient with less-than-perfect German.

But if you don't speak any German, you'll find it difficult to get around on public transit (you'll probably buy the wrong passes, or buy more expensive ones than you need), you'll miss a lot of important information, and you'll find deciphering wordy official documents (and all official documents are wordy here!) extremely tedious.

2

One can get the idea by the fact that you hardly can get a job in Germany if you declare that you don't know English- it is almost impossible from online applications for the jobs while German companies are much responsive, very straight forward.

In any case there is no substitute to speak to a local in his own language.

1

Compare where you want to live or travel. If you want to be in a bigger city like Berlin then it is not important to speak German because almost everyone is kind of international there and in almost every community you find people from overseas or people who speak English. But if you want to travel through the country and visit the smaller villages and stuff like that you definitely need to have some kind of basic German skills.

P.S. What I also hear from many friends who speak only English and start to learn German, when you ask something in German (of course you have an accent) you mostly get an English answer back. So don’t be upset with that. ;)