Do They Speak English In Germany? What to do if you don’t speak German
Maybe you are traveling to Germany soon, or you’ve always wanted to but worry you won’t be able to communicate because you don’t sprechen Deutsch. Put your fears to rest because yes, they do, in fact, speak English in Germany! Whether you are there for business or leisure, you will come across Germans who speak excellent English. There are however, a few things to know about Deutschland’s English-speaking capabilities.
Is English Spoken Everywhere in Germany?
Yes and no. It’s a little bit of a tricky question. If you are headed to a big city like Berlin, Frankfurt, or Munich you will definitely be able to find some Germans who speak near-perfect English.
You’ll also find a lot of Germans who may not be fluent, but can manage enough to get by without too much confusion. In rural areas however, you might not have as much luck.
The older generation (40+) especially, don’t speak much English at all. But don’t think you’ve struck out just yet. If you find yourself in the German countryside and in need of an English-speaker, your best bet in a rural area is to find younger adults or school-aged children.
Why School-Aged Children?
Since the 1960s, English has been a mandatory school subject in Germany. German school children start learning English in either the second or third grade. They start with the basics, like how to introduce themselves, simple directions, and conversations about the weather. From fifth until seventh grade, students expand their vocabularies and learn proper pronunciation and spelling. By the time the students reach eighth grade, their teachers speak to them exclusively in English. By this point, they are basically fluent in English, both conversationally and grammatically.
Let me give you a perfect example. I was in the grocery store one day trying to figure out how to use the produce scale to weigh and price some apples. Of course, the display screen is all in German and the pictures weren’t descriptive enough to help me out. A young German boy of maybe 8 or 9 years old saw me in my confusion and immediately came to my rescue. He explained to me how to use the scale in perfect English. I was extremely grateful and he seemed incredibly happy to have had a native English-speaker to practice his conversations skills with.
Make an Effort
Although it may not be too hard to find someone in Germany who speaks English, don’t assume everyone does speak English. Start off your conversation with a German greeting and ask them in their own language if they speak English. The first reason for doing this is that it’s polite. You are a guest in their country and it demonstrates that you respect their culture and language. You’re not just assuming the whole world speaks English. There have been a handful of times when I was rushing and just dove in cold with English and got some not-so-appreciative attitudes. ore practically, this also helps prepare them mentally to switch languages and they will be much more receptive to helping you in English if you at least try to speak some German first. Your English accent might even be so bad that they will start speaking to you in English before you even get the opportunity to ask.
What are Some Helpful Phrases?
Even if you know absolutely no German, try to pick up some common phrases. Germans really appreciate if you at least give it an honest try even if you completely butcher the word or sentence you are attempting.
Here are some basic phrases to get you off on the right foot in your host country:
Guten Morgen- Good Morning
Guten Abend- Good Evening
Auf Wiedersehen- Goodbye
Sprechen Sie Englisch- Do you speak English?
Danke- Thank you
Bitte- *See Below*
If there was even an all-purpose word in Germany, it’s bitte. Need to say “you’re welcome?” Bitte. Need to say, “here you go?” Bitte. “Excuse me?” Bitte. Asking for something, preface the question with, bitte. I’m not sure why Germans love this word so much. But if you are visiting, and you use it, they will be impressed.
No One Says Guten Tag
I’m not sure why, but no one says Guten Tag. This may be one of the few German words you already knew, so sorry to disappoint. Everyone uses the more informal Hallo, which sounds almost exactly like the English, “Hello.” You will definitely stand out as a tourist if you use Guten Tag, so opt for the more local Hallo.
When an English-speaker says “I speak a little German” it usually means that they studied German for a semester or two in high school and know some the days of the week and months of the year, basic greetings, and maybe some colors.
If you ever ask a German if they speak English, or Sprechen Sie Englisch, they will undoubtedly always respond with “A little.” These two words are misleading. The phrase, “A little,” doesn’t mean the same thing as if an English-speaker were to know a little bit of German. In Germany the response, “A little,” will surprise you because they almost always speak excellent English. While it may not be perfect, you will definitely not have any trouble communicating.
I’ve found that some Germans who may not get to practice their English very often are less confident in their ability. Once you get them talking though, you will find that they’re actually very good!
Germany is Surrounded by Other Countries who Don’t Speak German
If you look at a map of Europe, Germany is centrally-located and surrounded by nine other countries, only three of which (Austria, Belgium, and Luxembourg) have a German-speaking population. This means that if Germans are to communicate with their neighbors, they have to speak a language common to both countries, and lucky for you, that language is English.’
East vs West
If you are visiting a city in the west of Germany, you are more likely to encounter English-speaking Germans. If you go to eastern Germany, you will find that much of the older generations do not speak English at all. During the Cold War, the former East Germany was heavily influenced by the USSR and Russian was the preferred second language. While many students in western Germany learned English in school due to the heavy British and American influence. But, times have changed and English is now being taught in schools in the east of Germany too.
Turn on the Radio
If you listen to just about any radio station in Germany you will hear something familiar. A huge amount of the music they play over the air is in English. American pop music is extremely popular in Germany and definitely a factor in the Germans speaking English as well as they do. Another bonus is that you will be able to understand most of the music during your trip.
To get a huge choice of German radio station the TuneIn app is a great place to start
Before you make your trip to Germany, there are a few resources that will help mitigate an remaining language barrier.
Google Translate will be your best friend at restaurants, grocery stores, or anywhere that you need to read things. Make sure to download the Germany dictionary while you still have an internet connection. Type in any German word and it will spit out the English translation. Or use the camera feature to translate a whole text without even having to type anything in. I have used this app so many times when looking at a menu at a restaurant. Knoblauch looks super intimidating until you find out it’s just garlic.
If you want to pick up a few more phrases or just familiarize yourself with some common words, look no further than Duolingo. This amazing language app will have you feeling better about your rudimentary German skills in no time. Even if you don’t learn enough to speak, you will undoubtedly be more prepared to recognize common words and phrases and street signs and menus won’t be so intimidating
Germans travel by train. A lot. Luckily, their nation-wide train and metro, the Deutsche Bahn, has an English version of their mobile app. Use this app to check train schedules, buy tickets, and plan routes, all in English! If you’re not great with technology, every train station customer service counter will have an English-speaking associate. Many Europeans travel by train, so you won’t be the only one in need of someone who speaks English.
Germany is a wonderful country to visit, and don’t worry if you can’t speak a word of their native language. According to the EF English Proficiency Index, Germany is the 7th best English-speaking country in Europe and the 9th best in the world. If you are still nervous about not being able to communicate, stick to the bigger cities and avoid rural areas. Use your tools, like Google Translate, to help bridge any gaps.
Don’t be afraid to ask a German if they speak English. Extra points if you ask them in German, even if that’s the only phrase you know!
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