If you’re thinking about a trip to Germany, you might be wondering about the language barrier. Will it be difficult for you to communicate with others? Do Germans even speak English?
Most people do know how to speak English in Germany; however, the level of fluency varies. Germans from the West are likely more proficient in English than those from the East, people in cities are more fluent than those in the country, and the youth speak better English than the older generation.
Keep reading to learn more about why some social groups in Germany are better at English than others.
Do Germans Speak English?
Most Germans do know how to speak English. English is a compulsory subject for Germans to take throughout secondary school. After learning English for four years, most Germans know how to speak well enough to get by. However, this does not mean that they are fluent.
This is seen by a study published by Pawlik where in 2020, only approximately 60% of Germans described themselves as having a good level of English.
Think of a subject that you had to take that you didn’t like or practice. Your understanding of that subject has probably deteriorated since then. It’s the same with English for the Germans.
However, as most students understand that English is the lingua franca of the world, they make a conscious effort to learn and practice it. According to the EF English Proficiency Index(EPI) in 2020, Germany ranked 8th out of 100 countries in English fluency.
If you’re going on a short vacation to the major cities in Germany, you’ll be able to make your way around just fine. Workers in the hospitality business like waiters or receptionists are usually specially selected for their English skills, and you can talk to them to learn what to do in Germany.
On the other hand, if you want to go off the beaten path to the countryside, or stay in Germany semi-permanently for work or a study abroad program, that’s a different matter.
This is because not all Germans are fluent in English, and depending on where you go, some Germans won’t even know how to speak any English.
Although it’s always possible for you to use Google Translate to communicate with the German people you see, it’s best to carry a small phrasebook with you as you might not get a cell tower connection in some more remote areas.
You can also try learning some basic German phrases to receive a warmer response from the German people, detailed in this YouTube video:
Why Most Germans Don’t Speak English Fluently
English became a compulsory subject in German schools in the 1950s. However, this was only in West Germany. In East Germany, the mandatory foreign language students had to take was Russian until 1990, when they withdrew from the Warsaw Pact.
In East Germany, students were also likely discouraged from taking English due to the Cold War. Under a communist regime, learning English could have seemed like sympathizing with their opponent, the United States.
This resulted in a geographical divide, with fewer people speaking English in East Germany than West Germany.
The older generation is also much less fluent than the younger generation.
English is also split along the lines of education – those with a higher degree of formal education like university and more likely to speak English than those with a lower degree.
Should I Learn German To Stay in Germany?
You should learn German to stay in Germany long-term for work or study. Although Germans speak English, most don’t speak fluently. To avoid a stunted social life and make day-to-day tasks more convenient, one should learn German to a B1 standard, at least.
For those taking a short trip to Germany, learning German is not necessary. However, if you have your eyes set on a long-term stay for work, learning German is a must.
Otherwise, you’ll find yourself running into several obstacles. Germany is not catered towards English-speaking individuals. The signs are rarely, if ever, in English, and even English movies in the cinema have German subtitles.
Beyond the superficialities of trying to get from one location to another, most companies do not offer customer service in the English language. This means you’ll be running into a lot of trouble trying to open a bank account, paying your taxes, or even talking to your landlord.
Therefore, you should learn German before or during your stay. You can do this with applications like DuoLingo, or by attending a local German institute for some classes. You should aim to achieve a B1 standard under the Goethe-Zertifikat.
English Use in the Major German Cities
Berlin – Berlin is Germany’s capital, and it was at one point the home of divided Europe. As a home to David Bowie and Iggy Pop among other artists over the years, Berlin is a cultural hub in Europe. Berlin is a cosmopolitan city filled with many diverse people, so as a tourist, you should not have any problem relying on English. In Berlin, you can rely on many people speaking English. The city offers an abundance when it comes to lifestyle, culture, and entertainment. Whereas Berlin’s divided and traumatic past has left its mark on the city, the city now has an inspirational and awe-inspiring vibrancy.
Hamburg – As Germany’ largest port city, many of Hamburg’s tourist attractions focus on its maritime history. The most popular tourist attraction is Speicherstadt or City of Warehouses, originally a German customs zone, now you can wander around the Warehouses beautiful architecture. As a cultural hub and large city in German, most Germans should speak English, but learn some German phrases to impress people with some good party tricks. Hamburg is a rainy city, so if the rain does not bother you, the consider Hamburg with a rain coat and umbrella. With Hamburg’s green parks, canals, and gigantic harbor, the city is one of Western Europe’s best secrets.
Munich – Munich is the vibrant and lively Bavarian capital. As a home to Bavarian rulers up to the 20th century, there are many attractions like Baroque churches, museums, and art museums with some many masterpieces that you could wander around for weeks. Hamburg is not as cosmopolitan as Berlin, so you might need to practice a little German before visiting. The infamous joke goes though that beer sounds identical in English, and German, so you will have no problem ordering beer at Oktoberfest.
Cologne – As a city situated in the Rhein-river region, Cologne has its own dialect. The city is an idyllic spot for people looking to escape the hustling urban life. The city is known for its High Gothic architecture, think tall slender vertical piers and pointed arches. With that said, Cologne does have a regional dialect that is widely-spoken, so it might be best to learn a few useful phrases to gain some local respect. Cologne is Germany’s capital of the television industry, and it is a cultural hotspot that has many famous museums, festivals, and nightlife.
Frankfurt am Main – Frankfurt is Germany’s financial hub. While the central business district is home to the ten tallest skyscrapers in the country, opposite the district is an entire museum district. Frankfurt is home to Germany’s first democratic parliament and childhood home of author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Because Frankfurt is the financial hub of Germany, you can expect many Germans here to speak English. Frankfurt has the luxuries of big cities, but it has its own medieval town allure. Frankfurt also has the convenience of the Rhein river and Tannus mountains nearby by train.
Stuttgart – For car lovers, Stuttgart is home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Stuttgart is a more low-key city compared to other German cities. Outside of the Mercedes-Benz and Porsche museums many tourist attractions are parks. As a smaller German city, you should expect to practice your German. Most Germans do speak English, but in smaller cities, English speakers are not as common. For English speakers, Stuttgart offers the opportunity to work in many world-class firms like Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, or Bosch. There is more in Stuttgart then only cars though. Stuttgart is the perfect city to relax and practice your German in a park, or in a quiet neighborhood bar or coffeeshop.
Dusseldorf – Dusseldorf is an international financial giant that rivals Frankfurt am Main. The city has a looser side with many bars and pubs to celebrate Oktoberfest and have some fun. Dusseldorf is home to historic residences, art museums that span the ages, cultural hubs, and medieval churches. While it is a smaller city, you should learn some German phrases to get around and impress the residents.
What Languages are Spoken in Germany?
German – The official language of Germany is Standard German. German can be divided into a geographical distinction. In the North, Germans speak Low German, and in the South, Germans speak High German, which is the standard. Throughout Germany, residents speak regional dialects that are subdivided in the Standard German language.
English – Most Germans are taught English from an early age. Most English education starts in elementary school. A German friend told me that if you live along the French border than it is possible French might be taught as a second language. Latin is another common second or third language.
French – About 15% of the German population speaks French. Since French and Germany share a western border, many Germans travel to France for educational and leisure activities. Likewise, many French might move to Berlin to broaden their knowledge about a neighboring country.
Russian – Berlin was once the divided capital of Europe. Split in half after World War II, it seems natural that many Germans speak Russian. Between 2.5 and 3 millions Russian speaking people currently live in Germany. Most probably came as refugees after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Turkish – Turkish people comprise the largest ethnic group in Germany. Almost close to 3 million Turkish immigrants live and work in Germany. Most Turkic communities can be found in former Western Germany, and in industrial and working-class neighborhoods of cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, and others.
Is English necessary in Germany?
As a tourist, you should have no problem visiting most tourist attractions and navigating cities using only English. Both English and German use the Latin alphabet, so memorising road signs should not be a problem. Like in Berlin in most places English will be spoken, but when travelling outside to other major cities, it will be more helpful if you learn some useful German phrases. Most Germans speak English, but when going about their day, Germany is distinctly German for everyday things.
As a local, there might be some pride in local language especially if it is a dialect. It is important to preserve local dialects. Doing business in Germany, it is important to maintain established order and structures, and for the most part German is the official business language in Germany. Although if doing international business, then the business transaction will occur in English.
English Teaching in Germany
Teaching English in Germany will be a rewarding experience. Germany’s education system is world-renown with many respected institutions. Looking through career and job-boards, you will see the majority of jobs at international schools. There are a number of different international schools across Germany.
An international school is an alternative to the public education system, although some international schools are affiliated with public-school counterparts. Most of these international schools are located in bigger cities where expats are more populous.
Teaching qualifications in Germany follow the universal standards that to qualify, teachers must have completed a bachelor’s degree, and at minimum a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) Certification.
Most of the demand for English teachers is Business English, so expect to teach in business centres like Leipzig, Frankfurt, Berlin, or Cologne. With recent statistics from 2019, an average salary is about $1,500 or 1,185 EUR. With the thriving cities and the beautiful scenery in the Alps and the Black Forest, Germany is easy to navigate and it is a central European country, so it is a gateway to many other European countries.
Is Germany a Good Country to Live?
Germany is a place that attracts expats, vacation home-owners from young entrepreneurs to older retirees. People are attracted to Germany for its excellent standard of living, a world-class healthcare system, and a thriving economy.
Germany is an orderly place to live. Daily schedules are efficient and always on time, and there is an respect for the environment and natural order of things. Most German cities are walkable, and moving around the country on the transit system is very easy and efficient.
Why Do So Many Germans Know English?
German schoolchildren learn English at an early age. As you travel around Germany, you will find that English fluency is more common in larger cities, university towns, and tourist spots. As an English speaker, German will be an easy language to learn because it is part of the Indo-European language family. English and Germany share an ancestral or root language.
Learning German grammar is the challenging part. German nouns have three cases (masculine, feminine, and neuter), and each article – like a, an, and the – is determined by the noun’s case. There are four cases too called nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative, so conjugating verbs and other parts of speech is trickier at first.
Can You Survive in Germany With English?
Whether knowing German is essential and required for surviving in Germany comes down to why you are going to Germany. In big supermarkets, tourist attraction offices, Government buildings, banks, and transit hubs, you will be able to find an English speaker. Of course, it is logical that this applies to larger urban cities, so it is hard to draw comparisons to small rural German villages. Although you might be surprised.
If you are coming to study in Germany, and your program is in English, then obviously there should not be a problem. If you are coming to work, at an English firm, or teaching English, then the same is true. Many forms at doctors’ offices and other institutions will have the English equivalent of their German forms. Many provisions are there for people who do not speak German. However, speaking the local language is a reward. Speaking the local language in any foreign country brings an ease to life and makes everyday tasks less stressful.
Speaking German is not necessary. As mentioned before though, you will gain tremendous respect for residents if you can demonstrate that you have learned the most basic phrases and day-to-day greetings. With most major cities though, it is not necessary as you can find pockets where English is the main language for daily tasks.
In conclusion, living in working in Germany offers many world-class amenities that you can find in any comparable city. Regarding navigating the new life and travels, approach it with an open-mind and you will succeed. Travelling to a new city can always be stressful at first but find a place that brings you comfort and all will be well.