Why you’ve got to speak German to get by in Germany
Although Germany ranks among the major global economies, the country is not so international when it comes to language. Expat Coach Kerstin Brandes provides some insights on Germany’s preference for its national language and shares her tips for integrating.
It often comes as a surprise to newcomers that English does not get them very far. To really benefit from your stay in Germany, the unfortunate truth is that you need to learn German.
Global player – local language
It doesn’t normally occur to expats that a highly developed global economy like Germany would be so strongly dominated by its national language, in all spheres of life. Many people come to Germany expecting to be able to get by with just English, both at work and with local authorities, and even with their German neighbours.
However, except for a small number of truly international companies and research institutes, the language of choice in German businesses is generally German. And even if your team communicates in English, intracompany communication with HR and other services will most likely be in German.
Public services – in German, please
If you are among the group of expats who are lucky enough to be working for an international corporation and happen to live in a neighbourhood where many of your neighbours speak English, you will most likely notice the limits of internationality when dealing with public services and foreign offices in Germany.
There, all documents are available in German only and employees will communicate in German only.
Work and private live – two separate worlds
Unless you work or live in an international environment like academia or software development, you may find it quite difficult to connect with Germans and integrate into the local community unless you speak the local language relatively fluently.
For one thing, most Germans like to keep their working and private lives separate, and will not be keen on connecting with colleagues after working hours, no matter what language they speak. You may also find that, if there is a language barrier, people in Germany are reluctant to invite you into their home or, even more so, into their circle of friends.
Getting the most out of Germany
But – all hope is not lost! Just a little effort on your part will allow you to reap major benefits. If you take some steps to truly integrate yourself, you will get the most out of your time in Germany.
Learning German is hard stuff
Should you plan to stay in Germany for a relatively long time, learning the language will improve your quality of life immeasurably. And, if you can speak English pretty well as a second language, you have already set yourself up to learn German!
The catch is – no one said learning German was easy. You will need to put in lots of time and effort (or have a rare natural talent) to learn this complex language – but your endeavours will be amply rewarded.
Employers support language training
Rather than going it alone, why not seek help with learning German? Depending on your requirements, lots of different language courses are available in groups, one-to-one, face-to-face or online.
Have you asked your employer whether they offer or support German lessons for you and your family? Many employers contribute to the cost of language courses for their expat staff. Learning the local language goes along with learning more about your host country and its people and may make it easier for you and your family to adapt to your new environment.
However, learning a language is much more than learning words and grammar. Languages are a significant element of a nation’s culture. When learning German, you will learn about the local values and norms, traditions and beliefs. So, apart from making it easier for you to communicate in your host country, it will help you to understand people’s behaviour and mindset a lot better.
Connecting with local Germans
All this theoretical knowledge then needs to be put into practice with real-life Germans! It’s time to go out and connect. But where to start?
If you have come to Germany with your children, they will probably pick up the language quite quickly and make friends with local children. They will make it easy for you, the parents, to connect with other parents at school, in kindergarten or at a sports or music club.
Not all is lost if you don’t have children: in smaller towns and villages especially, social life takes place in clubs, church communities and organised groups of different kinds. If you have a special interest or hobby, check if there is a club in your neighbourhood where you might find like-minded Germans.
Your reward: lasting friendships
Learning German and making friends with Germans can be hard work. But you will be rewarded in the end: once you have found some German friends, you will be in for long-lasting friendships.
In a metaphoric way, Germans are sometimes compared to coconuts: they have an extremely hard shell, but get past that and you’ll find they’re soft and sweet inside. A German friend, once made, is a friend for life.