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The biggest lie about German

Some background info: have family born & raised in Germany (right outside Frankfurt), but I myself am American and only speak a few words - thanks to Duolingo. I work as a professional translator in other languages, however.

I would like to know what people are smoking when they claim most Germans speak English or prefer to reply in English. My experience in traveling around Germany over the years is completely the opposite. I have even tried to speak English and many people reply in German. Sometimes I can tell they understand me, but they are still replying in German. I do not feel comfortable going around Germany without my cousin as an interpreter.

I'm not talking about the countryside here, or about old people - these are young people in large cities, some even in the service industry.

I'm not picking on the English ability of Germans - we all know how horrible most Americans are at languages - but the myth about Germans knowing English well and preferring to communicate in it is nonsense. Please stop spreading it. The average German struggles to really communicate in it, and prefers to speak German instead. The German posters hanging around English language boards and writing essays on minute facets of German linguistics and culture are not average - they are usually highly educated and have experience abroad or extensive language practice.

I hope this motivates people to take German, and for those people already taking it, to be serious in their studies, because outside a few select areas in Germany, you're going to need it.

May 6, 2016



I've been to Germany twice, for three weeks each time, and I had somewhat the opposite experience. A lot of English, including when I might have preferred to try to practice my German.

That said, it certainly wasn't everyone. There were plenty of people who didn't speak English or didn't speak it well, but there were quite a lot people who spoke it nearly flawlessly and I mostly got by without speaking German almost at all both times.


I think we should travel together then, because I need an interpreter.


It probably depends on the region, city or village, type of person....

I was in Hamburg two years ago, for two weeks. I stayed some days in a friend's house, 10 km away from Hamburg, and most people there (old and young) didn't speak English.

In the city, in Hamburg, more people could speak Engish, but not all, at all.


Some people at my mother's work (in services) don't want to speak English, even though they just graduated, and are even having business English in the school they must do additionally to their work. There are English lovers, one guy had worked in a hotel before, he knows German, English, Turkish and French, and then there are the people who somehow just passed and who send the English speaking customers to him. As they're working in one of the biggest shopping centres, at least the younger employees shouldn't behave like that. Even though, most of them are fluent in German and at least one other language, just often not English at my Mum's work it's Turkish, Russian, Bosnian, Dutch, Polish and fluent German.

The older employees are mostly immigrants from the Sowjet Union, so German is already their second tongue and they've never learned English. For the other ones it's imo often a lack of self confidence, as usually every student had at least 6 years of English, if you want to go to a university you must have learned a second foreign language (I think for at least 4 years) as well. Personally understanding is also often easier than speaking. I was pretty lost when I had to actually speak French after almost 7/8 years of not using it :'D And often some language just suffers if you have too much, I graduated with people who already spoke German + another language at home, and then had to take English (9 years) and Latin/French (at least 4 years), plus often Spanish (3 years) later.

Depending on the region it can also be a bit out of prejudice, a friend of mine comes from a town with a British military base. On the one hand people arranged with them in 60 years, they're an economic factor, on the other hand she prefers not to speak English with them in her spare time, and ignores pretty direct flirts, as their reputation isn't the best. Even though if she must she can speak English.


Most Germans actually do have some proficiency in English, but in some areas it's just barely over 50% which really isn't that bad. You will find a lot of people can speak English perfectly well, but you definitely can't count it! I first went to Germany in 2000 with a very tiny vocabulary and a tourist phrase book, and I didn't find it at all easy. I did run into quite a few English speakers, but annoyingly not at places where it would be most helpful like at the train station ticket office. I've gone every year since then, often several times a year, and have traveled up and down and across the country to almost every corner and also Austria and Switzerland . All the while I've slowly built up my German abilities. I'm now confident in normal everyday situations and don't worry at all about finding an English speaker. But I do find them all the time, much less so in the east or in small towns and villages. In the east, you'll find a lot of people speak very good Russian. I find most of the people I've met who have even quite basic English are enthusiastic about practicing it. I don't think it's a complete myth, it's just you're chances are only about 60/40. Because of those odds I'm still working on improving my German!

I found this breakdown by area http://www.ef.co.uk/epi/regions/europe/germany/


What I understand, and this not only happen with Germany, but also with other countries like France, Japan and even USA, people want speak their languange in their own country and that you speak their language (in some countries is even an insult to visit their country without knowing the language or at last trying even with a dictionary)... and honestly no one in USA should complain people in other countries don't want to speak english and want you speak they language, after all they are the first to yell "speak american" if we dare to speak our language in USA (and they even say it to native americans that speak their languages that are more american than english)...

Yes, I know english is now almost an international language, and I have friends that understand english but don't speak it, but many times, if you go to a country, you need to investigate first where they can understand you and where they can't...

Also depend how you speak, I have seen people that know english and do not speak it to tourists because the tourists don't ask the things nicely, they don't say please or thanks, they see the locals like servants, many times they don't want to adapt themselves to the local culture, are noisy and want things to be done like it is done in their countries and not the country they are visiting (and sadly the people that do those bad things are mostly US citizens and UK citizens)...

I have a friend who hates Germany because they didn't want to speak to him in english, but after he told me how he behave when he was in Germany I understood why they acted like that... honestly, visit an embassy first and learn about the country you go and learn where people speak english and where they don't speak it... there are countries where people don't even know what english is!!!

Also it exist the "english haters" that feel english is destroying their own language, so they really don't want to learn it at all!!!

Also, many people don't fell the necessity to learn another language, more if the language is becoming popular and is used in many countries, like english. In my case, more languages you know is better...

Sorry my bad english...


I will talk from my own experience. And I live in China, not in Germany. I work at beer festivals and get to meet a lot of Germans in social environments. I speak German at B2 level. I have found it almost impossible to have a conversation with a German in German, because 80% of the time they they insist on speaking English to me. Once they hear my accent and realise I am not German, they switch to English. Even if my next follow-up question is in German, trying to persist, they will almost always reply to that too in English. One guy even told me "it's ok, we can understand English, it is not necessary that you speaking German", another memorable quote was "but you are not german, why you are speaking German?". Of the few exceptions, the Germans who are happy to speak German with me are mostly very drunk people, people over the age of about 40 from the former DDR, or people with very strong regional accents (who by the way I sometimes think do it on purpose to test my understanding - or maybe that's just how they talk).

To be fair, most of the Germans living in Asia speak better English than I do German. And I don't think there is any arrogance or malice on the German side - they genuinely think they are helping me by switching to my native tongue. Just annoying that I don't get to practice my German. I think that to be properly accepted as a German speaker I would have to speak it at a very high (almost perfect) level - otherwise the normal German response is to switch to English.


Most people living abroad, Germans or else, speak at least decent English, if not nearly fluent (exhibit A myself). But they are not representative of the main autochtone population. I've been living abroad almost my entire adult life, so I can speak English. My cousins however stayed in my homeland, and despite having learned English at school, couldn't pronounce more than three words, and with the most incomprehensible accent.


This is kind of the point I'm trying to get across - in most situations, the travellers you meet abroad are not great representations of average people from the country. Of course it depends on the nationality and circumstance, but in general..


Interesting! It sure would throw a wrench in immersion if I went overseas and every other person began speaking English around me. I know firsthand that there's a negative stigma attached to Americans like myself that we have no intention of adopting a language, or we're just plain terrible at it.

Think it could have something to do with that, politeness, or do most people want to not bother and would rather communicate in a language both parties are believed to understand well?


I'm German so I never had the problem that people switch to English for me... I'm on the other site of this ;)

Most people I know tend to do it because they think it'll make it easier for both parties involved - especially if you're noticeably struggling. However, if you make it clear that you WANT to practice your German and would prefer them to speak to you in German, most are willing to do if the situation allows it. In my book, be polite but also be straightforward about your wishes and don't silently hope that your cues will be interpreted correctly.


Ooh, I relate to that last bit where cues can get misinterpreted. English became my girlfriend's second language after she moved to the United States. I'm often reminded that she doesn't always understand when I'm being a sarcastic clown, and tones get "lost in translation", so to speak. In fact, sometimes she'll ask outright if I'm joking around.

Haha, plus it would be unreasonable to expect anybody to adjust an entire lifetime of linguistic understanding just to humor a foreigner like myself. This was all incredibly helpful! Danke schön!


Well, to be fair, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Germans here in the forums are indeed the exception to the rule. Not everyone is as good (and interested) in learning languages as we are, the level of formal education does not matter. One day at University my Ex asked me to help him and his study group with their English homework, because it was - quote "impossible to solve!". Turned out it was a text where you had to fill in the gaps. The verbs were already there, you just had to write them down into Present Tense. Present Tense! What is the difficulty with Present Tense? They simply could not do it. So yes, there are many Germans who do not speak English. Even the young ones. I think it has a lot to do with the fact, that all foreign films and series are dubbed. We are not as exposed to the English language as our Dutch neighbours or the people in Scandinavian countries. Their level of English is a lot higher than ours. Therefore it is never a waste of time to learn some German if you plan to visit our country.

BUT as soon as someone realises, that you do not speak a word of German, they usually do their best to make you feel welcome. If you meet a person that understands your English words but refuses to reply in your language, it does not mean that they are bad in speaking English. They are just really, really rude. Even worse if it happend to you in a shop or in a restaurant. At my work (far, far away from any big international city) I am the only one who is capable to have longer conversations in English, but if a non-German customer enters the shop who obviously does not know a word of German, even the older collegues try to speak English. Even if it is very basic. It is called common courtesy. ;)


Interesting! This is contrary to whatever I've heard about Germany and its language. Is the same true for Scandinavian countries? Do people in, say, Sweden prefer to speak in Swedish, too? I'd love to know because I stopped learning Swedish since "everybody speaks English in Scandinavia."


Speaking as a Swede, There are of course a great number of young to middle-aged people that have no problem speaking English proficiently, but there's also a fair number of Swedes that are not as confident and comfortable, especially the ones that have mostly stayed in Sweden except for the odd trip here and there. So by all means, Swedish is still the language that gets you speaking with the most diverse number of Swedes in Sweden :)


Cool! I've heard that the newer generation has perfectly American Accents and there's no hassle in understanding them. Is that true, too? And another totally unrelated question, is Fredrik Backman popular in Sweden? I'm a very big fan of his.


I'm not from Sweden, but it probably depends on the US accent. We had an English teacher from the East Coast and had some trouble to understand him. Even the geeks from my class were just guessing, he had to adapt his speed and accent quite a bit. He spoke as if he had that hot potato in his mouth, and then said he could speak even worse, as he lived in the South States before :'D Even though for example watching US tv is usually no problem at all, I enjoy it quite a lot.

I've also worked on a gospel project with people from Alabama, 95% of the workshop were great to understand and the rest was guessing. But they also spoke extremly clear, as it was an international convention and most people weren't native speakers. There were some things that the English choir and rest wanted to be changed "Jova" to "Je-hova" but that was kind of the only thing.

Personally I don't see a sense in teaching students a US accent in Europe, as the UK is geographically closer. But it also depends on the teacher, if you have someone who loves the US, who maybe lived there before, you'll probably end up speaking differently than with a UK and Shakespeare lover like our teacher. We learned BE from the beginning, and then differences in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary to US English. But 99% of us preferred BE until the very bitter end :D


I was talking about the standard, understandable American accent that most people regard as "no accent."


The accent depends entirely on the person and their exposure, the notion that we speak in perfect American accents comes from the fact that US TV-series, movies and games are subtitled, not dubbed in Sweden, which means that for a great deal of us that enjoys such media does pick up the US accent, even though we get taught British English in school. I'm a prime example of that myself, I picked up surely around 80% of my English from TV-series, movies and games.

Your second question, I simply can't reply. I haven't lived in Sweden for quite a while now and don't keep up with the trivial Swedish entertainment people or whatnot.


Swedes do speak English very well, but if you work or go to parties, hang out with friends, etc people are speaking Swedish to each other, and you feel like a burden when you don't understand. It's one of the reasons I started learning it.


Ah, I get it! Thanks!


That is definitely true! I was born and raised in Germany , and very few people speak a second language (mostly those who were raised in a bilingual household) .Even employees working with immigrants have trouble speaking English or another second language.


I spent four days in Bremen last month. I found that in some of the touristy shops and cafes, people would help me in English if I stumbled, but when I replied in (bad) German they humoured me and continued in German. On a handful of occasions, restaurant and shop staff switched to English but I simply told them "I must speak German!" and they would laugh and let me continue.

Once I left the touristy bits - my host loaned me her bike for the day - I was reliant on my own German. I didn't speak grammatically and I probably wasn't always intelligible, and I only got about 40% of the replies though I could muddle through well enough.

I was walking through a park and a man was approaching me with his daughter on his shoulders. She dropped her teddy bear behind, and I did manage to say "excuse me, you've left the bear." Except I said "die" instead of "der" so it probably sounded like "you've left the bar." Still, he understood!


One German friend will not speak to me in German as I think he doesn't like the way I speak German. Another German friend insists we speak German only and finds that I communicate perfectly well and over time it really becomes quite fluent. An English German speaker insisted that we couldn't have a proper conversation in German as it would be false; I pointed out that we were actually speaking German and, therefore, were having a conversation! In Germany it's sometimes best to pretend that you come from a country with an 'obscure' language and that you are happier to speak in German than your terrible English!


I must say I'm rather surprised by that myth. I'm from city near Polish-German boarder and I have never heard that kind of myth. Quite opposite. It's well-known fact that Germans prefer to use own language over English - no matter if in their country or aboard. There have been always lots of German tourists in my city and it's mandatory for any customer service worker to know both English and German, because they just won't use English. I don't know why, but that's something I've often seen. And yes, they often know English as they answer logically - but in German. We often spoke in English-German as both sides could (mostly) understand each other. ;)


I completely agree with you. I recently moved to Germany (Munich), and on the very first week, I decided I needed to take actual German classes - that's how hard it was having only A1-level German skills. And you're right, English is supposedly common in the city center - that turned out to be a lie. You almost always cannot buy anything without trying to speak in German.


I am German, and I agree. Many Germans don't speak English well. Every student learns English in school, but mainly written. Our teachers are often unable to pronounce correctly. Even my written and spoken English is rudimentary. Till now I had to check the dictionary nearly ten times. We don't practice enough! Some young people, who are interested in international played online-games or social media, speak english much better than their teachers! The generations above 30 forgot almost everything they learned before.


You are totally right. The English lessons in our schools are somewhere "in the clouds" while pupils are still struggling with the basics. My sons learned their English playing Online games...

I myself finished school with quite good grammar and reading skill - but I wasn't able to ask for a roll in the plane because I had never learned the word "roll" during 8 years of English lessons ^^ But this was still in GDR and of course our English teachers had almost no possibility to practice their own English and therefore the lessons were more focused on Reading skills.


Back in the 1960s when I was at secondary school in the UK our parents were given a talk in which they were told that the UK would likely join what is now the European Union and French and German would be good subjects for us to study, as employers would be looking for staff who could communicate with firms on the Continent of Europe.

I don't think that happened. The UK joined what is now the EU but I don't think there has been a great demand for employees with language skills during the years of the UK being in the EU. As I didn't go to work in the business community I don't know first-hand but I think I would have been aware if there were lots of job adverts asking for staff able to communicate in French, German, etc.

So what has been happening? Was English used extensively for business communication.

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