Do Germans Speak English?

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Am I going to be fine without speaking German if I come to Germany? One of the biggest worries for travelers to Germany as well as expats here is the language. I often get asked about whether the Germans speak English. This question gets asked in different forms, but the short answer is yes (mostly). 

The Long Answer

I have met so many Germans that speak English in one form or another. This ranges from a few words to real fluency. Germans, and especially their education system, are a pragmatic bunch. The use of English especially in business is widespread enough that it is mandatory in school often from grade 5. So most Germans under about 50 will have had English in school at one point or another. The differences will come in how much they practice it and this will often they come in contact with English speakers.

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

The Misleading “Only a Little Bit”

Flame on You

“Sprechen Sie English?” (“Do you speak English”, in German) a tourist asks unsteadily, drawing on the full two years of high school German.

“A little bit”, comes the reply from the German shopkeeper or waitress or train conductor. The shopkeeper then proceeds to discuss in long detail whatever transaction the tourist is trying to do. Sometimes with views on why the tourist might have violated some rule or another.  This German concept of I only speak English “a little bit” can be misleading.

When an American says “I speak a little bit of Spanish,” it usually means that they took two years in high school a number of years ago. They can read signs and mostly menus. Stuttered sentences that may or may not contain a verb are usually the extent of “a little bit”. There rarely a sense of conversation with “a little bit.”

Germans seem to mean “working knowledge” with the phrase “a little bit of English”. There will still be mistakes with verb tenses and not pronounce things right, but in general can make themselves understood in most situations. Sometimes it can be, “I only speak a little English. You want to discuss politics or religion?”.

Senk You For Travelink.

This phrase is quite well known in Germany. It is what it sounds like on the Deutsche Bahn trains as they announce station stops in English (“Thank you for traveling,” if you can’t read Denglish). For most Germans that are not fluent in English and yet college level educated, the amount of English they understand is much more than they can speak. There is also a culture bias against making mistakes. I would not place this on the level of “losing face”, but more an uncomfortably with things outside of the routine. What this means is that although it is rare for someone to start speaking English with you, stumbling through whatever German you know, even badly will often prompt the other to switch to be helpful.

Germans as a culture are quite into traveling. Study abroad is also very common. They are in the middle of Europe with different languages on nearly every side and definitely in the the popular warm places to go. The more a German has traveled the more likely that their English will be passable. As in most cases, go into a situation with some humility using whatever little you have learned and you are likely to be rewarded with enough English to get the job done.

What does this mean for travelers?

Germany is definitely a country that you can travel in without any knowledge of German. People in the tourism industry will almost definitely speak passable English for their area of knowledge. Larger cities and higher educated people will speak more English. Signs are still in German, but I have found people to be quite helpful with directions.

What does this mean for living in Germany longer term?

Ignoring the job aspect and the visa aspect, it is technically possible to live here without much German. It is however not so much fun. Smaller towns will be much more difficult than a place like Berlin. It is well worth learning the language. Though with the above mentioned widespread English proficiency, a little knowledge can go a long way. It is totally worth learning the language and getting into the culture through the language, but to actually live here without it is definitely possible.

40 thoughts on “Do Germans Speak English?

  1. “stumbling through whatever German you know, even badly will often prompt the other to switch to be helpful.” Yes, I totally agree with this! I did a guest vlog on a friend’s YouTube channel on this topic and basically said the same thing, although I also mentioned that for me, I saw German as something I needed to learn if I was going to settle down and live in Germany, just out of respect to my Wahlheimat. Here’s a link to the video if you’re interested! http://youtu.be/ltU9JBV4Aj4

  2. I always hope people won’t notice that I’m German from my English because to me German accents in English are HIDEOUS! Usually people do me the favor and think I’m Scandinavian or Dutch or Belgian, sometimes the place me in Canada which makes me fly 🙂 you’re right though, as a group we tend to speak English ok, I guess.

    • Meh, I don’t think the German accent is any worse than any others in English. It just brings perhaps different connotations. If people are guessing Dutch of Scandinavian, then your English is good indeed.
      The point of the post is to try to help people feel better about coming to Germany. There is so much wonderful stuff to see, and worries of language shouldn’t stop anyone.

      • Oh absolutely! There basically isn’t a language barrier. There will always be someone around who speaks English, no need to be afraid of that.

  3. Regarding living longer term in Germany, I would give the advice to get involved in a local hobby club. Unlike Americans, Germans tend to have one (or maybe, two) hobbies that they pursue to great extents. As singers, my wife and I always found a local chorus (Gesangverein is like a Community Chorus, Männerchor is a men’s choir, Frauenchor is a … wait for it … women’s choir, and Oratorienchor is a chorus that works on the larger choral works) where we got in, sang and drank (and sang some more). All hobby groups will have a time following the meeting where they sit around and drink & eat and share experiences. Do not plan on leaving when the meeting is over. Leave time for socializing.
    Whatever your interest, you can find a group of Germans in your area who share that interest (model railroading and radio-controlled aircraft are two big ones for guys). Wade in, make friends (probably for life), and have a great time.

    • The club thing is definitely something I know about the culture and haven’t really done much with. Well I have done an English Club, but it is mostly populated by other English speakers, so not really the same thing.

      Can you say anything about the language requirement for joining more clubs? Are you likely to feel left out if you can’t speak fluent German when you try to join?

      • Andrew~
        Language is not an issue. Most German clubs I got involved with or heard about others getting involved in are really excited to have an American join them. They will want to know all about the hobby in America.

        Here are two examples of friends who got involved with German clubs: While we were living in the Heidelberg area, a friend who loves to play ice hockey went to a local team (in Plankstadt, I think). In short order he learned the key German words for what he was to do (e.g., “bully” is a “face-off”). By sticking around afterwards and quaffing a beer or so with the other players, he discovered how much easier it was to speak German and how much English his teammates knew. He’s back in the States now, but he remains in contact with many of those guys and (so he tells me), they e-mail about the hockey they are playing now.
        When I lived outside Nürnberg, one of my co-workers came from Texas. He loved to play cards. He found a Skat Club (Skat is a German card game similar to Rummy, I think). He learned Skat and the vocabulary that goes with it and, after about a year or so, he taught them to play cribbage. He was not much of a drinker, so I suspect that alcohol might have speeded up the process.

        I think folks will only feel left out if they are intimidated. Usually there will be a member or two who knows English and may even have been to the US for extended periods. These folks can help an English-speaker get involved (explain rules or vocabulary or generally what’s happening). After a few meetings, you begin to understand more and more and you can follow what’s being discussed. Never be afraid to ask “was bedeutet ______” or to say “ich habe das nicht ganz verstanden”. Over time, try to get a German explanation than an English translation.

        As an aside, when I moved to Northern Minnesota and joined groups, there was also a feeling of being left out — because I had no history in the area (e.g., folks talked about their state championship hockey team and where they were in 1992 — well, I wasn’t there and could only listen in). There will be certain part of the conversations in Germany that will be that way as well. As an individual builds up time in the country and time in the club, that wall will melt away.

        • That is really good to hear. I know about these clubs in general, but have never been to one. Thanks again for your perspective and experience.

  4. I’m going to Oktoberfest in 9 months. Sudying with two online classes 10-15 hours a week. I’m confident i’ll be able to say the bare minmums but this makes me feel better that i won’t be stranded for a day not being able to find a cab, or means back to the hotel worse come to worse. Haha thanks a lot.

    • If you do 10-15 hours a week online for the next months you will be fine. Especially during Oktoberfest and in Munich there are enough tourist there that a lot of people are used to English. That said if you have studied that much German, USE IT. You will find new friends quite quickly.
      Enjoy Oktoberfest. Are you going to be able to see much else in the country> Do you have your place booked yet? They fill up very fast.

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  6. I have had the opportunity to tour German and I didn’t have a problem communicating at all because most Germans speak fluent English. English as a language should be taken seriously in their education system.

  7. I’ve met so many Germans so far in Canada and they’ve all had perfect English. In some cases, their accent was easier to understand than mine, ha ha 🙂 It’s great how much learning English seens to be instilled in the education system in Germany.

    • Hah.. that is funny that the Germans were more understandable than you see yourself. Especially for the travel interested in Germany, English is essential. And because it meshes well with business, it gets taught a lot.

  8. I took 4 years of German in high school and have been teaching myself since I’ve been here. Like the Germans with English, I default to saying I only know “a little” when asked because I read and understand more than I can speak. I rarely *have* to speak German and I’ve only twice gotten cornered by older ladies who insist on talking to me in German as I have to shamefully admit I only understood bits and pieces of what they wanted to tell/ask me, but I am trying to get better because I don’t like missing out on large parts of those encounters.

    While I know most people do speak English, I don’t like to count on it. Besides that not all of them do, it feels a bit rude to me to come over and not at least make the effort. And the Germans do seem to like when you make the effort. Even if it’s only saying the pleasantries, or part of your order, it seems to count. I have noticed that the younger crowd tend to be more comfortable with English. Some of them even get excited at the opportunity to practice.

    • 4 years of high school German should be a really good start. Do they have a weird accent where you live?

      • It should be, but the first three years the teacher mostly only taught vocab and gave us free time to play card games. I didn’t really learn how to form sentences until the last year when we got a new teacher who did the best he could with the shaky foundation she’d given us. They have an accent but I wouldn’t really say it’s a weird one. Some of them speak better English than most Americans lol.

        • That is awful. I saw a thing on Facebook a week or so ago. “You all would be speaking German, if I hadn’t been there. – Bad German Teacher”
          The language is very logically built for the most part, and while vocab is important, it is not the absolute basis for conversation and communication.

          • Haha yeah that would probably be an accurate statement. The teacher the last year was pretty disappointed because you really shouldn’t be able to take three years of classes and not be reasonably able to communicate. Yeah, it’s nice to know all the vocab I do but without the rest it means a lot of the time I can figure out what the topic is but not necessarily what’s being said about it.

  9. Agreed, technically possible, but not much fun. Plus a lot of signs in the smaller places are only in German, so you get more out of a place if you can actually read the sign of the sight that you’re visiting.

    • I haven’t seen many signs in English, though often menus. And yes, if you spend time in Germany, definitely learn the language. But it is not a hard place to travel in without that knowledge.

    • Definitely agreed. I tend to take pictures of the plaques that go along with things so I can translate them later, and there are whole aspects to sculptures and the like that I would have missed if I’d only seen the objects and not what was written about them.

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  11. I think every country, there are people who can speak in English well and fluently but I guess this is a post where people can learn more traveling in different places..

  12. When living in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (in Bavaria) last winter I met a lot of people who when asked if they spoke English, winked and replied “Bavarian English”.

    I thought that was such a lovely reply, because everything there really is done ‘bavarian style’.

    • That is a great line. Who says there is no sense of humor in Germany? It is sometimes quite subtle.

  13. In my experience, most of the people in Europe speak English pretty well. As Americans, we are pretty ignorant in general when it comes to other languages. I’ve been to a number of countries and nearly everyone knows a little English. And you are absolutely correct – when they say a little English, it’s not what we think as a little. They are quite conversational.

    I am not saying this is true but in my experiences the Portuguese and Dutch are the best English speakers I’ve encountered. The worst would be the Spanish.

    • I found the Dutch and Swedish to be very good with English. Nearly no accent in a lot of cases. It was much more difficult to find English in Spain at all, let alone fluent. We found one guy in Valencia that ran a pizza place near our rental apartment that was really happy to practice English with us. So it does exist certainly, just not as wide spread.

    • It always helps to try to learn a few phrases. And actually being slightly embarrassed is much better than being arrogant enough to get angry that the entire world does not speak perfect English.

  14. When I lived in a small village next to Tübingen, I was still surprised to realize that most germans have a decent knowledge of english. I mean, ok, I’m a german myself – but having grown up in Spain (where, let’s admit it, english level doesn’t always reach a tourist’s minimum) I expected it to me similar.

    • Spain I found was particularly hard to find any English. Not that I expect someone in a foreign country to speak it fluently, I do kind of expect human beings to try to help each other understand. I end up switching to my half-learned Italian to be understood in Spain. My wife speaks Spanish, so it is much better with her than when I was there alone.
      Germans seem to enjoy the languages somehow. I can’t really explain.

  15. I lived in a small town in Germany for a number of months, and the level of English was definitely much lower than in the big cities. Some people were fluent, but others had no English at all. Certainly an experience 🙂

    • It definitely seems to vary depending on the desire to travel as well as need in daily life. Someone that doesn’t leave a village often doesn’t have much need to practice. I am not sure I could live in a small village, I can well imagine it was an experience.

  16. This post reminds me of one occasion when I was solo touring the west coast of Turkey. I booked into a hotel and there were a lot of Germans who invited me over to their table because I was on my own. One of the Germans spoke excellent English and was really happy to answer all my questions about pre and post world war two for the Germans. Best history lesson I ever had. I learned more from her than any of the history books I read but she kept apologising for her bad English all the time!!

    • Yeah, the apologizing for bad English and mistakes is a pretty classic line too. I wonder if it comes from learning it so much in school. You associate the language with school and marks and whether it is up to a specific grade or not, NOT whether it is understandable and communicative.

      That is awesome that you found someone to teach you history. Lessons like that stick far better than school.

  17. I agree, Andrew; going into the country with a few simple phrases can go a long way. I laughed at the “flame on you” photo; war ich gerade geflamed?

    Thanks for your post!

    • There is a local pizza-type dish called Flammkuchen (flame cake). This cafe has it and I guess was doing some jokes.

  18. I lived in Berlin just recently for a number of years and I found the working knowledge of English to be quite poor there in most neighborhoods. Most former East Berliners over the age of 30-35 can’t speak ANY English (they took Russian until 1989) and most West Berliners did’t have quite a high enough level of English to be able to converse in it. I found the younger, wealthier, more traveled Germans to have a working knowledge of English but when you go into a store, you might not find someone to converse in English with you.

    That being said, if you want to find Americans, Brits, Aussies, S. Africans, and even Kiwis, you will happily be in English-speaking heaven in Berlin. 🙂

    • Yeah, I had forgotten about the easterners. We don’t get so many of them in Freiburg. Especially not without a fair amount of education. I would think that Berlin, being so international would foster multi-lingual stuff, but I understand about the tiny neighborhood shops.

      The point of my post is that it is not a problem to travel in Germany without German. It is totally doable.

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