Speaking German in Berlin

Speaking German in Berlin when everyone replies in English

It may sound like a strange situation, although I am sure many people have had this happen to them. Speaking German and improving your overall proficiency can take a long time due to its rather complex grammar. Although reaching fluency is everyone’s goal, English is a nice safety net for some people to fall back on if they speak English better than German. This is the case with many expats, either Italian, Spanish, British or French… We’re all in the same boat.

It can be an issue for those who live in Berlin and where the company language is English. Often you hear people saying they have lived here for 4-5 years and still cannot get past B1 German. Berlin is a very internationalcity, as is London, with English being the second language. Berliners do however, have a good English proficiency so you can get away with some denglisch now and again.

Therefore, it is even possible to avoid learning German whilst living here.  Read this for an insight into what some Germans might think if you don’t speak any German, or attempt to learn some basic polite phrases at least.

Personally, I find the majority of previously West Berliners are more likely to be able to comfortably hold conversations in English. From experience, lots of Germans do not expect expats to speak German so they often start speaking in English straight away.

As an expat who is trying to speak German as much as possible, it can be frustrating and sometimes off-putting if someone is answering in English. I have some tips which require you to not take it personally and to continue your goals of mastering the language. There are many advantages to getting out of your comfort zone.

My tips to improve your German and be able to respond in German with more confidence

  1. If someone in the bakery, supermarket etc speaks English, keep answering in German (they will switch back as soon as you demonstrate some ability)
  2. If someone switches to English during a conversation subtly continue in German
  3. Have questions and answers in your head for generic conversations in German
  4. Listen to Germans and how they speak, think of phrases they use regularly and write them in your Evernote
  5. Get a tandem partner who does not speak English well
  6. Go out solo to explore, read, speak and put words into context (read signs and hand-written notices that Berliners tend to leave everywhere)
  7. Order in German and ask questions, finish the conversation
  8. Read the news in the U-Bahn
  9. Try to think in the language and avoid translating word-for-word (by listening to how others speak)
  10. Learn new verbs every week. German has so many verbs which are used in different ways. ‘machen’ and ‘gehen’ reicht nicht.

Speaking German daily will pay off

In Berlin, speaking German means you will get a little further with the majority of people. Although many people like speaking English and accept it, there may be some who do not appreciate having to speak in a foreign language in their own country. It’s essential to understand it from their point of view. If you offer to speak German and make an effort it will go a long way. The more conversations you have in German, the better you will become. Remember: they may also be worried about their English and will most likely make mistakes. The best way to learn German is via making mistakes. Furthermore, if you do not know a word for something, just explain you are not sure of the word and try to describe around it.

One example of me trying to ‘wing-it’ on limited vocabularly:

I was at Badeschiff in Summer 2015 and needed to lock my things away in a locker. Unfortunately I did not know the word for a padlock in order to shut the locker. I then tentatively decided to ask in the hope of some understanding in a conversation with a rather impatient bartender:

“ich hätte gern etwas damit ich meine Sachen wegsperren kann… bitte :)”
“Meinst du ein Schloss…”
“Genau! Ein Schloss.”
*Saves word in brain forever*

How do you try to speak as much German as possible? How do you get past thinking in English? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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