...Everyone Speaks English in {Berlin}. Why Are You Learning {German}?

  • can be replaced by ANY city with expats

  • can be replaced by the respective language

Since moving back from Belgium, I noticed I was fascinated with languages. I wanted to learn new words and laughed at the expressions — I found it easy to pick up accents (I might I have a good ear for it).

Moving through the years into secondary school, I noticed I was in the minority of those who were interested in languages.

Most people weren’t interested in French class. Never mind German.

Once I got to A Level at a state school in Berkshire, I found I was the one of FOUR having picked it for AS Level at the age of 17. This meant I would, statistically, end up alone in A2 German in the second year.

I switched schools and left my friends to be able to learn more and to be challenged by other classmates.

Being able to speak a little bit of a few languages has helped me connect with people more, especially handy for travelling around.

Being able to speak a little bit of a few languages has helped me connect with people more, especially handy for travelling around.

The Lack of Interest in Learning Languages

My peers considered languages a joke subject they were keen to drop as soon as they were able to for AS Levels. In fact, there was talk of doing everything possible to ensure they did not have to attend the classes the following year, in year 8. They’d pick P.E. lessons or simply do so badly they did not put you in languages classes the following year.

This bewildered me; not only was it fun to write in another language (how do you spell that word, again?), as a visual learner I made it my mission to be able to conjugate in the language (I am, you are, he is).

For me, it was an enjoyable challenge to form sentences once I had mastered conjugations and learned a few set basic phrases. I still do this to this day when I want to learn some phrases when travelling to a country where I don’t speak the language.

Apparently this was not so exciting and I was a nerd for enjoying the class.

So be it!

Living in Berlin: What Expats Are Saying

Berlin is the hub to gazilion tech start-ups of which the majority have English as their working-language.

This makes it harder to practise German and to get the exposure to the language itself. German colleagues will tend to switch to English and will be able to speak quite fluently, making it harder and harder for expats to get a chance at practising; particularly because they’re scared to make mistakes.

A lot of expats know “Hallo” and that is it.

If I went to Sweden (I know “Tak” (thank you) and that’s it, this is what I would learn:

  • Hello

  • How are you

  • Sorry / Excuse me

  • May I … have / go

  • Thank you

  • A bag / receipt

  • Payment: is it card or cash?

  • Menu / Bathroom / Pay

  • Sorry, my Swedish is not so good

  • Bye

This is not so many words. Expats in Berlin should try harder, especially if they’ve been living here for 2-3 years! Sometimes I meet people who have lived here 8 years and don’t know how to say “have a good day” (an important sentence to exchange when in Berlin).

Situations Where Knowing German Saved My Skin
(or theirs!)

  1. Riding with a friend of mine on the U-Bahn (subway) and she had forgotten to validate her ticket. If I hadn’t negotiated on her half and come up with an excuse, she would have received a 60 EUR fine. I explained we’d get out right away and validate it.

  2. Going to the Agentur für Arbeit. Whilst waiting to find out if your contact gets extended or not (if it is a limited contract) then you must visit the Agentur Für Arbeit and declare what you’re doing with your life (pretty much). They rarely speak English here and I’ve gone along with a colleague to her meeting and interpreted for her.

  3. In restaurants, I can read the menus (mostly) if they’re not in English. I can also discuss anything I want to order, change or request special dietary requirements. In Milan (I do not speak Italian) , I was with a friend who is lactose intolerant. We really struggled to find anything suitable. I learned how to say, “without cheese, milk or butter” As this was not only essential for her health but also the only way they’d understand. Some suggested lactose-free milk but in fact she could not have milk full stop.

You get the picture :)

This bring me onto my next part.

English-Speaker Arrogance

Why, if we are too lazy to learn even the basics, are we rude when expats in our countries make mistakes, or worse, when we go abroad and others try to speak English?

“They couldn’t even speak English.”

“His/Her English was rather basic.”

There are phrases I have heard friends and acquaintances say quite often —as a language leaner, I would never even think of saying this myself.

Often the person who is saying this is indeed a unilingual person who leads a life expecting hotels and restaurants over the entire world to understand them when the use household names or brands specific to their home country and get annoyed for doing so.

My favourite quote I read recently has to be this:

English speakers are always known as being “terrible at languages”. We use this as an excuse, as if our brains are somehow hard wired in a different way to our peers across the world, making us incapable of learning to speak a foreign tongue.

(The Scotsman, 2 March 2019)

So Why are Native English Speakers So Bad at Languages?

Our brains are not wired differently.

We learn languages at 11 or 12 years old, not 3 or 4 as in other European countries. Although, I did see that some primary schools are learning languages at Year 3-6 which is FANTASTIC. We just need them to get older and show interest in studying languages on to GCSE, A Level and further education.

Sadly, many UK universities do not offer languages in their course options any longer due to ‘lack of uptake’, which was - in my eyes - a massive mistake. In other news, some universities are offering students the chance to study languages ab initio (from scratch) which does help.

Salford University dropped all languages but offer a University Wide Language Programme to add-on credits towards your degree by taking up Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, or Spanish which is excellent.

Waiting for the white wash to finish next to the  Waschmaschine  in Tempelhof, Berlin.

Waiting for the white wash to finish next to the Waschmaschine in Tempelhof, Berlin.


Top 10 reasons to learn a language

As an expat, even if you’re no longer in school

  1. To learn more about your own language

  2. To settle abroad for a short period and get by

  3. To train and stimulate the left side of your brain

  4. To make friends easier

  5. To be respectful to your host country

  6. To connect with others and to understand their culture

  7. To learn expressions, idioms and phrases that are unique to that language

  8. To feel immersed and settled into your host country, less of an outsider

  9. To be more employable and valuable

  10. To work on different projects and to expand knowledge elsewhere, thanks to the language