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Many foreigners wonder about how much German is good enough for Germany. There is a widely held belief that English is rampant in Germany. How true is this?
When I first visited Germany for the first time in 2002, I got the impression that everyone spoke English: My partner’s family, friends and acquaintances all spoke English. Even though, some were not fluent, all of them could express themselves fairly well in English. During that visit, we did a small tour of Germany starting from the small town in south west of Germany) near Heilbron where my partner’s family lived and headed to Berlin in the north about 600km away and then to Hamburg to the North-west and back. During this trip, pretty much everyone I encountered spoke English. I also noticed an eagerness of sorts among the many Germans I met to speak English. Strangers would often ask me probably because I looked different whether I spoke French or English. Needless to say, I concluded that one could get by in Germany without speaking German which as I later found out was at best naïve and at worst, well, very naïve J.
A year after my first visit, we again visited Germany and this time I had an inkling that maybe not everyone spoke English. We drove to the southern town called Constance (in German it is called Bodensee) to visit his aunts and uncle. Constance is a border town bordering Switzerland and is a very popular tourist destination. His uncle and aunts’ English was halting and since I barely spoke German, my husband did most of the translations.
Soon after, we finally moved to settle in Germany.
As soon as we arrived, we set out looking for a place to rent. This phase was very difficult but we eventually managed to get a place largely because of help from my husband’s family and friends.
This early period was exciting mainly because there was so much to learn and to be shocked and surprised about. One of the things that I remember being particularly shocked about was the fact that one had to buy their own kitchen whenever they move into an apartment. A built-in kitchen is not part of a German lease. The other thing was the shocking figures/amount of money one had to pay the real estate agent. I think we paid two months’ rent as commission to the real estate agent and a month’s rent as deposit.
But all these pale in comparison to what awaited me. As soon as my husband started working, I settled into my new life and went about learning German. I suddenly had to do things for myself for example buy myself a tram ticket, shop for food, just run daily errands and at this point I started realizing what I had deep down suspected; that most Germans don’t speak English. Like my husband’s extended family, they understand English but it isn’t a language that they are comfortable speaking. I remember especially dreading going to a bakery. I would walk into a bakery and feel a latent dread. The baker behind the counter would look up at me with an expectant face. I would fumble trying to decide what to order and how to say it correctly in German. And almost always, there would be someone waiting in line and watching and listening impatiently to the ongoing circus. I resorted to just using my hands pointing to what I want and nodding or shaking my head. The few times I attempted to talk in English, I was often met with blank faces or puzzled irritated looks.