Most people that move to a different country believe before they go that learning the language is the highest priority, above everything. However, some, like me for instance, do not and find themselves living in the country for many years without mastering even conversational German.
OK, so before you write your hate comments – let me explain. I have lived in Germany for 3 years and have been married to a German for about the same. I have worked here for the last 2 years and I still haven’t learned German. Depending on who you speak to, I am being either extremely ignorant by living in a country and not learning the language, or it doesn’t really matter.
As a total disclaimer, I do speak transactional German so I can order food, make an appointment and ask basic questions, but if the response is outside of what I was expecting I am more than likely going to be stumped. Despite this lack of fluency though I love living in Germany – I don’t feel isolated, or left out, I don’t feel ignorant or rude either for the most part, I do however feel occasionally guilty when I am invited to a party (or my in laws) and all the attendees switch to English just for me… in their country… in their home! But, for the most part it’s fine.
So why after 3 years do I still not speak German? Well let me tell you:
1. It’s hard
As a native English speaker you are blessed. Blessed with the fact that you speak a global language and you didn’t have to spend hours and hours of your mid 20’s and 30’s trying to master it. German is far more complex a language to grasp basics of than English, with its multiple sexes for words and its formal and informal versions it is a bit like trying to complete a 10’000 piece puzzle when there are multiple pieces that are the same shape, but just different colors and whilst they shape may fit, it’s still wrong. The only thing that will get you through this is practice, patience and persistence – even then, if learning other languages is not something you find very natural, then you will likely think it impossible.
2. Germans speak English
Most countries use English as their second language. Meaning that when you travel to most places in the world, you can get by using the hosts limited English to come to a reasonable understanding. In fact, when other countries travel, like an Italian to France they will most likely attempt to converse in English – because it is a global language that is easy to master the basics of. In a lot of foreign countries, a large part of the media they consume is English language, most music in countries like Germany is in English and nearly all students learn English at school so they grow up with a larger exposure. In my experience the younger and more educated the German, the better their English in most cases, meaning that if you get into a conversation with a German they will most likely switch to English, or when you get to your appointment most people will help you along by switching to English. Also, Germans think speaking English is cool.
3. Practicing is difficult
There are apps and books and courses and CD’s and meet up groups and friends – the opportunity to practice is all around you – but you still require that old prerequisite of learning: will power and dedication. Lack these and it doesn’t matter how many easy to use resources there are, you still are not going to do it. Couple this with the fact that most Germans switch to English at the slightest hint of an accent, it means practicing is hard.
4. Courses are hard to get on
Germany allowed some million or so migrants into the country in the last 2 years and depending on what sources you read, it could almost be double that. As part of a migrant’s arrival, they are given a 6 month course in German at the government’s expense. As a migrant from another European country you do not receive any priority, its first come first serve and you simply join the waiting list. Most language centers have been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of students meaning private language schools have been pulled in to help out, this means the quality of your education will vary widely from center to center. Currently I am on a 6 month waiting list and have been for the last 6 months, so there you go.
5. I can get by without it
I am a pretty introverted kind of guy, so I don’t need large swathes of friends and acquaintances to make me feel like I belong. Also I work for a large American organization and most Americans speak at least passable English… meaning this has become my social circle. Doing simple tasks with basic German is fine and my wife translates anything more complicated meaning I get by with my A2 level German.
6. It’s not fun
Sometimes learning is fun – particularly when you learn something you are passionate about, learning the Ukulele was fun, learning to sing was fun, learning German just isn’t fun. Challenging, frustrating, confusing, soul destroying are better adjectives to describe it, if you are a glutton for punishment and have never tried, then try learning a foreign language - personally I would rather go to the dentist.
7. Your focus initially is on arriving or learning your job, not learning German
Learning the language should be your first priority! Oh, really? Not learning my job? Orientating to my new city? Finding somewhere to live? Filling it with furniture? Working out public transport? Or where to buy food? Etc. Learning the language when you first arrive in foreign country is important for many, but it soon loses its importance when you are trying to simply arrive. Couple that with the fact that many people speak English, you may soon realize that learning the language is not the absolute priority you thought it was.
8. My wife translates everything
There’s a shortcut for you – find a German wife. I have the conversation about learning German regularly – I would say at least once a week. Sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t speak fluent German and everyone around the dinner table, in the middle of Germany is speaking English just because of me, sometimes I feel left out if someone tells a story in German and everyone is laughing accept me, sometimes I hate my inability to grasp another language easily. But 99% of the time, it’s honestly not a problem for me, maybe this is a luxury most can’t afford, but my wife is fluent in English, my work and my colleagues are American, I speak enough basic German to get by and most Germans speak English, all in all I’m fine without it, you might be too.
My situation is pretty unique and a word of caution to my “you don’t need German” tongue in cheek article, if you want to apply for and get a job in Germany, you are going to need at least B1 level German – this is considered fluent. Without a close friend or a partner who speaks the language, just doing the basics may be tough – it will also isolate you to only those Germans who speak good enough English to make any effort to get to know you. When I first arrived and didn’t speak any German and it was very hard just taking trains, or going shopping they lead to confusion and frustration. If it wasn’t for my wife my attempt at integrating would have failed. Bottom line is, it’s hard, but with the basics, you can get by and this leads to increased comfort in your new home country.