Friday, 6 November 2015

English in Berlin? Not as widespread as you might think

A new study finds Slovenes, Estonians and Poles all have greater English proficiency than Germans. 

One of the biggest adjustments for me moving from Brussels to Berlin has been linguistic. For one thing, I moved from a city where I speak the language (French) to one where I don't (German). 

But I'll admit it - even though I speak French I preferred to do most things in my native language when possible. In Brussels, this was most of the time. I only spoke French when I absolutely had to, either for work (a lot of French lawmakers don't speak English or are not allowed to), for dealing with Belgian administration, or socially if I was with a group of all Francophones (that didn't happen very often).

For conducting private sector business, whether it was the phone company or my landlord, I was able to use English. The web pages of companies like Belgacom all had English as an option in addition to French and Dutch. My voicemail was set to English. My banking was set to English. For anglophones in Brussels, learning French is a choice rather than a necessity.

Germany is not like that. I have yet to find any German commerce website that has an English version (for instance, no German mobile carrier offers their website in English). There's no option to switch my voicemail instructions to English. When I go to places like the post office or the drycleaner, it's rare to find someone who speaks English. Given that I moved here speaking absolutely no German, it's made getting settled quite the adventure.

Now of course, the fact that people speak German in Germany is only natural. As the acerbic former foreign minister Guide Westerwelle snapped in 2009, "das ist Deutschland hier." 

Really I was kind of spoiled as an expat in Brussels. And it makes sense that an international city like Brussels, where people born outside Belgium make up 52% of the population, would offer English in so many arenas. The country is also used to speaking multiple languages because it is multilingual, and English often acts as a neutral mode of communication between Francophones and Flemish.

Still, given how difficult it seems to get by without German here, I've been surprised by how many expats have never bothered to learn the language. It's mostly the expats who have moved here within the past five years, who are perhaps working for tech start-ups or art studios where the working language is English. Indeed, if I was just here partying I could probably live in a blissful German-free bubble.

But, I'm here working. For covering German politics, English is essential. I've been doing shifts in a newsroom office, and English is just non-existant there. People seem to be able to speak it, but they clearly don't want to. Coming from Brussels it's quite a transition. I've never worked in an office before where the working language wasn't English (and I've lived in Europe for ten years).

So when a new study came out showing Germany relatively low (11th) on a table of English knowledge, I wasn't too surprised. Of course, relatively speaking 11th is pretty good. Belgium came in at 17th (which I suspect is due to Wallonia dragging down the average). But it might surprise some Germans to learn that in addition to the Scandinavians and Dutch (obviously), several Eastern European countries also scored higher than them (as did Austria). 

Part of it is size. The tiny nations of Slovenia and Estonia scored higher than Germany. For people who live in a small country, speaking foreign languages is more essential.

The lowest-scoring country in the EU? Take a guess, mon chéri.

It's not all bad news for Germans. Another recent study has shown that German now beats French as as useful second language to learn in the EU. English is obviously identified as the most useful, in all countries except Luxembourg. But German is identified as the second-most useful in 11 countries, while French is identified as a useful second language in only six (one of which is Belgium, which probably shouldn't count). I'll just leave this chart here for a bit of blatant French-trolling.
I've restarted my intensive German lessons this week, I'm not at level A2 (elementary). It's still a bit of a struggle, I'm starting to suspect that someone invented this language as some kind of a cruel joke. The hardest bit for me is the fact that the words are in a completely different order. It takes so long for me to order the words properly, it's like doing algebra every time I speak.

But I'll keep at it, because I don't want to be one of those Berlin expats who never learns Germans. Even if I wanted to be, I'm finding that for someone who wants to actually work here, it's not really an option.

1 comment:

Mike Heine said...

I like the attitude. Too many American expats miss out on way too much by refusing to learn German. And here's a quote from Mark Twain, maybe it will provide some consolation for you:

"Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."