Sunday, 10 September 2017

Should Germans stop speaking English in Berlin?

A rising star in Merkel's CDU party has criticized Germans in Berlin for speaking too much English, calling them "elitist hipsters". Is he right to say the omnipresence of English in Berlin is exclusionary?



Last week Tyson and I were joined by blogger and long-time EU watcher Jon Worth, to talk about a subject close to the bone for the three of us - increasing German annoyance at the preponderance of English in Berlin.

Controversy erupted in Germany last week after a CDU politician from Germany's West criticized Berliners for speaking too much English.

It's a long-running dispute in Berlin, in which certain neighborhoods like Neukolln and Prenzlauerberg have become notorious for having waiters and bartenders who don't speak German. 

Jens Spahn, the conservative politician from North Rhine-Westphalia who made the comments, is no old fogey. In fact he was the youngest person ever to enter to Bundestag when he took office at the age of 22. Now, at 37, he is an up-and-coming political star, taking a hard line on issues like immigration and welfare. He is even talked about as a possible future chancellor.

He is a new kind of German politician, unafraid of messages of patriotism and controversy, as evidenced by his comments deriding English in Berlin.

Tool of exclusion

As three English-speakers living in the city, we had a particular take. But it might surprise you to find out that we had some sympathy for the Spahn's argument. 

As someone who has struggled with learning German in Berlin (Tyson and Jon speak fluent German), I was particularly interested in Spahn's argument that Berliners are using English as a tool of exclusion against foreigners - keeping them from becoming integrated by refusing to help them learn the local language.

It is a similar story to what I've heard from people who have moved to The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries. At first, their insistence on speaking English with you seems welcoming, but after awhile it begins to feel like they want you to feel like the odd man out. Jon was able to share with us his experience of this living in Denmark.

For me, it has been a very different experience from when I was learning French in Paris, where I felt much more like French people wanted me to join their society. Indeed, I sometimes felt like one had to "join" France in order to live in Paris - something I have never felt in Berlin. But Berlin is a much more international and open city than the French capital.

Spahn's argument is that English has become what French was in previous centuries - an elitist language spoken by the haves at the expense of the have-nots. This argument does seem to have some credence when it comes to Berlin, where the permeation of English is not at widespread as one might think and is very class-based. It's a very different situation than in, say, Amsterdam or Stockholm.

Jon and Tyson had some different ideas on the topic. Check out the podcast above to listen to the conversation.

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