Germany off the beaten track

Marienberg fortress high above the Main river in Würzburg. © CTW/ Andreas Bestle

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Do Germans Speak English Well?

When I tell people that I travel so often to Germany, one of the questions I get asked more often than any other is, “…do you speak German?” And when I tell people that, currently, I speak very little German, they seem utterly baffled.

To be fair, I understand where people are coming from with this question. The general North American perception is that the everyday Europeans one encounters while abroad speak little English and that those Europeans who do speak English well are the ones confined to high end hotels or corporate offices in the likes of Frankfurt, Geneva, Madrid… And we've all heard
countless woeful travel tales of communications gone wrong in popular destinations such as France, Italy and Spain...

However, such tales rarely emerge from Germany, at least I’ve yet to meet anyone who has had such an experience.

As a matter of fact, Germans – particularly the younger generation, which I would qualify as anyone 40 years old or younger – are quite proud of their English abilities and equally enthusiastic about practicing English. In fact, I would say that Germans speak English nearly as well as do Scandinavians. And Scandinavians are known as the best English speakers in Europe, hands down. Once, while traveling in Norway, I asked a young professional how Scandinavians had come to be so fluent in English, because the fluency seemed far beyond that which one could naturally acquire in a daily English class. He told me that it is because Scandinavians watch a surprising amount of American television, without subtitles. I learned that many popular American sitcoms are as popular in Scandinavia as they are at home.

During my first trip to Germany a few years ago, I was surprised to discover Germans have a similarly high level of English. Curious, I asked if the reason for Germans is the same as it is for Scandinavians. The answer was "yes, almost." Many American television programs are indeed extremely popular in Germany. For example, Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother are nearly every young German’s favorite television shows at the moment.

However, Germany’s English abilities can be attributed to another key American influence.  Almost any young German will tell you that American pop music has served as an English teacher. One German told me that for years Germany lacked any notable German language pop bands. So the country filled this gap by importing most of its pop music, predominantly from America. And in the years since reunification, American pop music has become prolific across the whole of Germany.

As an example of Germany's love for American music, you might want to check out the various lip synching dance montage videos (set to Pharell William’s song “Happy”) that are exploding on Youtube as I write this post. A new city's rendition is popping up daily as another German city ONE-UPs the last city's HAPPY video. One of the videos – from a Historic Highlights of Germany city, Munster – has garnered nearly 500,000 views in less than two weeks.

So, the good news for anyone traveling to Germany is that these same young Germans who have a love for English are precisely the Germans you will encounter as you travel throughout the country. They are the ones who will be checking you into your hotel. They are the ones from whom you will purchase your train ticket at the station. They are the ones from whom you will be ordering at the restaurant or pub. And many times, even if you can’t find English translations on a place’s website before you arrive, when you actually arrive you will find a fair number of English content options available to you -- restaurant menus, tourist brochures, etc.

Basically, you’ll discover this young, globally aware new generation of English speakers all around you as you tour the country, even in Germany’s smaller centers. So, whether you are looking for a good restaurant or finding your way from the train station to your hotel, there’s no reason to be intimated by a language barrier in Germany – because one doesn’t really exist. At any given moment, you’re likely steps away from someone who speaks English and is more than happy to assist you.

And while it is more than acceptable to simply approach someone in English (simply say, “Excuse me, I don't speak any German. Do you speak English?”), another option is to learn the same very simple expression in German. Translated into German: "Sorry, Ich spreche kein Deutsch. Sprechen Sie Englisch?"

When you ask in German, more likely than not, your response will be a smiley, "yes, of course."

** featured photo from the great English menu at Riegele Brewery (one of the oldest and finest family owned breweries in the world) in Augsburg
And just for fun, here are are some more "Happy" dance montage videos from HHoG cities

(because you can't help but smile watching them, and you'll see some new perspectives of the cities too):





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