For quite a while now I’ve been thinking that putting together a frequently asked questions (FAQ) list about living in Germany and other German speaking lands would be a good idea. Many questions come up time and again on the German Way forums and e-mail list. They are mostly addressed by our website, but having everything in one, concise list makes life easier. So here is the start of the Living in German FAQ.
I’ll start with one item and I then extend an invitation to anyone to submit questions and answers to me for inclusion on the list.
Question 1: Can I get by in German speaking countries without speaking German.
Answer: It depends, but the answer is “mostly yes.” More specifically your chances of getting by without German (and assuming you speak English well) are best if (and in this order):
- You are in or going to a large city
- You are in or going to the northwest (e.g. Dusseldorf) or the south (e.g. Munich or Stuttgart)
- You are interacting with people that are 40 years old, or younger
- You are near a military base
Some explanation may be in order. Basically English language influence is greatest in the old American and British zones of occupation from the war. During reconstruction the government also realized that teaching English in school would enable Germany to cooperate or compete more effectively internationally.
The American and British military bases had large numbers of soldiers who spoke little or no German but were still important to the local economy. Storekeepers and barkeepers had the inspiration to learn English to serve new customers. And of course, English would become cool to the kids nearby.
So there is a related question, if your German is not so good and your English is also not so good can you get by? In fact you can… speaking French. The southeastern portion of Germany has a very strong French influence due to:
- Parts of the middle and upper Rhine areas (Mittelrhein and Oberrhein, respectively) have been switching between French and German control over the centuries and lasting right up to the 1950s. Most Americans think of national borders as something that is as constant of the laws of physics, but Europe is more a dynamic political environment.
- French economic influence is quite strong along the border areas due to investment (don’t forget that France is a world power with the influence and wealth of a former colonial power) and tourism.
- Southwest Germany was in the French occupation zone.
In regions like The Eifel and The Pfalz more people speak French than English. The local accent of the people living Freiburg sounds like they are French people speaking German. In fact, just last week I met a family for whom French is their first language and German is now their most commonly used second language. They come from Cameroon, a former French colony and are IT workers (Informatiker). While English is also an official language of Cameroon they do not come from that region and spoke almost no English. While their German is now excellent they were quite able to get by with French in the beginning.
And there you have it. You can get by without German, but you should certainly make the effort to learn. You’ll miss out on personal relationships and work opportunities if you don’t.