In short, the answer is: Jein. Last week Jane wrote about the latest news on the abolition of university fees in Germany. I’m not sure how quickly non-German wannabe students will be flocking over here, but it is certainly a good deal! In recent months, I have encountered a number of expats living in Germany, some of whom speak German and some of whom don’t. So the question is, do you absolutely HAVE to speak German fluently in order to live and work here?
Of course you don’t have to do anything. I know a number of people who have been living here for more than five years who really don’t speak much German. They are doing just fine. However, I think there are a number of factors to consider and questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge and move to Germany without speaking German.
- How comfortable are you going through your daily life not understanding what is being said around you?
- Are you okay with not being understood by everyone?
- Do you have the confidence to get the information you need, and are you ready to have to fight for it?
- If you are looking for work, do you have skills that no one else has? Skills that will get you hired even without German?
Now these sound quite negative, and I am sure you get my drift. Personally, I think I would have a hard time living in a country without ever learning the language. My German wasn’t great when I moved here. I really learned it well when I started working. But any time I am in another foreign country I hate the feeling of not being able to express myself or trusting that those around me speak English. But at my various workplaces I have met a number of people who have been living and working here without German, and their careers are going just fine.
At the software giant I worked at for many years, there were a number of people that didn’t speak German. Not all were American. However, they were highly skilled IT experts who were able to get hired based on those skills. And in a giant software company, you can usually manage to get by without German. However, most of them were making an effort to learn German. Once you have kids and family here, unless your kids are in an international school, you will be at a distinct disadvantage without German, especially in Elternabende and when you are trying to help your kids with homework. And remember, kids need a lot of support here when it comes to homework.
In my current company, probably half of the employees are non-German. Many of the non-Germans do not speak German well. Some do understand some German, others appear to understand almost nothing. At work, it isn’t a problem. We are in a very complex, very scientific field (we make software that analyzes tumor data for cancer patients to determine the best drug-based treatment for a particular person). Most of these people are microbiologists or bioinformaticians – again, highly skilled and very much in demand in the field. Most of those who don’t speak German don’t have kids yet. I wonder if that will change once they have to deal with things like Kindergarten. I am sure they can order a beer and are able to go grocery shopping. But what happens with health insurance and rental contracts and neighbors? Lots of people speak a bit of English, but it isn’t always easy to make friends here in Germany outside of work. You have to invest a lot time and effort into developing friendships. Will you isolate yourself if you don’t speak German?
A former colleague’s husband has been working here for nine years. He finally decided he had to learn German. He’s doing an intensive course as we speak. I don’t know what pushed him to do it, and I am sure it is a struggle, but they want to remain in Germany permanently, so he is putting in the effort. This morning when I dropped my son off at Kindergarten there was a Japanese family there speaking with the head of the kindergarten. The 7-year-old sister of the little boy was translating between the mother and the head of the kindergarten. Yes, you can get by. And it’s great when your kids are fluent in German, which they will be once they are in school or Kindergarten, even if you aren’t. But do you want to? Can you trust your 7-year-old to get it right when push comes to shove? Again, it really depends on what you are comfortable with.
It is up to you. If you are ready for an adventure, come to Germany! Be prepared to be brave. You will have to step outside of your comfort zone. You aren’t doomed to fail if you come to this beautiful country without speaking German, but you will need to keep an open mind and heart. And it may be that at one point or the other, you will just have to cave and learn the language, so why not do it now?