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?
I remember that when I lived in Berlin for a year as a student ten years’ ago, I approached every conversation as a language-learning opportunity. Like a hungry caterpillar, I would gobble up more and more words whether talking to taxi driver or a philosophy professor. Earnestly, I would take mental note of unknown words, and later, decipher them with the help of my increasingly tatty dictionary and note down their meaning in a little blue notebook with the dream of my language skills suddenly and miraculously transforming into a beautiful, fluent-in-German butterfly.
But how lazy I have become after nearly five years of expat life. I only noticed this the other day, when visiting my husband’s family in Hesse. For the first time in ages I found myself thinking in the middle of a conversation “what an interesting word.” When looking up said word’s meaning later, it struck me how rarely I get a thrill from simple, but educative and revealing, exchanges. And what a shame that was given that I have a genuine interest in language structure and did study German (and History) at university after all. Continue reading →
I am a self-confessed bookworm. Books are a significant part of my life, and no day is complete unless I have spent part of it reading. Moving to Germany in 2000, I spent years on the hunt for books I could read. At first, devoted as I was to achieving fluency in the language, I read German books. I started with children’s books that I had read during elementary school, and read the German versions of them. The prose was straightforward and the sentence structure was simple enough for me to follow the story, and I kept a dictionary handy for new vocabulary words. I progressed to young adult fiction, and eventually adopted the newspaper. I will admit that I only read one or two entire books in German each year. Despite fluency, I still find reading more relaxing in my native language.
Prices for English books are shockingly high in Germany, and I could rarely justify paying them, except in the hope that I was either fulfilling an immediate literary need or helping to support a local bookstore. Once Amazon.de started selling English books, I ordered often (and shipping on books is free!). However, the selection of English books on Amazon.de isn’t the same as on Amazon.com, and I wanted the selection from across the pond. For years, my English-speaking friends and I swapped and borrowed from each other’s libraries, although our tastes never perfectly aligned. I was delighted to come across Sarah’s suggestion for bookswapper.de, and managed to trade a few used books on that platform. Now that the world has digitized everything and is ever more global, however, the e-reader has opened up new avenues. Continue reading →
A few years ago our co-blogger Geoff wrote about two types of expats: integrated and non-integrated. Those who adapt and blend in, and those who don’t. And for the point he was trying to make that was quite adequate. But in the meantime I have discovered a much wider scope of types or subspecies under the species we shall call Expaticus germanicus, aka the expat in Germany.
Of course there are as many kinds of expats in German-speaking Europe as there are expats. Every expat situation is unique. However, that won’t stop me from identifying various types of English-speaking expats in Germany by various characteristics. But before I begin, I want to quote one of my favorite German authors, the Berlin-born satirist Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935):
“Neben den Menschen gibt es noch Sachsen und Amerikaner, aber die haben wir noch nicht gehabt und bekommen Zoologie erst in der nächsten Klasse.” (“Besides human beings, there are Saxons and Americans, but we haven’t had them yet. We won’t cover zoology until the next grade level.”) – from “Der Mensch” (1931)
Tucholsky wrote “Der Mensch” as a schoolboy’s essay that begins: “Der Mensch hat zwei Beine und zwei Überzeugungen: eine, wenns ihm gut geht, und eine, wenns ihm schlecht geht. Die letztere heißt Religion.” (“Man has two legs and two convictions: one when things are going well, and one when things are going badly. The latter is called religion.”) For some reason this short essay by Tucholsky popped into my head when I began to try to classify expats. Unfortunately, I’m not as good a writer as Tucholsky, but I’ll do my best. Continue reading →
One of the most poignant feelings I have experienced as an expat is loneliness. It was an emotion that I knew very little of before I moved abroad. In some sense, I was probably naive in my adventurousness; I wanted to experience things that were new and different, I wanted to absorb another culture. I jumped into expat life without ever reading a book or blog post about what life abroad entails. Had I known anything before I boarded the plane, I might not have gone at all, so it is probably for the best that I was naive.
My first time abroad, studying in England, I had little chance for loneliness. After all, I was still speaking my native language, and in a university town there is no shortage of young people to meet. It was, however, my first experience with what happens when you leave somewhere: Out of Sight, Out of Mind. My friends from university went on with their lives and were unable (or unwilling) to keep in touch. I received occasional emails, dwindling as time progressed. Facebook didn’t exist in those dark ages (perhaps to my benefit, according to my friend Sarah), and airmail was too complicated for my friends back home. They couldn’t figure out the time change, phone calls were expensive, and there was no Skype. Still, I wasn’t lonely. I made new friends, had fantastic times, created new memories, and enjoyed my adventure. It was so addictive, I wasn’t ready to return to the US when the school year was over. I wanted more of this European lifestyle.
This topic has the potential to be divisive and insulting. I will tread lightly. A year ago, a friend of mine celebrated her last few days of singledom with a bachelorette party in France. Unable to attend, I sent along an “Instruction Guide to a German Husband”, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek list of Do’s and Don’ts for foreign wives of German husbands.
And sitting down to write about how to deal with Germans, I find myself thinking: 11 years of marriage to a German, countless hours and festivities with German in-laws, 11 years of living in the country and speaking the language… do I really know how to deal with Germans? Only sometimes. I think I’ve got things figured out and then some Amt throws a spanner in the works, or I attend a party where I’m the only foreigner and come away feeling fresh off the boat, a complete outsider. Continue reading →
I have been back in Canada for a few months now, for the usual hockey off-season, and I can’t help but continually make comparisons between my two homes. When nearing the end of the season in Europe, I start fantasizing about things at home in Canada: all the foods I’m going to eat, activities I’m going to do, people I am going to see.
Once here however, and all the Canadian foods have been devoured, summer festivals have been attended, and family have been visited, I start doing the same romanticizing about all the things I miss overseas. Read on to see what it is I adore and miss about Germany and Switzerland when home in North America, and those things I long for in Canada, when I am living the expat life in Europe. How many of the same would you include on your own list? Continue reading →
Guest Blog: Simple tools to improve your fluency and comprehension
Germany is a friendly, accommodating place, and you might be able to get by on your English for a while; but if you want to be feel at home and independent there, learning the language is essential. Here are some smartphone apps to get you started.
1. Speak German Free (Android)
This is a great app to get you started speaking and learning German before you leave home. It only includes 100 essential phrases, but it’s enough to start training yourself in the sound of spoken German, and give you the words to ask native speakers for help improving your language skills. Any experienced language learner will tell you that your skill will improve dramatically once you start using the language on a regular basis, and this app will give you the tools to do that. Continue reading →