Can Germans speak English well? Here's how you break the language barrier

Marle

Updated on Sep 16 • 6 minute read

Yes, Germans do speak English! However, most expats experience a high language barrier that is created around them as a result of limited German language skills.

For expats, Germany acts as a platform to boost their careers. After all, the high salaries in Germany and the fact that the working week of 39.9 hours lies below the European average are attractive. In other words, you’ll find a healthy work-life balance at its best.

But let's be honest: How well do Germans speak English? Is it even possible to live in Germany without knowing German and if so, how do you as an expat break these language barriers? It's a promise: after this, the German language won't become an obstacle any longer.

Expats face challenges in settling in Germany

There's no doubt that Germany, with its strong economy, repeatedly makes it into the top three countries for the top places to work in a global comparison; in fact, Germany is ultimately dependent on its standing: after all, the country clearly needs manpower from abroad to achieve its economic growth.

Despite the huge need for expats to maintain its pole position as an economic powerhouse, the country doesn't really make it easy for them to settle in Germany.

Let's take a closer look at a study conducted by InterNations, where the "Settling-In-Index" was determined based on 14,000 respondents to measure the chances for expats to settle into a foreign country; in other words, how easy is it to settle in the country? So this includes how quickly expats feel at home, how friendly the locals are, how quickly expats make friends and how high the language barriers are.

The findings give full credit to the cliché of unfriendly Germans. In the "Settling-In-Index", Germany actually romped into the "flop 10" in all four categories; making it one of the most challenging countries to get settled in. And so it comes as no surprise that around 37% of expats stick to their expat bubble.

But can the success of an expatriate's adaptation to a country really be driven by how much Germans speak (or don’t speak) English and whether English speakers ought to learn German in order to become fully accustomed to Germany?

Let's walk you through this.

Is English largely spoken in Germany?

To pinpoint the root cause of this problem that expats find it difficult to settle in Germany, we have to tackle a basic question: Can Germans speak English at all? And vice versa: Can an English-speaking person survive in Germany without knowing German?

Of course, there’s no universal answer here that applies to every one of the 83 million Germans, but one can already derive quite distinct patterns.

The truth is, Germans do speak English. From the age of 5, it is an integral part of the school and British or American TV shows accompany teenagers' or adults' daily lives. So, on principle, every German should know at least a basic level of English and should be capable of making themselves understood in English. Whereas the elderly had less access to English courses at school, young people under 40 ought to master English.

Long story short: You can survive in Germany without knowing the German language; most Germans speak English, the train usually runs announcements in English and in restaurants or bars, waiters and waitresses often speak English, especially in the city center. However, for those of you who plan to more than just survive in Germany, it's a good idea to attempt to learn German or at least acquire a basic knowledge of German to help you overcome the language barrier on your own.

Check out these handy German language tips for beginners to get your German skills going!

Are there any English speaking jobs in Germany?

In everyday life in Germany, you'll soon realise that Germans certainly understand and speak English, yet are very reluctant to do so and prefer not to step out of their comfort zone to speak English. Over the past few years, though, you can see that at least the younger generation has become increasingly confident in speaking English.

But a glance at the professional world also shows that there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes towards language in recent years. After all, German companies rely on IT experts from abroad and are thus expanding their German-speaking talent pool to include English-speakers. Today, long-established companies still find it somewhat difficult to create English-language jobs and integrate it in the company; the situation is different in Berlin, however, where start-ups have already recognised and embraced the added value of international employees. And that's also why these international jobs and internships in Berlin are mirrored in everyday life, where you can hear English in every corner.

So you see: In Berlin, you'll be able to speak and work with people in English, while more traditional cities tend to struggle with English. The level of English spoken varies greatly from region to region or city to city.

Is it difficult for international students in Germany?

The universities in Germany are fully aware of the ongoing changes and in recent years have introduced more and more English-speaking degree programs. As a result, a growing number of international students come to Germany to study. As you can see, you can study at a university in Germany without any knowledge of German or with little knowledge of German and even work next to your studies!

Don't forget, though: Despite the fact that the range of English-speaking programs offered at universities is growing steadily, proficiency in German certainly won't hurt you to integrate into social life - and in some situations, especially bureaucratic matters, it’ll undoubtedly make your life easier. Depending on what your aspirations are, whether you decide to stay in an "international bubble" or really want to immerse yourself in German student life, you might want to take your chance and learn German.

This is how you break the language barrier

While you can get through your everyday life jauntily without any proficiency in German, speaking German when dealing with bureaucratic matters makes your life easier. Citizens' Offices or other official offices, mostly also landlords, will primarily speak German. Make sure your contracts and related matters can be easily sorted out by either German acquaintances you trust or a German advisor.

But how do you break the language barrier? We show you how to overcome your linguistic hurdle with a few tips.

German language courses

There are plenty of online courses available online, some of which teach you German for free! However, you might want to take actual lessons. In every city, there are language schools, private lessons, or adult education centers (Volkshochschule), which are public educational institutions for adults.

One of the best-known language schools is the Goethe Institute, which is the official cultural institute in Germany. Or perhaps your employer offers a German course in the company?

Integrate German into your everyday life

Try to consciously make German an integral part of your everyday life. Are you doing your groceries at the supermarket? Then try to say "Hallo" or "Danke" at the checkout or even order your cheese at the cheese counter.

If you make German part of your everyday life when you go shopping, reading or watching films with German subtitles, you will soon notice that you are improving your German on a daily basis.

Who is your German tandem partner?

"Übung macht den Meister" might become your new mantra. No idea what this means? Get a tandem partner and find out. A tandem partner might give you more room to speak German without any expectations or pressure.

You’ll see that the mantra comes true with a tandem partner - and you’ll soon master German with more confidence.

Learning a new language means much more than just grammar

Sure, the language builds the basis to break the ice between you and your German colleagues and even strangers. You’re opening the door to the social life with Germans, so to speak. But language is much more than just vocabulary and grammar; language also encompasses culture.

To get a better understanding of German, you should also look at the values and norms, and understand why Germans are the way they are. This will make it easier for you to talk to Germans and will also help you to overcome your inhibitions about interpreting the behaviour or mindset of Germans.

All in one: Knowing German helps you to integrate

There's no doubt that you can survive in Germany without knowing German. Every German usually studies English from the age of 5 and especially the younger generation watches British or American series. Of course, in big cities like Berlin, you can master your everyday life in English much more easily than in a village in Germany.

But to be fully integrated in Germany, there is no way around a German course. The language is really the key to immerse yourself in social life in Germany and above all to make German friends. But once you have managed to do that, you can be sure that these friendships will last for a long time.

So if you don't want to get stuck in Germany or have trouble socialising, you should try to overcome the language barrier. We know you can do it! Are you ready?

Related Articles

Start your search now

Find accommodation in cities across the globe, start a conversation with our advertisers and book the place of your dreams!

start my search