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Why some foreigners live in Germany without mastering the language

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Why some foreigners live in Germany without mastering the language
A multicultural group of people in Berlin. Photo: DPA.
11:28 CEST+02:00
Debate has recently flared in Germany as to whether the prevalence of English in urban areas is a nuisance. We spoke to expats who told us why they have not learned the local language.

When Jens Spahn, a politician from the Christian Democrats (CDU), recently condemned people who live in Berlin but speak English as “provincial, elitist hipsters,” he stirred up a national debate on the importance of learning the local lingo.

Spahn argued that the use of English leaves out locals who can't speak the global language and is detrimental to other newcomers who dedicate their time to learning German.

We recently ran a straw poll on Facebook asking whether foreigners should be able to speak German after a certain number of years in the country.

While there was no overall consensus on the ideal length of time, the results were intriguing. A total of 43 percent of respondents said you should be able to speak German after 2 to 3 years. But seven percent believed a foreigner in Germany doesn’t need to be able to speak German at all.

We decided to look at this seven percent. Conversations with people across the country demonstrated to us that the reasons for not learning the language lie as much in the person's surroundings as their own motivation, or lack thereof.

‘I see American doctors and my dentist speaks English’

Martha Numata is a registered nurse from the US based in southwest Germany who says she doesn’t feel guilty about her inability to speak German and it doesn’t hinder her at all in her daily life.

Numata has been working on an American air force base in the Rhineland-Palatine city of Kaiserlautern for four years.

“Most of the Germans here, they can all speak English. I see American doctors and a dentist off-base, but he speaks English,” Numata told The Local in a phone interview.

“Learning German is really hard,” she added. “If you’re going to naturalize yourself and live here forever maybe you should [learn German], but you can still enjoy Germany without knowing the language.”

One’s motivation for learning a new language is a key factor in learning success, Kasper Boye, linguistics expert and professor at the University of Copenhagen, said in email correspondence with The Local.

But while some people aren’t motivated to learn German because they feel they can live and travel in the country without it, others have the will but say they don’t have the chance to apply their language skills.

Photo: DPA.

‘When I speak German, the Germans just switch to English’

Anthony, a Canadian who took German language lessons when he moved to Munich two years ago, said that on numerous occasions he would attempt to speak German only for the Germans to switch to English.

This led him to believe he couldn’t speak it and, in turn, made him “more lazy.”

Anthony attributes his beginner’s skills not only to the fact that it’s fairly easy to get by in the Bavarian capital without advanced German, he’s also completing a Masters programme in English, he lives with British people, and all his friends speak English.

He admits though that it’s uncomfortable dealing with authorities or doctors and he feels guilty about “living here for so long” without being able to "mix right in.”

‘The friends I've made here are expats too’

Though Alicia doesn’t use much German in her daily life either, mixing right in isn’t something she’s concerned about. The 31-year-old relocated to Braunschweig, Lower Saxony from the US a year ago when her husband got a job at Volkswagen.

Alicia “doesn’t mind” that with her functional level of German she isn’t able to develop friendships in the national language, emphasizing that the mainly expat friends she’s made are in a similar situation to her and her husband.

“We empathize with one another and understand our expat joys and challenges more than a local could,” Alicia said.

When asked whether her motivation to improve her German language skills has any bearing on the length of time she imagines she’ll stay in the country, Alicia said: “Yes, definitely.”

Still, there are other expats who have no plans to leave the country anytime soon who can get by comfortably without speaking much German - some that have even lived here for decades.

‘I might as well be back home in NYC’

“Here in Hamburg, you can almost get away without using German at all,” US musician Jerry Tilitz commented in a post on The Local’s Facebook page. Tilitz has lived in Germany for over 30 years.

“As a pro musician I find everyone playing music professionally on the jazz scene deals with English,” he added. “I might as well be back home in NYC.”

In no other German city though is it easier to get by in English than in the nation’s capital, where neighbourhoods like Mitte, Neukölln and Prenzlauer Berg are becoming increasingly Anglophone.

According to Berlin-based writer and journalist Tamsin Walker, the situation is so extreme in Berlin that in some places, shop workers, public servants and waiting staff are expected to speak English.

Walker tells The Local she’s met countless people over the years similar to Tilitz who don’t bother to learn the local language, many of whom have then left for various other places across the globe where they no longer need German.

A menu in Berlin written in English. Photo: DPA

‘I prefer to spend time with my children instead of learning a language’

Some newcomers to Germany don’t necessarily want to dedicate their time and energy to learning yet another language.

“As I get older, I prefer to spend time with my children instead of spending hours at my desk learning a language,” British national Louisa, who speaks fluent French and basic Swedish, told The Local in a phone interview.

The 42-year-old mother of two moved to Germany about two months ago. Based now in Berlin, she lived in Düsseldorf from 2004-2006 (working in a job that only required English) and since then has moved around several times to countries such as France and Switzerland.

Though Louisa describes her experience of learning German as “extremely passive,” she plans on taking language lessons now because “it’s highly uncomfortable to get by without German, even in a city like Berlin.”

‘Languages are complex entities’

Louisa also criticized the results of The Local’s straw poll, stating that certain variables which can hinder language learning were not taken into account, such as learning a language completely different from one’s own, the absence of a natural gift for languages, and the potential trauma newcomers like refugees have undergone.

Linguistics expert Boye agrees with a few of these points.

According to the professor, other important factors for learning a language are the “grammatical or phonological proximity of the language being learned with one’s own” and “ability or talent.”

“The amount of work put into learning the language is also key,” Boye said. “Languages are complex entities.”

Like Anthony and Alicia - and probably many other foreigners across the country - Louisa is reluctant to invest the time and effort it takes to continue learning German. But she admits that in order to be happier in Germany, speaking the language is “very important.”

Learning the national language in one’s adopted country is “an important part of integration,” she said.

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