Is it 'arrogant' to live in Germany and not speak German?

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
Is it 'arrogant' to live in Germany and not speak German?
A sign in English at a cafe in Berlin Neukölln. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Jens Kalaene

An opinion piece in the Berliner Zeitung has claimed that refusing to speak German in Germany is a form of "arrogance" and "colonialism", sparking debate and outrage among foreigners on social media.


"Why do so many people in Berlin not learn German?" was the question posed by Marcus Weingärtner in a recent op-ed for the regional Berliner Zeitung. "Where does this arrogance come from?" 

The journalist was railing against the perceived majority of internationals in Berlin - a city where around a quarter of the population don't have a German passport - who are simply happy to get by with English.

Unlike tourists in Mitte - Berlin's central district - who use the current lingua franca while on holiday in Berlin, the people who live in the capital for several years but still can't grasp the German language are an endless source of annoyance, Weingärtner writes. 

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"I have several acquaintances of all genders who come from different countries around the world and have lived in Berlin for some time," he explains. "But many of them steadfastly refuse to learn German."

According to Wiengärtner, these acquaintances call on him for help whenever any half-complicated situation arises, whether it's a trip to the authorities or a doctor's appointment.

"This is also a kind of colonialism, but interestingly enough, in my circle of friends, it only occurs with English- or Spanish-speaking people," he muses. In contrast, he writes, Asian friends greet him in almost perfect German after a matter of months in the capital.


In a final plea to the international community, Weingärtner admits that German is a "terrible language to learn", but calls for a "little bit of will to understand each other". 

'Waste of time'

The Berliner Zeitung opinion piece was far from the first time that Germans have bemoaned the language skills of foreigners in the capital.

In fact, former Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) infamously once told the Osnabrücker Zeitung that he felt "increasingly annoyed that in some Berlin restaurants the waiters only speak English".

In an enduring cultural stereotype, Berliners will often claim that you won't come far with German when ordering a coffee or a drink in areas like Neukölln or Mitte with a large foreign population. 

READ ALSO: Is too much English spoken in Berlin restaurants?

In angry response to Weingärtner's op-ed, however, one social media user pointed out that the response of Germans to people who attempt to speak the language made it even more difficult for foreigners to make progress.

"They're more pedantic than the French," they wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

Meanwhile, other social media users took issue with Weingärtner's use of the word "colonialism" to describe people who have difficulties with the German language.

"The saddest part of this is, the 'colonialism' is when his friends ask him for help with going to public offices," wrote journalist James Jackson. "People asking for help isn’t colonialism Marcus."

In cases like a doctor's visit or a trip to the Foreigner's Office, Jackson wrote, specialised and advanced vocabulary is usually needed.

"Basic German won’t help there," he added.

READ ALSO: 'Nothing is easy': How foreigners in Germany struggle to settle

For foreigners who face everyday discrimination in Germany, Tina Lee implied, speaking German also won't make a huge amount of difference - especially when it comes to things like finding a flat or a job.

However, one X user did speak out in support of Weingärtner's complaints, explaining anecdotally that many expats with English as a first language simply don't make any effort at all.

"Many foreigners in Berlin are really arrogant and make complaining about every single thing here their whole personality," they wrote. "I struggle with my German and it’s not easy but many 'expats' that I know from the US and UK, after 10+ years here know a couple words and took 0 lessons."


'Germans don't integrate'

For some social media users, the main source of outrage was the hypocrisy of Germans who - while abroad - engage in similar behaviours to the ones they criticise among foreigners in Berlin.

The fact that Spanish speakers were singled out by Weingärtner was also a cause for annoyance - especially given Spain's popularity among German expats and holidaymakers.

"Does this journalist know about the many towns and villages in Mallorca and other parts of Spain that have signs in German because Germans have actually quite literally colonised the place and refuse to learn Spanish?", Uma, an X user from Catalonia, wrote. 

For Tina Lee, the racism experienced by people of different ethnicities also made the seeming "victim complex" and claims of colonialism a difficult pill to swallow.

"Really notable the cultural desire in Germany to be a victim themselves for once, even when it means stretching terms like racism and colonialism beyond all meaning," she wrote on X. "Meanwhile, if you point out actual racism in society, get ready for consequences."

READ ALSO: 'Traumatising': Foreign residents share stories from German immigration offices

A range of other users also took up the point of the difference in the power dynamic between people who have grown up in Germany and those who migrate to the country for work.


"A German newspaper describing migrant workers as colonisers," commented one X user. "That's not extremely worrying at all."

A similar point was made by Jakub Jaraczewski, who claimed learning German in Berlin was generally unnecessary as "a combination of English and Polish will fix 99 percent of your needs". 

With Poles making up one of the largest migrant communities in Germany, the language could come in handy in a range of everyday situations, Jaraczewski explained.

"If you need anything, from fixing a broken pipe to getting an Anmeldung appointment, the parallel society of ca. 100k Poles in the city will sort you out," he said. 

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