Why some foreigners live in Germany without mastering the language

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.

Why some foreigners live in Germany without mastering the language
A multicultural group of people in Berlin. Photo: DPA.

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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Are Germans really fleeing the cities for an idyllic life in the countryside?

With cultural life in the major cities mothballed for over a year, ever more Germans seem to be deciding that they'd prefer a quite life in the countryside. But where are they moving to and which cities have seen the biggest impact?

Are Germans really fleeing the cities for an idyllic life in the countryside?
Döringstadt, a village in Bavaria. Photo: dpa | Nicolas Armer

For 200 years the trend has been going in one direction only – into the cities. 

While in 1800 just five percent of people in what is now Germany lived in cities, by 2019 that proportion had jumped to 77 percent.

The reasons are pretty obvious. The jobs were in the city, while industrialisation of farming made manual labour in the countryside less necessary.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the equation. Suddenly employers have been forced to make use of technologies and infrastructure that have already been there for a while, but which they were reluctant to adopt.

Good Wifi connections and video conferencing have allowed workers to move into home office in an almost seamless fashion.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s new working from home rules

With home office now proven to function for businesses, more people could be tempted to live away from the major cities all of which have been dealing with housing crises and soaring rents for at least a decade.

A survey the Local reported on in February showed that almost 30 percent of young professionals would consider moving to the countryside if they could stay in home office once the pandemic is over.

Stagnating cities

The statistics for 2020 show that at least for the pandemic year, the surge in the population sizes of major German cities was put on hold.

Berlin recorded a drop in its population for the first time since 2003 in the first half of 2020, although growth in the second half of the year meant that the population grew by about 400 people.

Some of this stagnation was caused by foreigners escaping back to their homelands. Some 1,700 Americans along returned to the USA.

But 11,000 Germans also left the capital last year.

SEE ALSO: ‘Life here is worth living’ – meet Germany’s countryside influencers

The population of Hamburg, which has been growing by between 10,000 and 20,000 a year for the past decade, also flatlined throughout most of 2020 before bouncing back in the last two months of the year.

It was a similar story in Munich. After years in which more people moved to the city than left it, that trend was reversed last year.

“This is an unusual development for Munich,” city authorities commented. “If you look at the migration balance of the past 10 years, its always been a plus of 10,000 or more – even if this trend has flattened out a little in recent years.

Berlin’s normally busy Alexanderplatz shopping district has been shut down for months. Photo: dpa | Annette Riedl

‘The process is accelerating’

Matthias Günther, an economist at the Eduard Pestel Institute in Hanover, is convinced that the pandemic and resultant move to home office have added fuel to a trend that had already slowly begun.

“Now it is accelerating,” he told the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland. “There are various places that are suddenly seeing a demand that we didn’t have before.”

According to Günther, properties that have sat empty for decades are suddenly being sold.

“Many people can now imagine working three days a week from home and only travelling to the workplace on the other two days,” he says. That type of commute is overall less than a daily schlepp from an outlying district into the city centre.

Flight to the Speckgürtel

The observation that the inner cities are becoming less popular is one that estate agent Engel & Völkers has made too. 

But their research on 2020 has led them to conclude that the real boom is actually taking place in suburban areas outside cities rather than in remote rural settings.

Engel & Völkers performed a market market analysis of 700 German councils that lie just outside the limits of the major cities, and compared prices in 2020 with those from 2015.

They found a huge price increase in what Germans call the Speckgürtel, (literally the fat belt), or what we call suburbia, where prices have soared by 58 percent on average.

“During the pandemic people increasingly want to move to the countryside, but at the same time they don’t want to miss the advantages of urban life and the security of first-class medical care,” said Kai Enders, a member of the board at Engel & Völkers.

“Small towns around metropolitan areas are proving to be up-and-coming residential and investment locations.”

Good internet connections decisive

Broadband cables being laid in Mecklenburg. Photo: dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

Most experts agree that one of the most decisive factors for making a rural district attractive to young people is the modernity of its digital infrastructure.

Broadband is far from a given in many rural parts of Germany. Although the federal government has for years offered a huge pot of money for local councils to invest in broadband, not all have been far-sighted enough to make use of the offer

“Places that can’t offer broadband are basically out of the question as a place to live,” economist Matthias Günther told broadcaster NDR. “What do I get from the new freedom of home office if I can’t use it in my new place of residence?” 

READ MORE: Germany’s (dis)connectivity: Can the broadband Internet gap be bridged?

‘No sign of flight from the city’

Not all experts agree though that the pandemic has caused Germans to fall in love with bucolic bliss en masse.

A study by the Leibniz Institute for Economics published last week looked at the real estate market and came to the conclusion that there was no evidence that Germans were fleeing the cities.

“For years, house price increases have been driven primarily by metropolitan regions,” the report stated. “The pandemic has not changed this: the price development in the seven largest cities showed a positive trend almost throughout 2020.”

The only exception was Berlin, where house prices in the regions of Brandenburg surrounding the capital did rise even more sharply than in Berlin itself.

This difference was sometimes quite dramatic. In the district of Oberhavel to the north of the capital, prices shot up by an eye-watering 43 percent last year.

But the boffins at the Leibniz Institute caution that “it isn’t clear whether this is due to the pandemic.”

Berlin’s “overheated housing market” and the left-wing city government’s rent cap law are possible explanations for the sudden desirability of homes outside the city limits.

READ MORE: Berlin’s rental cap has ‘more than halved the size of market’