The top tip for expats starting off in a new country is always to learn the native language. As an American expat living in Germany, I took this advice to heart. When I came to Germany for the first time in 2011, I had already taken nearly five years of language courses. Fresh off the plane, I was so excited to finally use what I had learned to talk to native Germans and grow my language skills.
About one week after I had arrived, I took a day trip with some fellow American students to Hamburg. At the train station, I ordered a sandwich, using German of course.
“Okay, that will be three Euro,” the man replied.
Wait, did he just say that in English? Is my accent really that bad? Well, I was new to Germany, so I didn’t think too much about it.In the two years since that day, however, this has become a recurring theme in my expat life.
I have a theory that the average German can hear an American accent from five miles away. So as soon as you say “Guten Tag,” they are ready to fire back with “Hi, how are you!”
While I have no problem speaking English with strangers, it becomes quite annoying as I am trying to immerse myself in this new language. So in a final attempt to gain fluency, I recently signed up for a course at the local language school.
I am taking the highest level German class offered. So as I walk in on my first day, I start psyching myself up to use my very best German. We go around the class, introducing ourselves with what our names are and where we are from.
The teacher begins writing everyone’s home countries on the dry erase board at the front of the room:
I could see everyone in the class raise their eyebrows as I said I was from the U.S. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised with what happened when I showed up for the second day of class.
“Can I practice my English with you?” eagerly asks the girl from Belarus.
“Yeah, sure…” I reply.
I get it. English is an unavoidable language. Being fluent in English is a skill that can really get someone ahead in their career. It has become so commonly spoken in Germany that many joke that Germans don’t even speak German anymore, but rather “Denglish” – a mix of Deutsch and English.
In stores throughout Germany you will see signs advertising, “Clearance – Everything 50% Off!” or “Buy 1 Get 1 Free!” When I first came here in 2011, I seriously wondered if Germans really understand what all of these signs are saying.
When all the countries in the world are sorted by the amount of their population that can speak English, Germany comes in at number seven on the list with over 46 million people, or about 56 percent of the population, speaking English.
This is pretty understandable when you consider that nowadays Germans are learning English in schools since the age of six. But what about the older generation? Do they really understand what these posters and billboards say?
Through my experiences, the answer to this would be yes and no. Do they understand the billboard’s meaning? Yes. Do they understand what each word means? No.
I realized this interesting aspect of German culture when I was spending the day with my German boyfriend’s 60-year-old father. Until that day, I had always assumed that he could not speak a lick of English. That is, until we were sitting down to dinner one evening and he said, “Same procedure as every year,” in perfect British English.
Wide-eyed, I turned to my boyfriend, understandably confused about what I just heard. He immediately started laughing.
What I didn’t realize was that his father was quoting the most repeated TV program ever, Dinner for One. This program has quite an interesting history, and I think that it has also played a role in Germany’s interesting relationship with the English language.
Originally a British comedy sketch that was performed in theatres, the German TV station NDR recorded a performance in 1963 to air on TV. Since then, it has become a German tradition to watch this 18-minute sketch on New Year’s Day. So for 50 years, this program has been shown on repeat on January 1st each year. With limited dialogue, it is easy for Germans to memorize the iconic line from the performance, “Same procedure as every year.”
So does my boyfriend’s father understand, for example, what the word “procedure” means? No, but he gets the gist. And in my experience of learning German, that is much of how learning a new language works.
But what about us expats? I am currently looking to get my Masters degree in Germany, but first I need to pass a fluency test. Yet, whenever I try to immerse myself in the language, I am being bombarded with English in all directions. I turned on the TV yesterday to see a program called Shopping Queen was on. When I turn on the radio, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA is playing.
So now, I am going on an all-German diet. German movies, German music, only German-speaking with my boyfriend. And I guess I need to start being the one to ask, “Can I practice my German with you?” before they have the chance to ask me to speak English.
Courtney is an American expat living abroad in Germany. After studying abroad in Germany during college, she immediately knew that she wanted to go back. So after graduating, that’s just what she did.
She now works as a freelance writer and is pursuing her Masters degree in Germany. To read more about her experiences and adventures, check out her blog at Welcome to Germerica.