Moving Abroad? Yes, You Still Need to Learn German in Germany

linguistic isolation in germany
 

 

For years the stereotype given by Americans and other tourists to Europe has been that learning other languages is often pointless because “everyone speaks English now anyway”.

Contrary to frequent belief, not all Europeans speak English and you still need to learn German in Germany if you’re planning on living there long term.

The English assumption is at least partially true; Germany does speak a lot of English.

I’ve been here for two months now and the joke that it’s impossible to learn German in Germany because everyone just switches to English certainly has its merits.

  

Germans are proud of their English skills and never miss an opportunity to practice. Recognizing your accent they are often likely to switch immediately.

But not always, and furthermore – that’s not really the point.

You’re still going to encounter a lot of German.

All important documents are in German. You can’t guarantee that government employees speak English. You’re still going to be surrounded by Deutsch almost all of the time.

But once again, that’s still not really why you need to learn German in Germany if your goal is to live here.

So why is German so important?

With so much English one might think that it’d be easy for a non-German speaker to get around and to get by. Right?

In general that’s kind of true, but I’m finding that it’s still not exactly easy.

I can order food, buy groceries, handle my day to day needs. Everyone at the office I work at speaks English fluently. I can go out on the weekends, I can get around the city myself and more or less function without too much difficulty.

So while yes, I can do almost everything I want, not speaking the language particularly well is taking its toll on me psychologically and emotionally.

I wouldn’t say that I’m feeling homesick. I’m really enjoying living here and I don’t regret the move at all. I don’t really miss a great many things about the States and things here are generally good for me. People are welcoming and accommodating. Furthermore I – obviously – enjoy learning languages.

Life is good.

But what gets me down the most about not speaking German is the sense of linguistic and cultural isolation I feel.

The thing about not speaking German in Germany, for me, is not that I can’t get by. It’s that I can’t get in.

Survival isn’t just about getting around…

Yes, Germans speak a lot of English, especially in the cities.  Virtually everyone here in Hamburg under the age of 40 seems to be fluent. The language barrier itself isn’t the issue, it’s not a lack of being understood, it’s a lack of assimilating.

Without the language of the country you’re living in it becomes difficult to assimilate or blend in. This can make life frustrating emotionally.

It’s not that people can’t understand you or you them, it’s just that without the language you’ll never really belong. And you can feel it. It doesn’t feel good.

And it’s this sense of otherness that is most motivating me towards learning the language.

It’s an oft depressing situation to be in and I highly recommend you take precaution against it if at all possible before you move abroad to a nation in which you do not speak the language.

It sounds like no big deal when you’re living in your native country, learning a language because it’s fun and interesting or because you want to take a trip.

If you’re visiting a foreign country, maybe studying abroad, or something like that, it remains simple because it’s not indefinite and your goal isn’t usually to fit in with the locals. The finality and totality of uprooting your life is not there.

When you’re trying to make a new country, any country, your home, things become a little bit more challenging.

In order to feel like you live somewhere you have to be able to identify with it in some way.

Our languages and cultures are wound around and intertwined together so tightly that without the former, the latter can seem impossible to pierce for a newcomer and our mental wellbeing can be challenged by the attempt.

I can only imagine how hard this must be for someone attempting to integrate into a society that doesn’t speak English as much as Germany does. I have it easy and I’ve had a lot of help. Many people are not as fortunate.

It’s a strange sensation though – walking outside your door in the morning on your way to work, realizing that anyone you run into is going to speak to you in German, not English and that no matter how trivial that interaction may be, it will become considerably less so with your lack of language skills.

Accomplishing simple tasks is still a nerve-wracking experience.

It’s not just about not knowing the words. When you do simple things like order a bus ticket or food, you try to do so in your new language. You frame the words in your head, you repeat them over and over.

You think you have them and then you go to actually speak and incomprehensible, withering gibberish comes out. It’s embarrassing and awkward and makes you never want to open your mouth again.

I feel that, at least for me, that anxiety is caused more by a feeling of otherness and a fear of being judged as the awkward, stupid foreigner than it is actually messing up the language.

Seems obvious but it’s an odd sensation to have to mentally prepare yourself for interactions with other people with more than  a slight feeling of anxiety. It gives you a new perspective on immigrants to your own country and the things they must feel.

It’s not just about being understood

If you’re moving abroad to start a new life, fitting in with the new culture, your new culture, is not going to be an easy task. Again, in this case the language isn’t only about survival, it’s about feeling at ease. It’s about feeling accepted and accepting the things around you.

People here in Germany are generally accepting of outsiders. They understand that foreigners don’t always speak German and most are patient and courteous.

But without the language you really can’t ever become one of them. You can’t assimilate. And that knowledge can weigh on you more than you might expect.

The ideal language learning environment is total immersion. When you’re living abroad you have that. You have the opportunity to learn from the pros – the native speakers themselves.

Conclusion

When trying to motivate yourself to learn in your new home, be it Germany or any country at all, think not only of the practicality and survival skills you might need to get by, focus more on actually feeling at home. It’s not something that comes quickly and getting there is more daunting than you may first assume.

So what about you? Have you moved abroad and experienced a certain sense of linguistic isolation? What was your experience? Leave a comment with your story!

 

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  • Elizabeth Hanchett

    This really hit home for me. I’m American, and my family moved to Spain when I was 12. I can totally relate to feeling like an outsider, feeling lost, and having that anxiety of not having any idea of what was going on around me. Our move to Spain happened relatively quickly, and my family had very little time to learn the language before we arrived, and we weren’t moving to a major city like Madrid or Barcelona either, but a small city up north I had never heard of before. Then it turned out many people even spoke a regional language I had also never heard of before, which was Basque (albeit it was far less widely spoken in the city back then than it is now). So that was fun.

    All in all, I can completely relate to this post. Feeling like you’re drowning in your own brain can be overwhelming. But once the fog clears… Watch out, world! 🙂

  • I know what you’re saying, too. It’s a very isolating experience not to know the language. I’ve had that experience in many countries.

    I think of what it’s like for us, and then I think what it’s like for the Syrian refugees. First, they’re considered much more “foreign” than Americans; second, they don’t speak much English. Immigrants have it tough.

  • Brian, I feel the same way you do. Having lived in seven different countries, I must say that the language is the most important thing…first as you write in this post, to ‘get by’ but eventually to also ‘get in.’ The social part is very important to feeling at home. Of all the countries I’ve lived in Norway is the most difficult in that regard for two reasons: 1) Norwegians have excellent English skills 2) they typically aren’t going to go out of their way to welcome strangers…instead the strangers need to make their way into Norwegian social circles via particular groups that share a common interest. The good news is, even in Norway strangers can eventually learn the language and enter the Norwegian social circles — it just seems to take longer.