Going to Berlin. I don't speak German. How rough will that be?

I’m leaving Saturday for a fairly short-notice trip to Germany for a week. Work is sending me to a conference in someone else’s place, so I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for this.

I travel a lot. I’m all over the US a couple times a month, and have been to the UK and Australia. So even foreign travel is something I’m familiar with. But this is the first time I’ve ever traveled to a place where English isn’t the main language (I was dubious about a couple places in Scotland, but I digress). So in this case, I don’t know what to expect. I’m not worried about the basics, like getting through the airport, or using the S-bahn to find my way to the hotel. But I’m wondering about things that require more personal contact. Eating out, buying things, or anything else that actually requires communication with people has me a little anxious.

How much will I be able to communicte with the average Berliner I meet? If I have to rely on “Ich spreche kein Deutsch” all week long, am I going to have problems? I know my concerns may sound foolish to the seasoned foreign travelers out there…because I know people go places without speaking the local language all the time. But I’m new to this, so I don’t know what that’s really like.

If you’re sticking to Berlin, and especially the areas of denser population, EVERYONE and their mothers are going to speak at least basic English. I’m exaggerating, but from personal experience, I went there on an exchange trip, and it bothered me to no end how often I would try speaking German to someone (I had had four years, and was pretty good, except for my terrible accent), they would often respond in English.

Have fun in Berlin, though! Bring me back some Überraschungseier! (they’re cute little chocolate eggs with a plastic egg on the inside with a surprise toy!)

I went to Berlin with zero English and was 100% fine. Almost everyone speaks at least a bit of English (and many speak near-flawless English that they will nonetheless apologize profusely for), especially in the service industry and especially in the city. English speaking doesn’t seem to really drop off until you hit the Czech Republic border. If all else fails, I find the point and mime method to be quite satisfactory in most situations, but honestly I don’t think I ever needed it in Berlin.

Well that’s pretty encouraging. Sounds like I can survive a few days without too much problem. I guess I just hate being the guy who can’t be bothered to learn the language. I’ve always wanted to learn some German, and a trip like this would have been a great excuse. If I had only had the time.

I was in Berlin for the summer two years ago. I don’t speak any German. My experience was that older people in East Berlin sometimes don’t speak English very well, even though they’ll claim they do. I still never had a problem getting around, dining out, or going shopping, though, even off the beaten path. And it seems like almost everyone in the younger crowd speaks English pretty well. Going along with what Meyer6 said, they will be self-conscious about their English and apologize for how “terrible” it is.

I’m sure you’ll have a great time - I’m totally jealous. Have a döner kebab for me!

I went to China without speaking a word of Chinese, and the person who was supposed to meet me at the airport. It’s amazing what you can manage to communicate with a phrase book and pantomiming.

I was fine for a week in Berlin with the most rudimentary knowledge of German. You’ll be fine.

I traveled quite a bit in Europe and it just wasn’t practical to learn much of any one language. However, I made it a point to learn how to say “hello” (or “good day”), “please”, and “thank you” in each country. You’d be amazed at how much people appreciate even that small effort - it seems to be enough to separate you from that ‘ugly American’ stereotype. And hey, if you meet someone who actually speaks no English, they might find you confusing as hell, but at least they’ll think you’re polite!

Yeah, really. I was there in '91, and tried to use my German. I’d ask “wieviel kostet das?” and the guy would respond “It’s 5 marks, lady. Ya want it or not?” :stuck_out_tongue:

Pick up some pidgin German (please, thank you, etc) if you can, the natives will appreciate it. I drove from Cologne to Munich a few years back, and it was very rare that someone didn’t speak English wherever I was, both in the city or out in the sticks. My biggest problem was interpreting road signs (and my spouse was quite amused at seeing “ausfart” signs on the autobahn).

Actually, you might have a problem in Berlin…most Germans are too shy to admit they can speak it and only if you go up to one person (not a group) and ask quietly, will they give their best and try to give you an answer in English. Most younger Germans have had several years of “school English” (not so great, trust me - I taught English in Berlin) but they are often afraid to speak in a group, thinking their friends will laugh at them.

You shouldn’t have a problem being understood in most restaurants, hotels and bars though.

Your biggest problem might be fending off the drunk in the bar who, meaning well, wants to practice his 34 word English vocabulary on you and won’t let up.

But I envy you! I dearly love Berlin - really nice people, lots of great museums (the Pergamon Museum island is a must-see) and cultural things to see and do, many forests and parks and lakes - take a boat cruise and sit back and have some coffee and cake and see the sights (more bridges in Berlin than in Venice, Italy!), a wild night-life (people don’t even go out the bars and clubs until after 11:00 PM, even during weekdays! And it is the only city in Germany where bars do not have to close and some are open 24/7.) Be sure to visit KaDeWe - a department store that “makes Bloomingdales look like Walmart” (direct quote from a NYC friend visiting me back then). The top two floors are just food and drink…and wow!

Berlin is truly wonderful…but the weather…well, that is another story…

Oh yes, Inter Alia, how right you are! They are Turkish specialties, (like a gyros in NYC) all over Berlin (with such a large Turkish immigrant population I believe they say that Berlin is the third largest Turkish city?!) Also try the “Turkish pizza” - sort of a tortilla with spicy ingredients rolled together like a burrito.

There is also the famed Berliner “Currywurst”…a bratwurst smothered in ketchup, with curry and paprika sprinkled on top and sliced into bite-sized bits and eaten with a toothpick. Then there is the mayonnaise on top of the French fries, and the bouletten (mini-meat loafs).

All of the above are found at the local “imbiss” (snack bars) throughout Berlin - and some of the best (cheap) food in the city!

If it is a hot, humid day (like it was yesterday, according to my phone call) you might also want to try a Berliner Weisse mit Schuss! If you ever saw the film “Cabaret”, that was the big glass that has something green in it. It is a specialty beer in Berlin with a bit of syrup added to it…I know it sounds gross, but give it a try. Really very tasty! You can get it green (with Waldmeister…sort of minty) or red (with Himbeer - raspberry). Very refreshing.

BTW…go slowly with the beer…alcohol content is much higher than in the US…most Americans and Brits I met figured they could drink the same amount as they drank at home…and most were blitzed out of their minds after only half the amount.

Just speak English loudly and slowly, and you’ll do fine.

Yup. If someone pretends not to understand you, it’s because you’re not speaking loudly enough. A bullhorn helps.

LOL and tell em that your great grandpappy kicked their great grandpappys ass back in 44.


Dont worry about it! I barely speak german and I have a blast in Germany=)

If you want to learn a few phrases, the stock ones work:
Bitte = please pronounced like bit eh
danke = thanks pronounced sort of don keh
[no idea how to spell it] entschuldgung, bitte means basically pardon me but what did you say? en shul de gung bit eh

There is a German for Dummies that a friend of mine swears by, no idea how good or bad it is.

You’ve picked it up pretty well since then, though! :slight_smile:

BTW what aruvqan says is useful, but I’m not sure about the pronunciations. Those words don’t end with an “eh” sound (as in “Eh?”), it’s more of an “uh”. “Bitte” = “Bitter”, if (like me) you don’t pronounce the terminal “r”. “Danke” sounds somewhere between “Danker” and “Dunker” to me, again with no “r” at the end.

You’re in a lucky position. In a continent of so many languages, a first-world education system and a vast international tourist trade, English has become the ‘default’ for people who don’t speak the local language - in every country. Even when I was in Russia last week (which is several centuries behind everywhere else in tourism-friendliness), every restaurant had menus in english and I saw Japanese, Scandinavians, Portuguese, you name it, using what english they had to converse with the locals.

And I’ve yet to find a German under the age of 30 who isn’t practically fluent.

You’ll have no problem - a big, international city such as Berlin has encountered more english-only speakers than it has served bratwurst. But as others have noted, a nice ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language goes down well in every culture.

I’ve been in Germany for years, off and on. Most germans can speak english. I don’t think you’ll have too much of a problem.

You could always take the Kennedy approach.