Not sure if there is a factual answer, so I’m putting it here, to get opinions.
I have recently been working on a project with some guys in Germany, and I have been impressed at the crisp clarity of their English speech.
On many other occasions I have spoken with Germans who spoke just as crisply and clearly.
How common is this?
I am exposed mainly to business travelers and technical representatives, so I imagine that such positions might correlate with impeccable English, but I always get the feeling that everyone in Germany speaks fluent English.
Amazingly common. I am shamed by the students in the US who cant seem to manage proper english as a first language, let alone a second language.
I know more people from various countries in europe that speak 3 or MORE language fluently …
I had a blast when I was stuck in the Frankfurt airport. I was going to breakfast at the cafe in the train station end and ended up sharing a table with a bunch of germans that wanted to practice their english, so I got my breakfast paid for just to be a teaching aid =)
And with very few exceptions, as soon as I started mangling german, someone would pop up speaking perfect english … so I almost never had to use german at all, except for reading signs.
All in all, a very courteous country [with the caveat that i am not the typical ugly american, and that would probably explain why everybody was so nice to me … ]
Well the people you met were a selection, to a considerable degree, for the better-educated part of the population. Almost everyone growing up in Germany takes English as first foreign language nowadays (IIRC French is most popular as second); in our state English has been taught from primary school (age 6/7) since two or three years ago but the efficacy has been criticised lately. Still, while I had 9 years of English at school the new generation will have up to 12 years, which should be of some use.
But - as everywhere a significant part of the population is undereducated; there are a lot of people who had a few years of English at the Hauptschule and did learn just about nothing (like they probably did in the other subjects). There are also a lot of immigrants who did not learn any English at school. Foreign visitors don’t usually interact much with that social stratum (and neither with people who are more educated but with a deeply provincial lifestyle), so they’d overestimate the mastery of English by the normal German (they might perhaps smile at the announcement “Senk ju for trewelling wiss Deutsche Bahn” in the ICE)
As an ESL teacher in Germany for over 14 years, I didn’t find it that common at all.
From all the people I met in social situations - hundreds over the years - there were only two who spoke fluently (both had lived in the US for a year or so) and maybe 10% who could carry on a decent conversation in English.
The vast majority spoke hardly a word of English. “School English” as they call it, is actually pretty bad in Germany…yes, it is usually mandatory, but only twice a week for an hour, and the instruction was usually in German just explaining grammar and vocabulary.
However, as a ESL teacher, I taught engineers, lawyers and other business people - they usually spoke English very well due to the fact they would travel on a regular basis to the UK or USA or South Africa or wherever - and all negotiations were in English.
I know I have been slammed many times here with the “but everyone I met in Germany spoke English!” comment…my guess is that you find what you are looking for. If you go to a cafe, order in English and then sit and read an English magazine/book/newspaper - well, the one or two in the cafe who speak English and observe you will probably come over and speak English with you. The others will not.
I speak German, so I did not have to find people who spoke English - perhaps that is why my circle of friends didn’t include that many people who were fluent in English.
I’d say it’s a lot more common that finding people in the USA who speak excellent German, but agree with others who say that it is not ubiquitous. Even on my last trip, at the Airport the security screener asked if he should give me the speech in English or German. I said English, but he was struggling so I said let’s try German. He was very happy not to have to speak English. I generally find, especially in small cities and towns, that my German, which is okay but not excellent, goes farther than many or most people’s English.
Which is fine, it’s not their job to speak English for me. And I find that if I force myself to stay more with German that my language skills improve more quickly.
In my experience, most university-educated people are very comfortable with English, whereas people with a high school-level education know just enough to get by. That is, I think there are different educational tracks for primary/secondary education, one leading more to vocational training and another preparing students for university. I’m assuming the pre-university kids have more rigorous English education. I met a lot of Germans around my age (mid-twenties) who had spent part of high school or college as an exchange student in the US or Canada, also.
That’s great. I’m hoping to go on a trip to europe next year (assuming I don’t lose my job… ) and one issue I was thinking about was language barriers. I’m not so blase to assume people would magically know english as a second language, hell… I’m a bus driver, I get people asking me directions/questions in Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese/Mandarin, Farsi, etc while I give them a confused look and try to convey “I can’t understand you”.
But knowing there may be people about that would understand me in english if Im in a situation where I’m too tired/panicked/stupid to struggle out a sentence in American Caveman Deutsch is reassuring.
Most restaurants, stores, ticket counters, etc. I went to in Munich and Austria usually maybe one person in the establishment who spoke decent English, and that was it. Everyone else generally spoke no English at all or very little. I eventually got secure enough in the *nur ein Bissen * German I spoke to handle all my transactions and communications in German, which seemed to be greatly appreciated. I did run into a number of people here and there who spoke excellent Engilsh with no noticeable German accent (sounded more British to my ears) who insisted they were born in Germany or Austria and had lived there all their lives, which I found amazing.
I do take exception to the idea that English speakers are “lazy” for not learning a second language. Like it or not, English is the language of international communication, e.g. if a German visits Italy and asks for directions from a local, they’ll generally communicate in English. The truth of the matter is, there’s a *lot * of incentive for non-English speakers to learn English, whereas the reverse isn’t true. And I say that as someone who’s currently looking into resources for learning a few languages without breaking the bank.