Do Germans Speak English?

by Mark F. Weber on March 15, 2011

Do Germans speak English?  That is the big question asked by first-time travelers to Germany.  When asking a German, the answer might be ambiguous.  Does the English-speaking business or vacation traveler need to know German?

Many Germans speak English.  It is the international business language.  The tourist industry demands it.  Most of my Deutsche colleagues are multi-lingual with fluent French, Spanish, and other languages to go with English and their own.  If someone asks them, “Do you speak English?” – (Sprechen Sie Englisch?), the likely answer is a little bit – (ein Bisschen.)  When did false modesty enter the German culture?

According to a Spiegel article, I Don’t Speak Much English, a typical German response is “I learned English in school, but it’s not so good.” . . .  They will then begin discussing esoteric grammar points or American literature in educated, fluent, witty English. Spiegel suggests Germans strive for perfection and are embarrassed when falling short.

Many German students begin languages in elementary school with a large number seeking extra lessons from private English schools.  Spiegel claims, “Should you pass a panhandler on the side of the road and shrug in confusion as he starts babbling away in German, he’ll effortlessly delivery his spare change spiel in English.”

If so many Germans speak English, does an English-speaker need to speak German in Deutschland?  Germans appreciate those that at least attempt their language.  A traveler only needs to know a few phrases like,

Gueten Morgen – Good Morning

Gueten Tag – Good Afternoon

Danke – Thanks

Bitte – Please

The most essential phrase may be “wo ist die Toilette?” or where is the toilet?  By attempting a little German, the Deutsche hosts will be much friendlier.

When traveling in Germany, be confident there are many English-speaking Germans from bums to business people, and many in-between.  Between their shyness, and a traveler’s attempt to speak German, smiles will glow.  No one needs an interpreter.

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I am an international business professor in Pittsford, NY who managed a business unit for a German company. My passion is family and friends, plus roaming the countryside on my road bicycle.

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