English Required, German Is a Plus

There are two common lies about Berlin: 1: everyone eats Curry Wurst 2: everyone speaks German.

The truth is slightly different: Berlin is clearly more a vegan capital than a wurst metropole, and you can walk 15 minutes in Neukölln, the hippest neighborhood, without even hearing someone speak German.

Ordering something in German in some Neukölln’s coffee shops has become quite a challenge.

These last few years the east part of Berlin has become a bit of an international enclave, with thousands of tourists and, more importantly, young foreigners coming to experience the Berlin life — artistic vibe, endless parties, low cost of living and, erm, speaking English.

In the cool neighbourhoods the streets are full of Spanish, Italian, French, English, Polish, Dutch, Australian, Swedish or Brazilian people. And the Esperanto of this international crowd is, obviously, not German.

Ordering something in German in some Neukölln’s coffee shops has become quite a challenge.

“Hello, how are you?”

A German journalist from the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel was shocked to hear this welcoming phrase as he sat down at a table at the French venue Papilles, only a few blocks from the abandoned airport Tempelhof. He then tried to order in German but that simply was not possible. No one spoke the local lingo amongst the staff. This is not Germany here, this is Berlin.

And it’s totally different.

 

 

“Dear Waiter, your English is Annoying” is the angry chronicle he wrote about his experience, which stirred up a national debate about the decline of German in Berlin.

Jens Spahn, a Junior Minister in the Finance Ministry, then threw an opportunistic tantrum right before the federal election: “It is increasingly getting on my nerves that in some Berlin restaurants the waiters only speak English. No one in Paris would have such a crazy idea.”

Nowadays Berlin is clearly made more for the young expats than for the German elderly.

Like most of the young Germans, Spahn, 37, probably does not have any problem speaking in English, but his parents do: “How strange and unfamiliar should they feel in their own country, the ones like my parents, who never learned English; in their own country’s capital they cannot even communicate in some restaurants,” he wrote in a column published in Zeit magazine.


 

Nowadays Berlin is clearly made more for the young expats than for the German elderly. While the latter are de facto excluded from many cafés and restaurants in areas like Neukölln, Mitte or Kreuzberg, a lot of foreigners live in a bubble where most of the venues they go to are ruled by other foreigners. Consequently, for them, the only German words really needed are “Hallo”, bitte, danke and “Ich hätte gern,” (I would like), to get through life in non-hipster places, like Lidl or a pharmacy. As long as you don’t have any major issues — a broken arm, say, or a registration at the employment office or a negotiation with the Berghain’s bouncer — you can live in Berlin for years without really having to speak German.

Nina is a young French woman who has been living in Berlin for a year and a half. As her mother is from Germany, she speaks fluent German.

In Berlin’s fast-developing tech scene, which employs a lot of young foreigners, English is definitely the dominant language

“There is nothing that requires me to speak German here,” she explains. “I didn’t improve my German at all, because I simply don’t speak it, except maybe at the Arbeitsamt (the employment office) but, hell, they loved my french accent! And the worst is that my level is even going backward here. I’ve never spoken German so badly since I’ve been in Berlin.”

Nina used to work for an e-commerce company, where she was speaking English and French. In Berlin’s fast-developing tech scene, which employs a lot of young foreigners, English is definitely the dominant language. Here’s a typical requirement for a tech job offer in Germany’s capital: “Fluent in English, German a plus.” In the daily expats’ life, English is required and German is a plus. No more.

"You are fluent in English. German is not required for the role" Job offer for a position of Junior Business Intelligence Analyst at Medigo, a Berlin start-up.

“You are fluent in English. German is not required for the role” Job offer for a position of Junior Business Intelligence Analyst at Medigo, a Berlin start-up.

Without this vital need to learn the local language, a lot of foreigners have lived in Berlin for years without mastering the language. Raphaël Dufour is the new manager of Papilles, the French restaurant lampooned by Der Tagesspiegel. He joined the staff a few months after the controversy.

“I was really astonished to discover that no one in the staff was able to string two words together in German. For the recruitment here, the English language was mandatory because the waiters had to be able to speak with the rest of the staff who are French, Australian, New Zealand and English. But it has to change, it’s not possible anymore. I will put German as a requirement for the next hiring.”

According to Raphaël who has lived in Berlin for 10 years (and spoken German for three), the atmosphere changed these past few years.

Like Jens Spahn aptly pointed out, this situation would be impossible in Paris

“Before, no one cared about this topic. English was simply considered a part of the Berlin international vibe. But now, I can feel that it’s starting to become a problem.”

To understand why it is a problem now, one has to understand why it was not a problem before. Like Jens Spahn aptly pointed out, this situation would be impossible in Paris. The French patrons would probably make a big scandal if they could order their steak tartare in French: “How is that possible ?! Nous sommes en France, Bon Dieu de merde!”

The Germans are way less chauvinistic.

In Germany, the nationalist claims used to be viewed with extreme suspicion, for understandable reasons. But the climate has changed recently. The Jens Spahn’s rant was not innocent. He is part of the right wing of the CDU, Angela Merkel’s party, and he is pushing an identitarian agenda.

In his column for Zeit, Spahn does not blame the expats being lazy with German but rather the German “hipsters” speaking to them in English.

“They feel proud of it, it’s interpreted as a sign of cosmopolitan expertise …This is not cosmopolitan; this is provincial.”

For the German people in Berlin speaking English is more a proof of openness than a matter of social distinction.

He compares the English in Berlin with the French language spoken in the European courts in the 18th century: “The use of the foreign language favoured the distinction, the deliberate dividing line with the ignorant in the other classes: staff, artisans and farmers did not speak French.”

This is such a ridiculous statement. This anti-English tirade sounds above all like an anti-elitist populist rant. For the German people in Berlin speaking English is more a proof of openness than a matter of social distinction.

Leonie is a 25-year-old German-Swiss girl from Zurich. If you met her in a techno party, she’d address you directly in English. As if it were the official lingo in the Berlin scene.

“Why do I like speaking English here? I think it has to do with being open-minded and curious to meet people not from your own country and culture,” she says. “Berlin is a unique place to meet and engage with many people from the most interesting backgrounds and speaking English enables you to do so. However, if I can have a full-on conversation in German using all the Redewendungen (idiomatic expressions) and Sprichwoerter (proverbs) without having misunderstandings, I will do it.”

The rise of English in Berlin has become a legitimate topic because of the continuing influx of young creative migrants in Berlin

Hopefully, Jens Spahn’s point of view is not widely shared in German politics. Ramona Pop, from the Berlin’s Green Party, defends the use of English (and Paris is again quoted in the debate):

“Many haven’t clocked it in yet that Berlin is also an English-speaking city. Berlin’s increasingly bilingual nature gives the city a head-start over Paris. Especially if an open and international city wants to attract young, urban entrepreneurs and specialists, then that’s a plus.”

Setting aside the German political arena, the rise of English in Berlin has become a legitimate topic because of the continuing influx of young creative migrants in Berlin. A trend that goes on and on and has become even bigger these past few years.

Though, it is hard to get proper statistics on this issue: with Schengen, Italians, Spanish or Dutch citizens do not really need to register in the town hall to settle in Berlin, and so the public data are not accurate on this topic.

Berlin, by putting its Germanity aside, might be losing part of its identity

Recently, a guy made a request on the Facebook group of CockTail d’Amore, one of the best techno parties in Berlin: “I’m looking for an Australian (I’ve met in the party).” General giggles in the group. In a party in Berlin, looking for an Australian guy without more details sounds as absurd as looking for a german guy. An Aussie answered him: “Everyone in Berlin is Australian. Literally, since leaving Australia, I’ve met more Australians here than on the Gold Coast haha.”

Berlin is what it is, in part because of the international crowd. But Berlin, by putting its Germanity aside, might be losing part of its identity.

Ben is a 38-year-old American guy, owner of a fashion brand, who has been living in Berlin for six years. He speaks perfect German.

“For sure, you don’t need to speak German to live in Berlin,” he explains. “But if you don’t speak German in Berlin, you only have access to 20% of Berlin. When you don’t speak the local language, you can’t go sit down with a bunch of Germans and talk about philosophy, politics, history and talk about everything that’s going on and actually understand Berlin. It gives you access to the real Berlin and not only to this expat bubble.”

Stories of expats trying to learn German may be considered as a new type of humorous literature

If the expats are often described as being lazy with German, the reality is more finely-shaded. Facing the difficulty of the language, many foreigners fall in this vicious circle described by the blog Berlin Loves You: “The German-speaking ambitions of your regular Berlin expat follow a familiar curve over time: optimism > frustration > embarrassment > apathy.”

Source: 9GAG

Source: 9GAG

The German people often feel empathy for foreigners struggling to speak the language: “German is a very hard language to learn,” says Leonie. “Only people that have practiced for years will achieve that level. I don’t expect such effort from people, so I’d rather speak English.

That’s one common reason put forth by migrants who don’t master the language: if you speak in a quite bad German to a German, they will probably answer to you in English, so as to be polite. But then it doesn’t help the foreigners to improve their German.

The situation is completely different for the other kind of Berlin’s expats, the refugees

Stories of expats trying to learn German may be considered as a new type of humorous literature: “Learning German in Berlin sometimes feels like learning to drive in a place without cars,” reports Berlin Loves You’s blog. “It’s a hobby, like how some people play crosswords. A bit of fun. All for nought. I shell another €300 out on another month of lessons (sacrificing all my free time in the process), and hit the streets at 9 pm after the first class, bursting with optimism over my German-speaking future, only to be asked: “Where’s Alexanderplatz station?” By a German. In English.”

 

 

The Neukölln’s expats can joke about this topic. This should not lead us to forget that the situation is completely different for the other kind of Berlin’s expats, the refugees. They don’t live in this hipster bubble, cannot really apply for the English-speaking startup jobs and definitely have to speak German to get integrated.

“Oscar Wilde’s famous line, ‘Life is too short to learn German,’ still brings knowing smiles to German faces,” wrote the journalist Kim Harrisberg.

“But for the near half a million refugees applying for refugee status in Germany amid the global refugee crisis, not learning the country’s language could mean a lifetime of marginalisation and hardship.”

Life is too short to learn German. If you have the luxury to, do so.

Vincent Glad is a French freelance journalist living between Paris and Berlin.
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