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English/German communication

During our trip to Germany we will be visiting: Erfurt, Eisenach, Weimar and Wittenburg
and do not speak German. We have been to other areas in Germany and have not had
any issues with a language barrier. Will that be the case with these places?

Posted by
98 posts

As in any place in Europe if you stick to the tourist area's you have lesser problems. It has been our experience in Northern and Eastern Germany English is not spoken as widely as in the Southern and Western parts main due to the American soldiers stationed in Baviera the more western parts of Germany. As is said a million times know some greetings, farewells, and essential words that Rick Steves tour books mention. Make sure you have Google translate and you will be fine.

Posted by
13796 posts

Of the places listed I've only visited Wittenberg and Weimar. The odds are that fewer people in those cities/towns will speak English well in eastern and parts of North Germany, which is one the many attractions of those areas, than you would find in southern Germany.

I have been to Weimar a few times, a lovely and serene place essential if you want to know about Germany's cultural history. Weimar is known as Germany's "city of poets and cultural city" You'll see why.

Bottom line....I don't think you'll have communication problems.

Posted by
5932 posts

These are all destinations that receive international tourists quite regularly. Even European tourists like the Dutch and the French rely routinely on English when they're in Germany, so the need for local contact personnel with strong English skills at hotels, tourist attractions, and the other places where you're likely to interact with locals is also strong. The German education system does a very good and mostly uniform job of ensuring that students exit with skills in spoken English. Even recent immigrants to Germany who might not have attended school in Germany, if they're working in contact positions, are likely to have good English skills; before arriving in Germany, these folks had often learned English in their homelands. You're going to be fine as a rule.

This was NOT the situation 34 years ago when the former East Germany, which had shut out the West for nearly 30 years, first opened to tourists. What this means today is that elderly Germans in the former East are LESS likely to speak English well. And you may run into some of them, but they are also unlikely to be employed in tourist hotels, restaurants, etc.

Posted by
907 posts

It is an embarrassment to civilization to talk English in other countries to people whose first language is not English. The most polite plan would be to learn some German words and phrases. Learn to pronounce them properly. In Germany just talk as little as possible to the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time. I had a phonology class in college. That is why I might be better than the average person at learning to pronounce foreign words. I have been to Quebec, Canada once and Europe 6 times. I have not traveled to Germany yet. A lot of Americans expect everybody they encounter when traveling anywhere in the world to speak American English. A lot of Americans will dismissively tell you "oh, don't worry, everybody there speaks Enghish". "There" being most countries. Whether the Germans you meet know English isn't helpful, useful, or relevant. The amount of talking you will need to do to survive is low and it is polite to avoid making people in other countries whose first language is not English deal with your English.

Posted by
5932 posts

As someone who has lived, studied and traveled in Germany over nearly 5 decades - and who speaks fluent German - I'm quite comfortable saying that speaking English there is neither embarrassing nor insulting. Germans who have studied English in school (which is nearly everyone) are in fact typically eager to use their English in their employment and in casual conversation with international tourists. Perhaps broad statements about English being "taboo" are true or partially true in other countries, but certainly not in Germany, IME.

" In Germany just talk as little as possible to the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time."

This is not advice I would pass on, or that I even understand.

Posted by
5607 posts

I'll add that more often than not, people in Germany will respond in English to my broken German (and that's for the best, because my ability to ask basic questions is stronger than my ability to understand replies 😂). Same (a bit less so) in Portugal with my basic Portuguese, for example.
The picture changes a lot outside of Europe; large swathes of South America are challenging without basic Spanish or Portuguese where applicable.

Posted by
1765 posts

If you are in the tourist areas, then most everyone speaks English. Some may tell you they don't speak it well but I find that they only say that because they don't speak fluently. Most Germans under 60 know English.

And @balso is correct most Germans will switch to English when they sense you aren't fluent. My friend went there wanting to use her German she learned back in high school and was an exchange student years ago. She said unlike 30 years ago(right after the wall fell, most people switched to English after hearing her German.


Posted by
7718 posts

donna.preston01, go and dont worry about it. Take a good dictionary (online or paper) to try to decipher signage and menus. You'll always find someone who can communicate with you. Just dont assume.

I think the valid point that Mike L is making is that even if people speak some English, they may not be fluent enough to understand clearly what you're saying, or in fact may be disinclined to help you. There is no obligation to help. That's why the universal recommendation is to ask for help respectfully, and using as much non-English as you can muster, if they speak English first, and then if they can help you with your problem.

In my experience, people are more inclined to help if you follow the polite social customs, After all, having someone walk up to you speaking some foreign language, can be off-putting. For all you know, they could be asking you for money, a date, or they could be insane. Imagine someone walking up to you in the US and loudly saying something in long Spanish sentences, before it registers with you they are asking for help. After all everyone in the US under the age of 50 has had Spanish in high school, right?

And try to simplify the questions. Leave out the complex sentences and American-ese. Langsam and deutlich, bitte.

Posted by
5932 posts

Imagine someone walking up to you in the US and loudly saying
something in long Spanish sentences, before it registers with you they
are asking for help. After all everyone in the US under the age of 50
has had Spanish in high school, right?

Apples and oranges. Spanish, learned in school or not, has not established itself as a "lingua franca" around the USA (what happens in the classroom often stays in the classroom!)

English OTOH has a firm position in Germany and elsewhere in Europe the lingua franca of choice. It enjoys a broad variety of sociolinguistic applications. Germany is a great place to be if you can speak English and you need help.

Posted by
275 posts

I'll agree with the posters above who say you are unlikely to have problems without knowing German. I have traveled throughout Germany and I speak German on the A2 level so I can get by, though the natives usually switch to English as soon as they hear me speak!
However, I think it's always polite in any country - and adds to the experience, I believe - to learn how to greet people and learn some very basic phrases including 'do you speak English' rather than just starting with English and hoping for the best.
There are myriad YouTube videos that will teach you to say guten Tag, ask for a menu, say please and thank you, ask where the restroom is, etc. Also, the miracle of the Google Translate app will let you point your phone at a sign and use the 'instant translation' feature to translate it into English, as well as translate English phrases into German and say them for you.
In short, you will be fine, but it's always polite (and to me, kind of fun and thrilling) to learn some survival phrases in a foreign language and use them as much as possible.

Posted by
13796 posts

How many days do you plan on spending in Weimar? I first went there in 2007 as a day trip from Berlin, went back in 2009 staying the night in the hostel. All in all, basically 3 days, always solo. I don't recall seeing any anglophones, let alone Americans, during my times in Weimar, one of my top favourite towns in Germany. The tourists, the few foreign ones I saw , were Russian. All the others each time I was there were German , either as part of German language guided walking tours or by themselves as I was. Maybe currently it just might be different in terms of the nationalities of the visitors in Weimar.

If you feel like engaging locals in conversation more than merely perfunctory greetings, be it in German or English, go ahead. Don't allow yourself to feel intimidated or embarrassed, ....irrelevant! When I speak to them engaging in conversation, it's only done in the local language anyway, never English.

As you walk from the train station to the Zentrum, you'll see at least two hotels, one of them a 3 star. The service personnel will speak English, you can be sure of that.

Posted by
3487 posts

I did some extensive wandering in Erfurt and ended up away from the tourist area. I went into a restaurant where even the young wait staff did not give any indication of speaking English. I have to admit I enjoyed the challenge of using my German. I think if you stick to the main tourist areas, though, you will be fine.

Posted by
272 posts

Don‘t worry at all! I say this as a German, but one who has a lot of contact with foreigners, so I know what it is like for people who don’t speak German well or at all. You will be totally fine. As others have said, it maybe happens that, if you are at really small/local places, people might not speak or be confident of their English, but you will for sure be able to order food or buy tickets or whatever even so.

And just more generally, I think it is lovely that so many people here want to learn some German (or other local language) for their travels, but the counter-point that has been brought up is also true: English really is a lingua franca especially for tourism and it is so entirely fine to speak it. I actually just had a sweet conversation with some lost Australians on the train yesterday morning (in English, of course). I was not at all offended that they thought to approach me in English, and it made the morning commute go faster. Just one person‘s opinion of course, but in any case.

Posted by
6651 posts

We lived in Bavaria for four years, working for the USA Army and never had a language problem in that country.

A high percentage of Germans speak or at least get by in English.

Also, I learned a few things in German to get by if I ran into a problem.

Those cities that you mentioned are in the old DDR, and many older people probably didn't study English, since the Soviet Army occupied East Germany. Still, I would expect young people to have studied English, since reunification was in 1990.

Posted by
13796 posts

Depending on your time limit in each of these places, I would suggest that you don't limit yourself staying to the so-called tourist areas. Explore the other areas of these historical and cultural towns, well worth your time.