Sprechen Sie Englisch? Life as a Non-German Speaker in Berlin

Headshot of Sydney Braun.
Sydney Braun
April 8, 2023
The Berlin Reichstag Building and TV Tower while it is still a little bit light outside with the moon in the background.

Before coming to Berlin, several people expressed their concern for me: “You don’t speak any German, how are you going to do it?” Luckily for me, most people in Berlin know English. However, at first it can be very overwhelming to be surrounded by a language that you do not understand. Though most people in Berlin are fluent in English, the default language here is German, meaning that when I am asked to order in a café, bumped into on the street, or asked a question, I am often first spoken to in a language that I do not understand. 

While this was overwhelming at first, I have realized that being in a country where I do not know the language is such an amazing opportunity for me to learn even more than I bargained for. By applying myself – taking an IES Abroad German 101 class in Berlin as well as putting effort into learning the language outside of the classroom – my German has improved tremendously over the few short months that I have been here. Although I may be more quiet than I was in the United States where I was used to speaking English all the time, I have become a better listener… In Berlin, I never know what new phrases I may pick up! Now I can order food and drinks for myself, introduce myself, count, and explain that I’m an American who knows only a little bit of German without any trouble. The version of me from two months ago would be shocked and impressed with my German abilities; I have learned so much so quickly!

 In a country where you don’t speak the language, there are opportunities to familiarize yourself with the language everywhere. I learn several new words and phrases every day, most of which may not even come from my German class! You can do this too, if you:

  • Challenge yourself to read and translate street signs, advertisements, and grocery items.
  • Try saying every number that you see in daily life out loud in that language in order to learn numbers.
  • Listen to music and watch simple television shows in your target language.
  • Speak to students in your program who can speak the language! Ask them to slow down for you – in my experience, everyone who knows I am trying to learn German has been more than happy to accommodate me and help me reach my goals.
  • Live with a host family! My hosts speak fluent English but are always excited to help me practice my German as well.

I’ve applied myself and challenged myself to learn as much German as I can, and with most of the people in Berlin knowing English, there is usually an easy fix when my German abilities don’t quite cut it. Studying abroad in Berlin has been such a life-changing experience for me, and the opportunity to learn a new language and communicate with people in their native language has only enhanced my experience and increased my desire to learn the language. Since being in Berlin and learning German, I plan to continue my learning when I get back to the United States and hopefully one day reach my new goal of being decently fluent in German. By looking at being surrounded by an unfamiliar language as an opportunity instead of a setback, the decision to study abroad in a country where you don’t know the language is an excellent one. If you have the right attitude, it will give you more knowledge and connection than you bargained for!

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Headshot of Sydney Braun.

Sydney Braun

I am a junior at the University of Michigan and am double-majoring in Environment and Communication and Media (Class of 2024). I’m from Brookeville, Maryland, and apart from writing and blogging, I love music, playing the guitar, drawing, learning, and exploring new places. My passion for advocating for the environment as well as my interest in the culture and history of Berlin led me to this study abroad experience, and I am thrilled to be able to share it with you!

2023 Spring
Home University:
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
Environmental Studies
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