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Learning German in Berlin — The Good & The Bad

I’m currently enrolled in a 2-month German course in Berlin but am also self-studying with a free trial version of Rosetta Stone’s TOTALe online software. I’m sharing my story about learning German in Berlin on my own blog, and on the Rosetta Stone blog.

welcome to berlin

Before I moved to Berlin all I ever heard was how multicultural, creative and international the German capital city is. Stepping off the plane and through immigration, I was more than a little worried. My knowledge of the German language didn’t go past “kindergarten” and “gesundheit.” I was able to mime my way through immigration’s questions—I was only planning to be in Berlin for a short holiday.

Natürlich, that’s not what happened. My one-week vacation in Berlin went fast and by the end of my first week I had a solid plan of how to stay longer. I found a job, an apartment, a visa and then quickly made some friends and set about to turn myself into a German. That meant any number of things: from sitting while peeing (ugh) to listening to the radio every morning in the shower. Today, the cultural habits I’ve picked up as an expat in Berlin have definitely helped with my studies trying to learn German.

Learning German in Berlin

Setting out to learn German in the German capital, you’d think your chances are pretty good. This city should be the heart of German culture, right? Wrong. Berlin is an über-cool city and because of that, it attracts visitors, tourists and expats from around the world. Some neighborhoods in Berlin are famous for their long-time Turkish immigrants and there are definitely parts of the city where you can easily spot different languages on signs and posters—from English to Turkish, or even Spanish and Italian.

The influx of foreign noise makes learning German in Berlin a challenge sometimes. When you’re at an event, you may not be surrounded with as much German as you’d like to hear and the ease of which it is to fall back onto your Muttersprache (mother tongue) can be a hindrance to learning German. At least in Berlin. That’s why I’ve started traveling around Germany more frequently—to get outside my comfort zone and try out my poor language skills in places I’ll likely never see again. It makes it easier for me to embarrass myself.

The best part about learning German in Berlin has been the challenge. When stepping into a cafe and trying out my new adopted language, the cashiers regularly default to English with me. Nein, danke! Ich möchte Deutsch sprechen. (No thanks, I want to speak German!) Usually they’ll continue in English, but I’ll just power on through in mein Deutsch—not just to see how far I can get, but because it’s rather fun to have a multi-lingual conversation.

Learning German, though, has its advantages. Life gets a bit easier when you know more of what’s happening around you. And when you start to ignore all the impossibly difficult grammar rules, speaking the language can actually be quite fun! It’s my first time learning a language since high school and while I never enjoyed my Spanish lessons as a kid, for some reason, the thrill of learning a new language as an adult keeps me motivated.

  1. Clairikine says:

    You’re doing it right. :)

  2. Pip says:

    I’m in the same position now, but instead of taking lessons, which I cannot afford, nor have the time for, I am teaching myself using Rosetta Stone and (a great site) and attending language exhanges when possible. Thanks for your advice though Adam, I think it is time I invested in a shower-radio!

    • Adam says:

      Haven’t heard of Memrise but will check it out.

      And yeah, the shower radio is extremely useful :)

  3. Cathy Sweeney says:

    Each time I visit Germany, I try to learn a few more phrases, but mostly I just get more confident with danke, bitte, guten tag und tschüss! I also found that I didn’t get to practice much in Berlin since everyone was so nice about speaking English. I’m determined to improve my skills for the next trip — whenever that might be. :)

    • Adam says:

      Those are the basics, Cathy — and a great place to start. I find German to be pretty similar to English in a lot of words, so often you can understand more than you think.

  4. Even with the best of intentions, it’s SO DIFFICULT to practice another language when it’s not actually necessary because others can speak your native language. It’s way too easy to fall into English when you don’t know a word, or are being lazy, instead of being forced to struggle through! While I know ultimately it’s all up to me, my Thai is so much weaker than it should be because I live in an area where I don’t have to use it. :/

    • Adam says:

      I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles, Alana — escaping to a place where defaulting to English isn’t quite as easy. It’s partly why I’ve been traveling around Germany quite extensively the past few months. The goal has been to visit smaller cities where English is less common and where people might be more patient with my German.

  5. Sam says:

    I always sit while peeing now (except in public toilets). TMI? Sorry.

    Yes, multilingual conversations are fun. I think you have a great attitude towards the language, and it’ll get you a long way! Good luck.

    • Adam says:

      Hahaha – that’s pretty funny Sam. Every time I sit to pee I get kind of annoyed! Such a waste of time…

      Anyways, thanks for the comment about multilingual conversations :)

  6. Nigel Clifford says:

    One of my friends who speaks German tells me that it’s quite a literal language, and this means some of the words are just enormous additions of smaller words in one long chain, that sounds like a lot of fun to practice :P

    • Adam says:

      Yep that’s essentially true Nigel. Many words get combined to make bigger, more descriptive words. It’s a mess!

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  8. Brian says:

    I’ve been to Berlin around 20 times and I’ve never spoken English there. Mind you, I was already upper-intermediate level in German the first time I went.

    You’ll find that as your command of German improves, fewer locals will try and switch to English. Make sure you work on your accent as well as grammar and vocabulary.

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  10. Meg says:

    Hi Adam,
    Yeah, it takes some time but keep at it… it took me about 2 years of living in Berlin to feel more or less comfortable in German. The big turning point came when I moved in with German housemates, who wouldn´t speak with me in English. Then, I had to figure it out, embarass myself a lot and slowly get used to it… :) You sound pretty positive about the challenge–so keep up the good attitude! I think that is half the battle, not letting your ego get in the way…
    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I linked to this article in a blog article I just wrote about the challenges of navigating healthcare in Berlin as a foreigner. You can see the blog here:
    Anyhow, keep up the good work, I like your blog and viel Erfolg with the Deutsch!

  11. Reannon says:

    And how are you doing now? A year later? That’s brave of you to insist on speaking German even as they spoke English to you. I would have been embarrassed!

    I used to live in Germany (In Leipzig) but I already spoke German fairly well before I left, so it was a different experience.

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