Ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutsch: Working in Berlin as a non-German Speaker
“I don’t believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can’t learn in Berlin except the German language.”
— from Mark Twain’s notebook, 1891
Twain’s observation may be old, but it still holds true. Even now, it’s alarmingly easy to live and work in Berlin as a non-German speaker. Way too easy, in fact. However, if you don’t make an effort to learn at least enough German to be polite, then you consign yourself to an expat bubble and miss out on the full breadth of the Berlin experience. And while bubbles might be pretty in the moment, they’re very prone to bursting. The nature of living in the city is that people come and go relatively frequently, so if you stay friends with only other immigrants, then you’ll find yourself constantly attending farewell shindigs and having to make new friends all over again. Plus, you’ll miss out on all that highly entertaining U-Bahn eavesdropping!
Signing up for a German course
Make sure you sign up for a German course at one of the many excellent German language schools dotted across the city. Many people’s first stop is the Goethe Institut, and while the courses are world-class, they’re a bit expensive for those on a budget. If your schedule allows, try to find a course at your local Volkshochschule which are much more affordable, but often operate a class schedule that doesn’t gel well with full-time work. There are also schools such as Expath and Speakeasy which cater specifically to people like you. There really are a mind-boggling array of German courses available in Berlin, so ask around for recommendations. And don’t forget language apps like Duolingo or Berlin’s own Babbel that make it easy to get into a language-learning habit.
However, until your German is up to scratch, you still need to get on with this living thing. Here are some ways to navigate life in Berlin in the meantime.
Finding Services in English
The city of Berlin, at least in its central districts, is very geared towards anglophones. And in fact, if you speak English, there’s not much that’ll be closed off to you.
Whether you need to visit a doctor, find a hairdresser, rent a flat, or file your taxes, there are many services across the city that will help you out. As always, it’s best to ask friends for up-to-date recommendations but a swift Googling will also turn up some solid results.
Life Admin in English
Germany is big on bureaucracy, and legally, most of it has to be done through German. If, for example, you need to attend the Bürgeramt to register your new apartment, or collect a driving licence, etc, the Beamte or civil servants aren’t supposed to speak to you in any language other than German. That doesn’t mean that they won’t, but don’t expect to find someone who will bend the rules for you, or who can even speak English at all. Make an effort and be polite by learning off some stock phrases before you go in. Alternatively, bring along a German-speaking friend to do the talking for you.
Most banks will have English-speaking representatives that can help you with your queries. Same goes for insurance, phone, and rental companies. In fact, even if you do speak a little German, it’s probably better to perform these transactions through English to make sure you don’t misunderstand anything. Just make sure to be polite and friendly throughout, and you’ll be fine. If you need to file your taxes, it’s worth paying an English-speaking tax advisor who’ll do it for you and make sure you tick all the right boxes.
Negotiating Work Contracts
Given the nature of the startup scene, many of these internationally-focused companies will be happy to provide you with a contract in English. After all, they can’t ask you to sign something you don’t understand. At the very least, you should be provided with a contract in two languages in parallel translation. Be mindful however, that in the event of a contract dispute, the German one will be where the buck stops, so make sure that someone checks it for you.
Working in German Offices
While the lingua franca of most startup offices is English, don’t assume that this will be the case. After all, why would two Germans speak to each other in a language not their own? However, it’s constantly surprising how mindful the locals are about including non-German speakers in the conversation, and you’ll often get very lucky. Traditions can be a little different from country to country, too, so here are some small pieces of office etiquette to be mindful of.
- Many German people spend a long time studying and are quite proud of the titles they’ve earned as a result. While this won’t matter too much in an informal setting, make sure to be aware of it when you’re dealing with customers and senior employees and address them appropriately.
- If you find yourself in a more traditional German-speaking office, make sure to be extremely polite and address people formally (i.e. Frau / Herr or Sie) until you’re asked not to.
- Provide your own cake on your birthday and prepare to share it with others. Basically, when it comes to birthdays, Germans are like hobbits. They provide the drinks and food in return for your presence. And never, ever wish someone a happy birthday in advance of the date. It’s considered extremely bad luck, so do try not to doom someone to a bad 12 months.
- Be on time. While Berlin is a bit more lax about punctuality than other German cities would be, respecting the time of others by being on time yourself is still important.
- Eat your lunch. If you previously worked in an anglophone country, there’s a high likelihood that eating lunch was an optional extra of office life. Don’t do desk lunch in Germany. It’s not expected and besides, it’s better for you to get out of that chair for an hour.
Feierabend: Finding After Work Entertainment in English
Once you clock off, Berlin has no shortage of entertainment in English and there are countless guides that will help you find out what’s on. Long-standing print magazine Exberliner is a great starting point, but don’t miss out on online guides by the likes of Cee Cee, Berlin Food Stories, iheartberlin, The Culture Trip, and Savoteur among many, many others. I particularly like Savoteur because it’s always so well-written and very well curated. Other organisations such as Slow Travel Berlin offer English-speaking courses and tours of the city which are well worth checking out.
The English Theatre Berlin is exactly what it sounds like, and the Comedy Café Berlin also offers a largely English programme. Many cinemas will show movies in their original language with German subtitles, so make sure to look for OmU when you’re booking Kino tickets. There are also English bookshops such as Another Country, Shakespeare and Sons, and Curious Fox which often put on literary events and quiz nights in English.
Really, the best place to keep an eye on for what’s happening in Berlin are the poster-covered walls around you. The city heaves with amazing — and often, very weird — events, so keep your peepers peeled! And of course, the mecca of all event info in any city, Facebook, should keep you well-informed on all the fun the city has to offer.
Got specific questions about anglophone life in Berlin? Hit us up and we’ll add to this article.