What is it like living in Germany without speaking German?

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Like a disabled person. Yes! I felt like I was handicapped because I could not understand people and could not speak! When I first arrived in Germany, I was not able to speak any German. Find out in this post what it is like living in Germany without speaking German.

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Before moving to Germany

I did try to learn some German on my own in my hometown Hong Kong a few months before moving to Germany. But the progress was not so good. I knew some really basic words like “I”, “you”, “he”, “she”, “it”, which did not really help me so much after I moved to Germany.

When I was in Hong Kong, I was not too worried about it. I thought, once I was in Germany, I would automatically pick up German at some point in time. But I was wrong. The language skill would not come automatically, even if I would live in the country for 10 years. If I did not put effort into learning and using the language, I would not know the language no matter how long I live abroad. What I did not expect at that time was how hard it was for me to learn German.

Read also: Best Blocked Bank Account in Germany – Compare the Top 3

My unrealistic expectation before coming to Germany

After I quit my job and moved to Germany, my struggles started. I had some unrealistic expectations that many things in Germany would have an English translation. I felt like this because back in Hong Kong, many things are in both Chinese and English: letters from the banks, formal documents from the authority, product descriptions in the supermarket….

I was just so used to this and thought it would be the same also in other countries. Well, English is one of the official languages in Hong Kong. That is why it is so much easier for foreigners there.

Even though I am a foreigner here, people talk to me in German first

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In Hong Kong, if we see a foreigner, we will directly talk with them in English. It is because we just won’t expect a foreigner can talk in Chinese. In Germany, it is different. Even though I do not look like a German person, when someone talks to me on the street or in the shops, they will always start talking in German first. (Note: it can be different if you live in a tourist area.)

In the beginning, I couldn’t understand it. Why didn’t they talk in English with me? Later on, I got to know that people will always start talking in German, because there are actually Asian-looking people who grow up in Germany and have German as their mother language (For example, many people have Vietnamese origins).

Besides, there are also immigrants (just like me) who live in Germany for a longer time. When people live in Germany already for a while, they are expected to know the German language. So it can be rude if people directly talk with someone in English just because they see an Asian face, especially when that person can actually talk in fluent or even native German.

Nevertheless, living in Germany without speaking German at the beginning was a horrible experience. Sometimes, I felt so frustrated that I missed Hong Kong so much and I just wanted to move back to Hong Kong

How is it like living in Germany without speaking German

(1) Very afraid to find letters in the post box

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Because all the letters were only in German! For example, letters from the banks, government, insurance, and so on. These were the most common letters I got. I was really stressed about missing to do something, just because I could not understand the letter. Especially if I saw a Euro amount in the letter, it really stressed me out: “Is it something that I need to pay!?”

Fortunately, I was always living together with some other German students, and I could ask them for help. You can also ask your German colleagues or other local students to help you out. Another option is to use Google’s translation app to instantly translate the letter in your phone camera.

(2) Feeling like an idiot

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I don’t know how many times I had this feeling. Hanging out with people, who were only speaking in German, made me feel like an idiot. Even when the people knew that I couldn’t understand, it was sometimes hard for them to talk in English. Especially when I was in a bigger group, it could happen that they talked a bit in English, but then switched back to German and totally forgot about me being there. I understood and didn’t blame them. It is always easier if you can talk in your mother language, especially when you are talking about an exciting topic.

But this situation really made me hate myself. When I went home afterward, I felt alone and wanted to cry. Then I was super motivated and studied German crazily for some hours. Because I knew that nobody could take care of my feeling all the time. The only way out was that I learned to at least understand what people were talking about.

(3) Hesitating to go to any party

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I moved to Germany all alone and needed to make some friends at the beginning. A very common way for young people to meet new friends is at house parties. As a student, I got many house party invitations. The host invited a group of friends to his house, usually in the evening. People could usually bring their friends as well. Then they drank some beers and talked together and had fun.

I would have liked to join some of these parties to meet more friends. But whenever I got these invitations, I had fear in myself. My question was not really related to the party itself, but more about: “Is there someone at the party I can talk with in English?

I know, this sounds very stupid. But that was really my main concern. If I went to a party and everyone was only talking in German, I would not be able to interact with people and make new friends. That would not be fun for me, but just feeling bad.

Read also: 25 Best Dating Apps & Sites in Germany That Really Work – Free and Paid

(4) Dealing with government officials

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If you are in Germany already, you know how bureaucratic it is here. You need to visit many different government offices to register and to get papers from every one of them. The worst part is that even the officials from the foreigners’ visa office did not speak English to me.

It made no sense at all. The foreigners’ visa office is for foreigners. How would they expect every foreigner to be able to speak German right away? It was chaos every time when I had to sort out my visa there.

Some people told me that actually many German people can speak English, but they are too shy or they just don’t want to. I don’t know if they can or not. I just know that it was not helpful at all when they tried to talk with me in German while I obviously didn’t understand a word.

(5) Looking for groceries in the supermarket

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The groceries in the supermarket do not always have an English description on them. The funny thing is that there is almost every other European language on it, except English. In the beginning, I had problems figuring out which one is shampoo or lotion, what kind of meat it is, and so on. And for sure, it got better and better over time as I went to the supermarket almost every day. Actually, all the names of the groceries were one of the first words that I learned in German.

(6) Searching for a job

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Living in Germany without speaking German is a big challenge. As I mentioned in my other article: How to find English-speaking jobs in Germany, it can also be very challenging to find a job without speaking German. Most companies required the employees to speak at least intermediate German. I had sent out more than 100 applications in English and in the end got only three interview chances.

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(7) Searching for a flat

Searching for a flat is extremely difficult for both German and foreigners here. I described this in another post: How to find a place to live in Germany. If you don’t speak German, your chance will be even lower. Surely, the landlords prefer someone, whom they can better communicate with. Back then, I had a lot of luck. I got some of my accommodation through my connection.

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Frustration can be a good thing

Now, after years in Germany, I have enough German skills to survive here. I am so happy that all these frustrations are finally behind me. But when I look back, I find that it was actually good that I was so frustrated. Frustration brought me motivation. Whenever I was very frustrated, I studied German even harder, because I knew that this was the only way out. If I would have been comfortable all the time (hanging out only with English-speaking people), I would not have felt as painful and would not have been forced to learn as fast as possible.

How to learn German

I summarized my secret fun ways to learn German, after years of painful process learning German. So, if you are still on this journey to master your German skills, remember that pain is actually a good thing for you 🙂

There are so many ways to learn German. Using an app is one of them. Check out here: 10 Best Apps to Learn German in 2021 – Free and Paid

If you are looking for German classes, I can highly recommend the Lingoda German classes. You can take online classes with qualified native German teachers at any time from anywhere in the world. You can book classes 24/7. The only thing you need is your computer and a stable internet connection. I write about it here: Lingoda Review – My Honest German Learning Experience

You can try Lingoda out for free with a 7-day trial with no risks. Don’t forget to use my code “lifeingermany” to get a 30% off if you decide to join the classes!

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Living in Germany without speaking German? Get some help!

What if you move to Germany, do not speak German yet, and need help? As mentioned before, don’t hesitate to ask for help! If I could go back in time, I would have asked more often for help, than stressing myself out and feeling scared alone 🙁  

That was my problem. I didn’t want to bother people. But you know what, some people are just happy to offer help to others. You will be surprised by how helpful people are. But the first thing is that you need to ask! Otherwise, nobody will know that you need help…Ask your classmate, university, neighbors, colleagues, etc. for help.

Are you struggling with the German language? How do you feel living in Germany without speaking German? Leave a comment below and let me know!

About the author

Originally from Hong Kong, Sindy spent 13 years in Germany before moving to the US. Her blog is your ultimate resource for navigating Germany, offering pro tips on bureaucracy, job hunting, education, culture, family life, and more.

With a "been there, done that" attitude, Sindy, a certified public accountant, draws on her extensive finance and accounting background to provide professional insights with a friendly touch.

Having navigated German life with her German husband and raising two kids there, Sindy brings a personal touch to her advice. Let this blog help fellow expats like you navigate the ins and outs of life in Germany!

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