Germany is another very popular tourist destination in Europe for English speakers, with beautiful cities like Hamburg and Berlin as well as festivals like the famous Oktoberfest attracting many Americans and Brits. But how widely spoken is English in there, and is it possible to get by in Germany without knowing any German?
The short answer is that it is possible to get by in Germany using just English, since it is widely enough spoken for you to use it in most regions without too many problems.
Recent figures estimate the proportion of English speakers in Germany at around 56% of the population. More than half the population speaks English to some extent, with the prevalence in popular tourist areas and younger people under 50 being even higher, so English is more common in Germany than other European countries.
Around 60% English proficiency is a decent percentage and much higher than other European countries like France, Italy and Spain which hover around 35-40 percent coverage of English, much of it not fluent.
Germans are much more rigorously schooled in English, most of them now learning as soon as they start primary school, so the younger generation of Germans under 50 have a pretty good theoretical grasp of English, though of course proficiency depends on how much they get to practice it in real life.
In Tourist Areas You Will Be Fine With English
Pretty much anyone who works in the service/tourist industry in the larger cities and attractions will be able to speak decent English for their particular area of expertise. In places like Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich you can survive without too many difficulties just using English.
However, as with most nationalities, Germans will always appreciate you at least trying to speak in basic German first with a few phrases (Sprachen sie English?). In some cases you will find they switch to pretty fluent English anyway in restaurants and tourist attractions, though they always appreciate you at least making the effort.
As you move out of the main tourist areas to smaller towns and villages, the prevalence of English will be less, especially among the older generations over 50 years old. This is where some basic German phrases will come in handy, which we will cover further below.
English Proficiency By Region
The level of proficiency in English does also vary across the different regions of Germany. There is more data on this than for some of the other European countries, so we have actually managed to create a map showing the prevalence of English speakers across Germany.
The lighter regions indicate a lower level of proficiency and the darker regions indicate a higher level of English speakers. In fairness the overall level of English across the whole country is impressive and compares very favorably to most other European countries; nevertheless there are some regional discrepancies.
Prevalence of English Speakers in Different Parts of Germany
There is a stereotype of a so called “East-West Divide” in terms of the prevalence of English in Germany, with the former East Germany states considered less fluent, but the map shows it is not quite this simple. The North-West regions of the country like Niedersachen, Hamburg and Bremen definitely have a higher prevalence of English speakers, but so do some Eastern regions like Berlin and Brandenburg.
There is definitely a cluster of regions in the middle of the country like Thuringen and Sachsen-Anhalt which have a much lower prevalence of English speakers compared to the North-West, but still more than a lot of Southern European countries like Spain and Italy.
The data appears to show that the bottom half of the country have either a moderate or lower prevalence of English speakers, with the exception of the Baden-Wurttenberg region in the far South of the country. If anything there appears to be a North-South rather than an East-West divide in English fluency, though Germany is still way ahead of many of their European neighbors overall.
The Prevalence of English in Major German Cities
However, lets be more specific than general rules and stats taken from sample studies, and instead narrow down to the reported level of spoken English in some of the larger and more commonly visited German cities.
We have gone through the various forums on the subject to pull out an overview of the most common general experience from people who visit each city.
Berlin – English very widely spoken in Berlin. You should be fine in almost all hotels, shops and restaurants. Elsewhere most people will either speak at least basic English or be able to get someone who does. You don’t need German when visiting Berlin. In fact see here for a story about a German politician complaining that too much English was being spoken in Berlin and not enough German!
Munich – English quite widely spoken. You can expect at least a basic grasp of English from most people under 60 in Munich. Younger people and businessmen especially tend to have decent English; local tradesmen and craftsmen may not. Standard German sometimes isn’t well understood there either, but tourists never report any problems despite any language barriers.
Hamburg – Second largest city in Germany. English reported to be very widely spoken inside the main city and around the harbor, especially among professionals and younger people. In places like fast food restaurants, taxis, bus drivers, English may be less common. Local dialect also closer to English than standard German, which helps, but locals will always appreciate you having a few basic German greetings – see further below.
Frankfurt – A major international financial, banking and business center, and also has a US military base, so English quite common. English widely spoken in all the main places and many restaurants will have English menus. Many street and train signs also in English. Tourists report no problems getting around with little or no German here, and locals reported to be very helpful. Having the basic German greetings and please/thankyou always helps send the right message though.
Cologne – A wonderful and widely visited city, so English widely spoken in the main central and tourist areas. Outside the tourist areas and in the general population, English is far less common, not so prevalent as other cities like Munich. However, tourists don’t find it hard to get around – signs and ticket machines tend to be in English as well as German. Locals also tend to be very welcoming and friendly. Nothing to worry about as long as you have a few basic German words.
Düsseldorf – English widely spoken. Will get a reply in English the vast majority of the time here. Interestingly, for expats and longer term stays, the local administration in Dusseldorf also speak English, which makes setting up residency, paperwork etc. much easier. Most vending and ticket machines only in German though.
Stuttgart – A decent level of English is spoken – not the highest prevalence in Germany, but not the lowest either. As a bonus, for expats looking for work, a large number of international companies are based in Stuttgart, like Daimler, Porsche, Bosch, Mahle and Hewlett Packard. It is totally possible to find jobs at these companies which require little or no spoken German and where spoken English will be common.
What If I’m Staying Longer Term?
If you are planning to stay in Germany longer term for work or an extended vacation then as with most other countries it is a good idea to learn some German to integrate a little more into the culture. Germans do take a pride in their national culture and language and are increasingly expecting anyone who stays in Germany long term to learn the language.
In fact there was a story in the news a few years ago of one of the German Government ministers actually being upset that in his opinion too many Germans were speaking English in everyday life in restaurants and other places, with some of them having only a limited knowledge of German despite it being the primary language.
In addition anyone going there to work will ideally need to learn German. English may be widely spoken in some occupations but in others you will be expected to be able to converse in German. Classes are cheap and widely available and can be a great way to meet new people in the same position as well.
Therefore anyone staying in Germany for a longer period should learn some German. They will be very forgiving and accommodating for short term tourists but there will be an expectation that anyone living there for longer should try to learn the language. Let’s look at some basic terms below.
Some Basic German Phrases
As always we will provide some basic phrases in German which will help a tourist there get by when buying food or traveling around various locations.
As an advantage German is a much more literally pronounced and “Guttaral” language in that pronunciation tends to be harsher and match more what is written on the page, in contrast to some of the softer European Romance languages which require the dropping of more vowels and can be trickier to learn and pronounce, such as French and Portuguese.
|Goodbye||Auf wiedersehen||Owf veeder zayn|
|Sorry||Es tut mir leid||Ess toot meer lite|
|My name is||Ich heisse||Ich high-ser|
|Good morning||Guten morgen||Gooten morgen|
|Good day||Guten tag||Gooten taag|
|Good evening||Guten abend||Gooten ar-bent|
|Good night||Gute nacht||Gooter Nacht|
|Thanks a lot||Bitte schön||Bitter shurn|
|No problem||Kein problem||Kaiyn problem|
|Do you speak English?||Sprechen sie Englisch?||Schprecken zee ang-lish?|
|Where is the toilet?||Wo ist toilette?||Vo ist toy-lett-ay?|
|Where is the train station?||Wo is bahnhoff?||Vo ist barn-hoff?|
|Where is the exit?||Wo ist ausgang?||Vo ist ows-gang?|
|One ticket please?||Ein fahrkarte bitte||Ein far-cart-uh bitter|
|One/Two beers please?||Ein/Zwei bier(e) bitte||Ein/Tsvye beer(e) bitter|
|The bill please||Die Rechnung bitte||Dee rech-nung bitter|
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Language & Travel Essentials For Visiting Germany
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Essential stats on Germany:
- Population: 83 million
- Time zone: EST +6 hours; GMT +1 hours.
- Currency: Euro
- International calling code: +49 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right.
- See here and here for some popular travel guides for Germany.
- See also our Phrasebook page to get a pocket book with simple German phrases to take around with you.
- If you prefer verb based learning, check out our Michel Thomas course page – there are beginner, intermediate and advanced courses in German using the Michel Thomas method.
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – If you’re using a foreign bank card to draw out euros at an ATM in Germany, you’re likely to get stung with high fees. See our guide on some good multi-currency card options to open up euro balances attached to a card and spend in euros for free, and also withdraw euros from local ATMs cheaply.
- SIM Cards – If you’d rather not be messing about with physical SIM cards, E-SIMs (digital SIM cards) are now available. If your phone is unlocked and E-SIM compatible, you can take advantage of Airalo‘s cheap, data only (no calls/texts) E-SIM cards, available for 200 countries, which you can download to your phone. With customized cheap E-SIM packages tailored for your data needs and length of stay. Click here to view Airalo’s E-SIMs now (almost all countries covered). Pay for what you need, for how long you need – no getting ripped off with tourist SIM cards and roaming charges.