For anyone looking to move to Germany, or specifically to Frankfurt, you may be asking yourself will I be able to survive without speaking the German language?
For starters, I’ve lived in Frankfurt for a year now and have absolutely loved it which you can read about here. Frankfurt is probably not the first place that comes to mind when people think about moving to Germany, but it ends up being one of the most popular spots because of the amount of jobs, companies, and schools here.
This post is will not be about how to learn German, everyone already knows German is a difficult language and you don’t even need to live here. This post is focused on if you can maintain a normal life in Frankfurt without knowing any German!
Frankfurt is perhaps the most culturally diverse city in the Germany. Berlin may be the closest contender but these two cities are by far the most diverse.
In fact, the numbers in Frankfurt are roughly half of the city have a non-German background. The majority of this are Europeans from other countries, followed by Asian, Middle Eastern, and Black.
From meeting people in and around Frankfurt, the majority of those that choose to make Frankfurt their long term home have all learned German or are at least conversationally fluent.
Frankfurt is also the financial hub of Germany and much of the rest of Europe. It is also home to numerous tech, pharma, and law firms. All in all, Frankfurt is an international center where people are well educated and have a strong international prowess.
The Brexit Effect
Now that Brexit has happened, expect even more people of all nationalities to move to Frankfurt as more jobs open up. Many of these firms will base their European operations in Frankfurt and all much of this business will be done in English. I expect needing to learn German to be even less necessary than before because of this.
Do you need to speak German to live in Frankfurt?
In short, no. You don’t really need to speak German to survive in Frankfurt. It’s the 2020s, and the quality of English being taught at school in Germany is superb. Frankfurt is such an international financial hub that everyone, German or not, are completely used to speaking in English.
It’s actually difficult to find someone that does not speak English in Frankfurt. I think perhaps 10-20 years ago before Frankfurt really took off as an international destination, German would have been much more important, but times are different now.
Now, whether Germans want to speak to you in English is another question. Everyone is fully capable of speaking English and at a bare minimum, you’ll be able to get by. But at what point is this enough? If you’re okay having only expat friends and never engaging in the German way of life, then this is not an issue. If you are making German friends, do you want to be that one person that can’t speak German, thereby making every German person speak English to accommodate you?
How long will you be in Germany for?
This is of course a decision up to you. Depending on how long you see yourself living in Germany, or how much you care about integrating with the culture, you should plan to learn German accordingly.
As an expat that was asked to move here, I have no idea how long I will be here. I love the life here but it could be a two year thing, or a twenty year thing no one knows. I think investing a lot of time, effort, and money into a language that is really of no use outside of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria is something you really have to consider if you know you are here for a set amount of time.
If you’re planning to study in Frankfurt, and plan to start a career in Frankfurt or Germany afterwards, then it is a must to learn German. Which brings me to the next point
Are you job hunting in Germany?
Are you moving to Frankfurt with or without a job? If you’re transferring with your company like I did, and the expectation was always no German required, then learning German is purely for personal reasons.
Otherwise, if you’re job hunting in Frankfurt, you’ll quickly run into road blocks without knowing the language. This is not to say that you can’t find a job that does not require German because I know plenty of people that do. However, unless you’re offering some seriously scarce and exceptional skills, you’ll be at a disadvantage.
German is still the main language
Even though everyone speaks English, and foreigners outnumber Germans, the German language is still by far the most spoken language in the city. It’s not like Amsterdam or Copenhagen where people actually greet you in English because they know there’s a higher chance than not that you don’t speak the language.
No matter what you look like, most people will first talk to you in German with a nice “bitte schon” instead of a “can I help you”. This is because there are many more long term immigrants, aka people that moved to Germany with the purpose of settling down than most other European countries. I think even if you don’t plan to fully learn German, learning the very basics will go a long way. Something like, “zwei glaser riesling bitte”, or “wo ist die toiletten?”
Knowing the language is always better
All in all, like any country, learning the local language will always make your life better. Although it is not required in Frankfurt, I would definitely say that even knowing some of the basics will make life so much more fun. Just being able to speak to people with basic German will make people more welcoming towards you and generally just make for a better life experience!
Unlike the French, I find that the Germans are very receptive to helping you learn the language, even if your skills are no better than a toddlers. In fact, whenever I break out a few German phrases when speaking to German, they get quite excited just because I’m making the effort. Of course, they’ll try to continue the conversation in German until they realize I’m actually quite shit, before promptly switching back to English because they are actually…well, fluent in English.
I think it’s the effort that counts. I am fully aware that my German will never be as good as a German person’s English. I mean they’ve had a 20+ year head start on you so don’t feel bad. Nevertheless, I have made an effort to learn German just to know the very basics. If nothing else, it makes everyone laugh when I just break out some random German at the most opportune of times.
Official Paperwork is still done in German
All in all, getting stuff done in Frankfurt is relatively straight forward. You won’t run into too many issues on a day to day basis whether that’s at a restaurant, grocery store, the gym or something else.
However, there are some times where you’ll really wish you had better knowledge of German. This is almost always when you need to do something official involving some arm of the German Government like registering your address (anmeldung) at the Burgeramt. I think it’s gotten better in the past few years but I suspect newcomers will still have issues with the following:
Receptionists and greeting areas
When I visited doctors, dentists, etc, many of the times I’ve had issues with talking to the admin people. The doctors themselves are perfectly fine and speak enough English to make it work but whenever I’ve called to schedule an appointment, I’ve always been greeted by unfriendly receptionists who refuse to speak English.
Of course I ask them if they speak English at first, and they said not really. In truth, they speak English just fine but lot of times they just refuse to speak it. For this, I’d recommend learning basic German on how to make an appointment. Otherwise, just get someone that speaks German to do it!
The Finanzamt (Tax Office)
I went to the Finanzamt to switch my tax category from tax class 1 to tax class 3. Make sure to read my tax class guide if you are looking to do something similar in the future.
The work I needed to do was quite simple. I just simply filled out a form and gave it to them. I didn’t have to speak much German for this but as soon as I started asking questions about my future tax return, they were hesitant to speak to me in English. Thankfully, I have someone doing my taxes for me, but I could see this being a headache as well.
While I had someone helping me obtain my EU Blue card, others may not be so fortunate. I can’t speak from personal experience but I’ve heard horror stories of immigration officials not speaking any English to people. A bit counter-intuitive if you think about it. If you’re immigrating to Germany, there’s probably a 99% chance you speak no German. But if the people that work there don’t speak English, how will anything get done?
I’m not sure. Prepare yourself for frustrating experiences at the immigration office. Also, I’ll be blunt but if you don’t look like you could pass as German, you’ll probably get a different treatment.
Any communication is done in German, as you’d expect. Even though my bank account with Commerzbank was opened with the knowledge that all interface would be in English, the official paperwork to set everything up was entirely in German.
Pretty much everything else is also in German. Whether it’s a new cell phone plan, electricity bills, health insurance related stuff, everything is communicated in German. Which leads me to my next point!
When in doubt, use Google Translate
Google Translate has saved my life in so many instances. I can only imagine how different life would be back in the old days before they had the Google Translate app.
I’m not just talking about translating a sentence of two. Like the section above, most written communication is still done in German and if you can’t read German, you’re out of luck. In the old days, you’d have to write the entire letter into a translation app to understand the letter. Before translation services, you’d have to use a dictionary god forbid!
Nowadays, with the Google Translate app, you can actually just take a picture and scan a document and it will translate everything for you. It may not be the most accurate translation but it is enough to give you a general overview of what the letter is about. It’s a complete life saver.
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