Updated: Sep 30, 2019
So, you’re thinking about making the move to Berlin. However, there’s a big problem: you don’t speak German. Is it just crazy to think you can move to Germany without being able to speak fluent German? How will you be able to get a taxi from the airport to your hotel, and then how will you be able to check in? How will you find your way around, or order food without accidentally getting a weird local specialty? How will you get a job, or find a place to live? These are all totally reasonable questions, kind of vital to survival when arriving in any country.
If you’ve ever travelled to Europe – then you’ll know that those fears are totally unnecessary. For starters, Berlin is outfitted much like every Westernised country these days, with English integrated across the city. To start with, many of the signs at the airport and in the train stations have an English translation underneath the German, and there are English menus at almost every restaurant (and if not, you can always get the schnitzel!) All of those things aside, the simple truth is that almost everyone in a central European country will be able to speak and understand at least some English.
When it comes to finding a job without fluent German skills, also don’t stress! Nomaden Berlin has lots of experience helping people find English-speaking workplaces, of which there are plenty. Finding an apartment without German knowledge is also totally possible, though another kettle of fish that Nomaden will guide you through.
However, that’s no reason to be an ungrateful foreigner. If you’re visiting a foreign country, it is common decency to learn at least a little bit of the language before or soon after you arrive. Even if your accent is terrible and Berliners make you repeat yourself in English, they always appreciate the effort.
There are a lot of ways you can start learning a new language, including countless smartphone apps like Duolingo, Babbel and Memrise. These are fantastic resources for learning the basics in a short amount of time. However, these don’t always prepare you for the real world and for everyday life in Berlin, so I’ve outlined a few of the most common phrases that took me by surprise after studying German for 10 years in school and with these apps. Nothing complicated, but perhaps so ingrained into the minds of German natives that they don’t seem important to teach. So, I’ve put them into common situations so you’ll know what to expect to hear when you take your groceries to the register, for example.
Greetings and Pleasantries
There are a lot of ways to greet someone in German, the most common being ‘hallo’ and ‘hi’. These are easier to understand and remember than the more formal ‘Guten Tag’ (good day), ‘Guten Abend’ (good evening) and ‘Guten Morgen’ (good morning – often shortened to just ‘morgen’). When saying goodbye, the most common in casual settings is ‘Tschüss’ (bye). The more formal ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ (until I see you again) that many a German teacher likes to make us struggle with during our high school language classes is not very common in a day-to-day scenario. In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard it here once. You can absolutely get by with a smiley ‘hallo‘ and ‘tschüss‘ at all times ofthe day.
Also good for all times of the day is th e ability to be polite. Your mum taught you to say ‘please’ and ‘thanks’, but German mums teach ‘bitte’ and ’danke’. Add on a cheeky ‘schön’ to the end to make ‘dankeschön’ if you want to say something more like ‘Thank you very much’, or ‘bitteschön’ for a ‘You’re very welcome’.
Note: ‘bitte‘ is a fantastic word to know, as it can mean a whole lot of different things. You’ll hear it said to mean please, you’re welcome, pardon?, come on, and in many more situations, such as inviting a customer to the counter in a store.
In the Supermarket
Exploring a supermarket in a foreign country can be a great way to get to know a country’s quirks. Things that would be so normal to those living here are on display for brand new eyes and that can be very interesting. Why are there so many types of ‘Gurken‘ (pickles), ‘Käse‘ (cheese) and ‘Fleisch‘ (meat)? I’m not complaining; it’s amazing! A whole aisle just for ‘Süβigkeiten’ (sweets)? Colour me impressed!
However, your groceries will not be bagged for you, nor will you receive a ‘Tute’ or a ‘Tasche’ (bag) at all unless you specifically place one on the register and buy it. It is polite to greet your server at the ‘Kasse’ (register) but no further small talk is really necessary. Depending on which store you go to, the cashier might ask if you have a loyalty card for the store, for example a ‘Rewe Karte’, to which you can reply ‘nein’ (no) or ‘ja’ (yes). They will then read out your total, which will also be displayed on the screen if you’re not confident with your numbers. You can pay ‘mit Karte’ (by card) or hand over ‘Bargeld‘ (cash). Your receipt will print and the server will ask you if you want to take it, saying either ‘Kassenbon?’ or simply ‘Bon’. Your transaction is complete! The cashier, if they’re in a good mood, will likely finish your interaction by saying ‘Schönen Tag noch’ which simply means ‘Have a nice day’. If you’re feeling brave, you can reply ‘Gleichfalls’, which is essentially ‘the same to you’.
In a Restaurant
As mentioned earlier, there will often be either a dedicated English ‘Speisekarte’ (menu), or a translation directly under the German. Here, you can ask for a ‘Bier’ (beer), ‘Wein’ (wine) or ‘Wasser’ (water). If you would like water, just be aware that the default is mineral water, otherwise ask for ‘still’.
When the server comes for your order, begin by saying “Ich hätte gern ein.... (I would like a...). This is rather polite and will excuse any pointing to the menu that may be required. Of course, remember your ‘bitte’ and ‘danke’ when ordering, and when receiving your food. It’s possible the waiter will come part way through your mean and ask you if the meal tastes good by saying ‘Schmeckt’ or ‘Lecker’. To which you can reply a simple ‘Ja’ (yes), ‘Nein’ (no) or ‘Lecker’ (tasty!) if you’re feeling complimentary.
When you are finished and would like to pay for your meal, wait at your table and try to catch the waiter’s eye to ask “Darf ich bezahlen?” (May I pay?) or “Die Rechnung, bitte” (The check, please). Remember to leave a tip of around 10% if the service was really good!
Getting around in a foreign country can be difficult, but luckily Berlin has a pretty well organised public transport system – though it may often be ‘unregelmaβig’ (irregular). While I won’t go into details for how to use the public transport in Berlin, I will tell you that you will want to catch your ‘Zug’ (train) from the correct ‘Gleis’ (platform), or your ‘Bus’ (...bus..) from the correct ‘Bushaltstelle’ (bus stop). When you ‘einsteigen’ (get on a train), the announcement will declare which number route you are on, and then say ‘zurück bleiben bitte’ (stay back please). When you’re on the train heading to your destination, the loudspeaker with tell you what the ‘Nächste Stationen’ (next station) will be. In excellent news, many of the announcements are also repeated in English, so I promise that you will know all of these phrases off by heart before you know it!
These are some of the most common situational German phrases you’ll find yourself hearing as you begin your new life in Berlin. The more of the language you learn, the more comfortable you will become in these situations, but don’t be afraid to ever just ask “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?) to practically anyone. They will be able to help you with whatever you need, and maybe help teach you how to ask in German, too.