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Commentary: The ‘Easiness’ of Not Speaking German in Germany

About a week ago the Christian Social Union Bavaria party (CSU) demanded that all immigrants speak German not only while taking part in public life, but also while they are in their German homes. In my opinion that is the most absurd thing demanded by a German political party, since the suggestion that tax defrauders should be punished by a revocation of their driver’s licenses (because as all of us know, Germans love their cars to death).

I do understand that integration is an important topic that is not very easy to resolve and has to be dealt with but as one of my professors put it: Do these politicians speak Spanish to their family over the dinner table in their hotel room with an open Spanish dictionary nearby when they are on vacation? Certainly not. So why should immigrants not be allowed to speak whatever language they want within their own four walls? Mind you, the professor is German.

So I had a discussion with one of my friends recently that went into the direction of whether it would be absolutely necessary to speak German in order to get around in Berlin or whether someone who doesn’t speak a word of German would be just as lost in Berlin as someone would feel lost in let’s say Tokyo without speaking a word of Japanese.  An interesting question that gave me something to think about and inspired me to write this.

I came to the conclusion that the answer to this question is no (you are free to disagree with me on this if you want). While the French in Paris for example, might expect you to speak only French to them and will deny to communicate with you in any other language because of their national pride, in Germany things work differently and so I decided to write this post to talk about some of the main aspects that make it so easy for many immigrants (and tourists) here to get along and not speak a word, or very little, German.

First of all, Berlin is a city of tourism. I honestly don’t know how our economy would survive without the millions of tourists that visit us every year from all over the world. Due to this, Germany has adapted to the situation and if you are a tourist here and want to ask something or need to communicate for other reasons, in most cases you will always find at least one person around you who speaks English and German.

But now let’s assume that being a tourist in Berlin has inspired you so much that you decided to come live here. When it comes to taking care of bureaucratic issues concerning your stay, you may find that many of the staff don’t speak anything other than German. That sucks, doesn’t it? Just now that you were convinced you can make it here without speaking German. No worries because technically you still can. In Berlin you can find an interpreter relatively easily. That is especially popular with the Russian newcomers. The translators they get are not necessarily professionals but they speak both languages decent enough in order to help out and since they are not really professionals but do it as a side job, they don’t cost a fortune.

What makes it even easier for immigrants to live in Germany is the fact that they have quite a lot of (even though not total) freedom to keep the cultural lifestyle that they are used to from their home countries. Certain nationalities are dominant in certain districts of Berlin. Like the Turks and Arabs in Wedding and Kreuzberg and the Russians in Charlottenburg (nicknamed Charlottengrad) while Mitte is kind of a mix of everything.  So whenever people come here from abroad, they have a tendency to get an apartment in the district where most of their countrymen live simply because they believe that they would be more comfortable living among those of their own kind, rather than among Germans who are relatively unknown to them. That is surely not a universal thing but there are enough such cases in order to create a very visible trend.

The more a certain nation concentrates in one part of town, the more this part of town starts to resemble the people’s homeland left behind. The district of Wedding for example has become what I, after five years of living there, have lovingly started to call ‘little Turkey’ because of its large Turkish and partially Arab population. There are shops selling halal products and fresh fruits and vegetables offered by friendly and chatty pitchmen. There are banks who are run all in Turkish. There are various Turkish barber places and salons for women where all windows are tinted or covered by curtains so that the women can take off their hijab without feeling ashamed and when people start feeling homesick, they go to the travel agency that will counsel them in their language and sell them a ticket home. There are many more such places and the list could go on for ever. Pretty much the same things apply to the Russian, the Asian or the Hispanic communities in Berlin. All of these places add to a great cultural diversity with their delicious food, their catchy music and their intriguing stories from far away.

However, the actual problem with integration in my opinion is created by the influence that multi nationalism has on local education. The dominant nationalities of Berlin also manage to set up their own schools and that goes beyond the usual schools by embassies for children of diplomats.

Even though the curriculum of local schools is in German, it often gets overshadowed by the things that immigrants want their children to learn about their own culture. I am by no means against the teaching of its own culture to a child with a migration background, in fact I believe that it is very important so that the cultural roots don’t get lost but when these teachings interfere significantly with what the child needs to know about its new home, I think that parents should be more considerate about how they raise their offspring. At least in the matter of language to begin with. I remember my early school days when most of my international classmates spoke barely any German even though most of them were born here. I on the other hand, had been living in Germany for six months, learning the language from scratch at the age of seven and my German was much better than the one of those with a German passport in the room. Interesting, isn’t it? It is most likely because of this wide spread attitude, that when I go to the doctor and he or she sees my Slavic last name, he or she asks me whether I speak German or not.

So I can conclude that for all these reasons, Germany is not the worst place to live for an expat or exchange student or immigrant worker with no language skills, even though I would not encourage you to let yourself go because of these little amenities.

Not all people are polyglots and gifted learners. Not all languages can be learned within months. One cannot expect a refugee, an expat or any other foreigner to master the language perfectly but when it comes to children who are born into a culture that is not their own, for the sake of their own future stability in society, at least they should be made to adapt if not the adults.

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