How to Get People to Speak to You in German in Berlin

Lots of people in Berlin say ‘it’s hard to find anybody to speak with me in German’. What they mean is that as soon as somebody sees that you can’t speak German (or are too nervous to try) they immediately switch into English and the moment is past.

This is not to say that you can’t say what you want to say in German, it’s just that you didn’t get the chance. You’re probably nervous.

But one day that’s just not good enough anymore. Something’s got to change. You actually want to speak German — but it feels like nobody’s giving you the chance. The best learner I’ve ever met was super motivated. I asked her ‘why are you so motivated?’ She said ‘I’m ashamed I’ve lived here for seven years and I still can’t speak the language’.

It’s not true that she couldn’t speak the language though. She could speak but she suffered a lot from lack of confidence in that she was going to make lots of mistakes. She didn’t want to make mistakes. She wanted to be perfect. Now, I’m not going to say ‘don’t worry about it — you don’t have to be perfect’. I’m like that myself. If I open my mouth and I’m not confident that what I’m saying is correct, I worry that people are going to judge me. That’s the truth. Maybe it’s stupid, but it’s the truth.

And it is very true that with native speakers we make judgements all the time as soon as somebody opens their mouth. I can guess where they’re from and I can tell by the way they use the grammar what kind of education they’ve had. I don’t want to do this — it just happens. You probably do it too.

But that’s with native speakers. It’s not the same with language learners. I mean, it’s obviously not the same and the listener is going to be pretty tolerant of mistakes you make. So, it is an irrational fear.

Wait — is it an irrational fear? Maybe you got the advice that the best way to learn a language is just to be thrown in the deep end and then it’s sink or swim. If you couldn’t speak English and you lived in Berlin you would have to learn German fast or you couldn’t survive.

The only way to dive into the language is to use it everyday, and that’s only going to happen if you use it at work. If you work in an English speaking company or you work for yourself, then this won’t work. You can’t just dive in because you don’t have a pool.

Let’s just start with the basics. You can’t say anything correctly in German unless you understand some little things about the grammar. I’m talking about (der, das, die, dem, den) and (ein, einen, einem, einer, eine). It seems like a small thing, but it’s crucial. If you can’t do this, whenever you say ANYTHING you are not going to know if you’ve used the right form of ‘the’ or the right form of ‘a’. It’s small, but it matters.

Let’s say you know that “Ich hätte gern einen schwarzen Kaffee’ is correct. And you know that it’s ‘das Bier’ so it must be “Ich hätte gern ein kaltes Bier”. That’s good. But do you understand it? (If you do, can you explain it to somebody else?)

Say you want to say ‘the man gives the dog a bone’. You know man = Mann, dog = Hund and bone = Knochen. But you don’t know the gender of all the words and you don’t understand the CASE system. So you try:

‘Der Mann gibt der Hund das Knochen’

Well, you got one of them right.

The German speaker is going to say ‘dem Hund’. And it’s ‘den Knochen’. And so you ask ‘why’. Can’t somebody please explain it?

But they can’t explain why. They want to, but they can’t. People can’t explain their own grammar. They say ‘don’t worry, you’ll pick it up’. But it would be much nicer if somebody would just explain it (because I’m not sure I will just pick it up, and I’d prefer to get it over with).

The point is that you need to know this CASE stuff as the first foundation of self-confidence. Without enough self-confidence you’re doomed. This is the bare minimum a German speaker wants to hear to know they have to take you seriously. Why? Because when you open your mouth to say something, it shows how much time you’ve taken to get your head around how the language works. And the good news is that up to a point, this is all you need to know for a German speaker to take you seriously because they are so damned impressed they’ll then talk to you! Amazing really. Germans are hugely encouraging. They are so pleased you are trying to speak their language that they have a lot of patience.

Of course, you’ve probably tried to understand (der, das, die) but you don’t. You’re not to blame. This cornerstone of the language is notoriously badly taught, if it’s taught at all. It is also taught with lots of intimidating jargon words, like nominative, accusative and dative or direct and indirect. And to top it all off, it’s explained in German! (Which is nuts because how can you understand the grammar of a language you are learning explained in the language you are learning when you don’t yet know the language?)

Therefore you are totally not to blame. I spent weeks trying to figure it out. This is not to mention what you have to do to get the adjectives to agree! But eventually I found the only resource IN THE ENTIRE FLIPPING WORLD where it is actually explained in simple English. It’s from the University of Michigan. https://www.lsa.umich.edu/german/hmr/Grammatik/Adjektive/Adjektivendungen.html#determiners and I have used it as the basis of my workshops (see below) for people who like it spelled out for them in simple patterns with absolutely nothing to memorise.

So moving on — to start with you don’t have to consider conversations with natives in German. You can simply start by telling yourself that you will ONLY speak German in stores. Where do you go and what do you buy? Start with the Spätkauf. Only order beer and cigarettes in German. Extend to the bakery. Only order your croissants and coffee in German. Now move on the bigger stuff. What if you need new sheets and need to go to Kaufhaus. Now you need to figure out the words you need before you go and then ask somebody where those things can be found. Later if you want to do some home improvements, you’ll have to go to OBI. There you might want to ask about the differences between the white paint you need to buy because you’re moving and the landlord requires you to repaint the place white (even though it was orange when you moved in).

End of part 1. To encourage me, it would be nice if you ‘like/recommend’ this page. That way I’ll write part II quicker.

There’s a free workshop on the ‘CASE System Hacked 90 minutes’ held regularly in Berlin (15€ to reserve a place — but I give it back to you…it’s just to manage the numbers properly) Details here languagegym.net.

Peter Merrick PhD runs Language Gym with his German native speaker colleague Eric Förster. The program is for people who live in Berlin. It’s broken down into three modules of 8 lessons each and features grammar, reading and story writing and storytelling. Peter and Eric also organise Language Camp where we go to the woods, drink beer and speak only in German. More information at languagegym.net. You can join a free workshop I give on the CASE system via meetup