There are quite a few myths concerning language in Germany. Some people claim that it’s no problem at all to study German if you are fluent in English. Others issue dour warnings that the German language is complex and confusing, full of run-on sentences, philosophical concepts, and bureaucratic jargon.
Fortunately, both of these views are wrong. German is, however, a fairly widespread and important language in Europe. Some basic knowledge will be of great help during a stay in Germany, Austria, or large parts of Switzerland, where the German language is predominant.
Unsurprisingly, German is the official language in Germany, and the most widely spoken one as well. German is also common in Austria and Switzerland, as mentioned above. Moreover, there are German speakers in Eastern Belgium, the French region of Alsace-Lorraine, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, some regions in Northern Italy, and even in the United States, Latin America, or southern Africa.
It is a significant language in Germany and beyond, with up to 100 million native speakers and about 80 million non-native speakers around the globe (especially language students in France and Eastern Europe). Furthermore, German is an official language of the European Union and one of the three working languages of the European Commission. Over 15% of all EU nationals speak the German language.
But the official idiom is not the only language in Germany. Actually, there is more than one protected minority language in Germany: Danish, Frisian, Romany, and Sorbian. However, their tiny number of native speakers pales in comparison to the immigrant population: Due to their influence on language in Germany, Arabic, Greek, Italian, Polish, Turkish, or Russian can be heard in many major cities.
German has a long history that dates back to the early Middle Ages: The first texts in Old German (which a contemporary speaker will hardly understand) come from the 9th century AD. The modern language in Germany didn’t develop until the 1700s.
Linguistically, German belongs to the so-called West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Its closest “relatives” are English and Dutch. However, the differences between these languages are greater than many people think.
Like most other European languages, language in Germany uses the Latin alphabet. A few additional letters like the Eszett (ß) or the Umlaute (ä, ö, ü) make German immediately recognizable.
Over the centuries, it has also borrowed many common words from other European languages, e.g. Greek (Alphabet), Latin (Rose, Altar) or French (Ballett, Dessert, General). More recently, language in Germany gets most loan words from the English vocabulary, such as Cocktail, Manager, Teenager, Computer or Job.
Technically speaking, the official language in Germany is actually called Standard German (Hochdeutsch). However, particularly in rural areas of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Standard German is used less frequently than local dialects. Vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation etc. thus vary greatly from region to region.
Casual small talk in a Berlin bar may differ from a chat during the carnival season in Cologne. If a local family from Stuttgart tuned in to watch Talk op Platt (a popular talk show in “Low German”) on northern Germany’s broadcasting stations, they probably would not understand it.
These dialects can be a source of linguistic and cultural pride for the areas in question. Lately, there has been a small revival of regional language, e.g. in German literature, popular music, TV, and film. But when talking to a non-native speaker, many people will do their best to switch back to Standard German.
Don’t be shy to ask them politely or to point out humorously that you have trouble understanding them. After all, your classes on language in Germany didn’t tell you that Hund doesn’t only mean ‘dog’: It is also a Bavarian expression for a clever, though not very trustworthy person.
In contrast to regional identities, the national language in Germany is of slightly less importance to many native speakers. So you needn’t hesitate to ask a German person if they can speak English (or perhaps even another language). Since English is taught in nearly all schools in Germany, many people have a basic grasp of this language.
However, as Germany is a fairly large country, fluency in foreign languages isn’t as common as in some smaller European nations, like Denmark or the Netherlands. Nonetheless, in a 2006 survey, 25% of all German respondents claimed they could speak two or more foreign languages. Maybe you’ll even meet someone who speaks your own native language in Germany!
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