April 05, 2004

Raise Your Hand If You Speak English

Ah, Vienna--wonderful. We had a great weekend. Due to my very poor memory I don't recall all of the things we visited but Kevin's doing the pictures and I'll comment on them once I get a list. Don't ask about the memory thing--it's one of my heart drugs and is a pain in the ass.

The weather there was beautiful and warm. Our cute hotel was very centrally located and we were able to walk just about everywhere. My feet held out pretty good, but I think my poor circulation takes its toll as well. I wasn't able to get to the art museum which disappointed me but I guess I'll just have to go back.

The one thing that struck me the most when we went out and joined the throngs of people on the streets was how much English I heard. There were American tourists everywhere. There was English everywhere. All of the signs were in German and English, all of the menus were in German and English (except for one tiny little restaurant), everyone was walking around speaking English. I haven't heard so much English since I left California.

And now, some myth debunking and some speculation. Before I came to Germany, everyone said, "Everybody in Germany speaks English." I even said it myself--after all, everyone knows that everyone in Germany speaks English. Well I'm here to tell you that this is just Not True. Everybody in Germany does not, in fact, speak English as I'd been lead to believe. Oh sure, everyone knows one or two English words. Everyone in America knows a few German words too, like Autobahn, or German phrases like, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" and "Ich bin ein Berliner." However, this does not constitute knowing a language.

Germans all take English in school, but this also does not equate to knowledge. Germans who went to college usually do speak some degree of English. These are not, however, the people I interact with every day. The people I interact with (store clerks, food workers) speak very little, if any English. Trying to communicate with our cleaning ladies has been an exercise in agony every time they've come.

So visiting Vienna, where it seems that everyone really does speak English, was a bit of a surprise for me. I have simply gotten used to not hearing English unless it's coming out of my own (or Kevin's) mouth. And it made me wonder, why is there so much English in Vienna and none in Hamburg?

Well here's my speculation part. Hamburg, being in the Northeast section of Germany, is really not a tourist destination, particularly for English-speaking tourists. Hamburg is not really near anything except perhaps Berlin which is about 2 hours away. You can hit Hamburg on your way to Denmark, but basically if you come here you have made a separate trip. Southern Germany is very easy to get around and you can go from city to city (or village) with little effort, but Northern Germany is just not like that. Therefore, a city like Hamburg just doesn't cater to English-speaking tourists. So we have very little English. Very few signs in English, very few English menus, and absolutely no English being spoken on the street.

So that brings up the question: where would I rather be? In a city with a lot of English, or in a city with next to none? I think both have their advantages and disadvantages. In Hamburg it is very scary and often frustrating to not speak the language and to have little help. On the other hand, I'm absorbing much more German than I would have if I had English translations everywhere, and I feel that I'm getting a more authentic European experience. So I would say I like Hamburg, but Vienna sure was appealing.

Update: Kevin tells me that come summer I'll see plenty of English-speaking tourists. I guess it's still too cold and rainy for Americans these days. So we'll see what happens. In a couple of months I may be changing my tune entirely.

Posted by Shelby at April 5, 2004 05:14 PM

Regarding the "everybody takes in English in school" factoid, I always use the following analogy: everybody we know took math in school, but did everybody we know like math? Some people turned out to be engineers or physicists, while others decided to be floral arrangers ...

And while you don't see many tourists around Hamburg now, just you wait until summer rolls around . . .

Posted by: Kevin at April 5, 2004 09:40 PM
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