“How much German should I learn before I visit Germany?”
This is a question I get frequently asked and my initial thought always is “How long is a piece of string?” If I had to answer with one sentence, I would say ‘as much as possible’, whereas others would say ‘You don’t need any German, they all speak English!’
Let’s look at some possible details:
- How long will you be staying? One night? A week? Longer?
- How much time do you have before you go? A week? A few months? A year?
- Where are you going? A big city where most people speak (almost) fluent English? A little village away from tourism?
I think you can get the idea, if, for example you’re going to Berlin for a short city break and it’s been planned last week, then you’ll be absolutely fine without any German. Actually, apart from any small places away from tourism, you will be fine anywhere, as you’ll most likely find somebody who speaks English.
“But what if I WANT to speak German?”
Again, the answer is, learn as much as possible. If you are planning next year’s visit, there is plenty of time to learn at least the basics.
“I’m going very soon and have hardly any time to learn German, but I want to speak at least SOME German. What should I learn?”
In that case learn some basics and anything that’s important to you.
- Some greetings & goodbyes: guten Morgen, guten Abend, hallo, tschüs, auf Wiedersehen
- Ask if they speak English: Sprechen Sie Englisch?
- Tell them you don’t speak German: Ich spreche kein Deutsch.
- Please & thank you, yes & no: Bitte, danke, ja, nein
- Some basic numbers and things which you know you might want to ask for.
If you don’t drink tea, don’t waste your short time learning how to ask for a cup of tea. Instead learn the words for the things you’d like to ask.
If, for example, there are 3 of you, you like red wine, the others would want coke, learn ‘ein Glas Rotwein und 2 Cola’.
- Also learn the vocab for anything you do not like eat!
Even a basic ‘no [insert item of food]. Here is a screenshot from my German for beginner’s course. It requires a little grammar (you need to know whether a nouns is masculine, feminine, neuter or plural), but if in doubt, just go for “kein”
You might want to say ‘keinen Spinat bitte’ if you didn’t like spinach, ‘keine Soße, bitte’ if you didn’t want gravy, ‘kein Brot, bitte’ if you didn’t want any bread or ‘keine Nüsse’ if you didn’t like nuts. (Or just mumble the ‘kein’ ☺)
If you are a vegetarian or vegan or need to eat gluten free etc… make sure you know keywords like Vegetarier, Veganer, glutenfrei etc..
Knowing all those words beforehand will make it a lot easier than struggling when you’re ordering. So spend some time thinking about food who definitely don’t want to eat, and maybe also food you’d like to try.
- And most importantly, learn the vocab for anything you cannot eat/ are allergic to! This is especially important if the waiter/ waitress doesn’t speak English (well).
The most basic sentence is “Ich bin allergisch gegen [insert name of food]” – I’m allergic to …
I cannot stress enough, how important this is! If you have any doubt, ask somebody to help you get it right before you go, or message me.
So, learn as much German as you possibly can and try to use it when in Germany. I can guarantee you that – even if they reply in English and even if you only manage a few words – you will make two people very happy: the German person you spoke to (for making the effort) and yourself (for having the courage).
Actually, make that three people, because it would make me very happy, too, if you tell me about it afterwards!
PS. Just in case you’re thinking, that this is all easy talk from me because I speak English and German:
I’ve used this method myself. Last year I went to Verona for a weekend with my son and daughter and didn’t have enough time for Italian lessons. So I made an Evernote document with the basics I felt I needed and practiced those words and phrases. Some of it I didn’t need in the end and some of it I was very proud to use. Then, this year I did the same for our weekend in Sofia. This time I didn’t have the courage to speak as I struggled with the Bulgarian pronunciation. But I was still pleased when I heard people say yes, no, etc… in Bulgarian and I understood!
Next year we’ll visit Vienna. I think I’ll be okay ☺