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How does it feel like to live in Germany when you barely speak German?

Updated: May 29, 2020

Feels like surviving rather than living.

I had taken private classes in India before moving to Germany in 2014… twice. Even then, I was no where close to being able to speak (let alone understand) A1 level German. (I must confess that I am not the most hard working when it comes to learning language)

At that time, in my mind, the words and pronunciations sounded very weird, like :

  • A becomes अ (in Hindi),

  • E become I,

  • I becomes E,

  • J become Yott,

  • V become F etc etc…

Basically, it rewires the mental connections of language.

Landing in Germany with bare minimum to Nil German language skill was quiet a wake up call. The experience of being totally dependent (on friends) for very basic chores was very frustrating.

Registration : one of the first tasks to be done for me after settling in Heidelberg . These are government officers and do not speak English (atleast in 2014, I had been lucky to not interact with them since June,2018 after he got his German PR). The lady did not speak English and was not happy that we did not know German. Not the best of the starts with the German experience!!

Social ID, Tax ID, Health Insurance : Once I registered with the Heidelberg city, it brings a lot of mails (posts, not emails). All of them are in German (even now). Which means, either one uses an app to understand the letter or ask a friend/neighbor for help.

Ignoring the letters is not an option, since they contain details of one’s Social ID, Tax ID, Insurance details etc.

Next came the bank account. Unlike now, at that time (in 2014) N26 was barely existent. Which meant, going to the traditional banks for account opening. In a classic case of taking references, friends told me that only Deutsche Bank has customer service in English (in branch as well as phone). Which meant : there was only 1 option to open a bank account.

Shortly after landing, I joined the German classes. Since I was still looking for a job, I had time to join a super intensive German course (3 hours per day, 5 days a week).

What I did not anticipate was that all of my classmates in the German class were bachelor students (this was also incidentally the time of age gap realisation for me). During the class I was struggling to get the concepts n basics n grammar, while the other students were well on their way to moving to the next chapter or levels. This was easily one of the most challenging and frustrating time for me in Germany.

Apart from the above, mundane tasks that we take for granted in our home countries (India for me), become unfamiliar :

Banks :

India : super active, customer service at top, multitude of interactions and sounds going on around me,

Germany : usually quieter than a library, limited customer service staff (most tasks done online), strict adherence to appointment based system, language challenges.

Supermarkets (or kirana stores in India) :

India : personal connect with the shopkeeper, ordering over phone or while visiting the shops, home delivery by the shop, accounts settled at the end of the month (my experiences in Chandigarh), Supermarkets are hub of activities, hustle bustle and high energy flowing all around, cashiers or assistants bag the shopping,

Germany : usually big supermarkets, very unfamiliar brands, familiar brands with unfamiliar labels, different flavors of same chip brands (mentioned in German), bare minimum service staff in the super market (language challenge as they usually dont speak English), very very fast cashiers (speaking German, which makes any small talk impossible).

A section where language barriers do not matter are : HUGE sections of beer, wine and alcohol brands.

Doctors :

India : family doctors, sense of familiarity and history, easy to explain the problems, quick to get the diagnosis, hopefully on way to recovery,

Germany : taking an appointment (usually in German) is the first challenge (now there are apps to help English speakers though), meeting the doctor (can understand English, will usually talk in German only due to potential liability issues). With no or limited understanding of German, doctors and hospitals can be difficult experiences. (Of course, there are doctors who are exceptions and can speak really good English.. though prefer German for legal reasons).

Finding a job in Germany might be challenge, but there are challenges in daily life which become more difficult with the lack of German language. So, learn the language to enjoy this beautiful country.

It always helps to have a mentor, who has worked and lived in Germany for some of the best brands. For personal consultation with Arun Mahajan, book a time with him.

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