I wrongly assumed that if I was going to be working for an international company, even an international German company like Siemens, that everyone would speak English. What I discovered on my first day was not only they couldn’t speak English, they didn’t speak German. Instead, they spoke Bavarian. A colourful dialect, which is completely different to the language spoken slowly, clearly and succinctly on my Learning Basic German CDs.
Over time, I learnt that most Germans on a one-to-one basis DO speak English. They just do not feel confident to speak it in public or on the job. They worry about what people will think about any mistake they might make.
The problem is not a lack of language proficiency, but a crippling (my point of view) cultural norm, dissuading anyone from admitting they can do anything, like speaking English, unless they can do it perfectly. The most common adjectives used in reference to how someone speaks a foreign language is “fluently and accent-free”. Example, “My son-in-law lived in Sweden for six months and he can speak Swedish fluently and without any German accent.”
The German school system is very good for teaching students English vocabulary and grammar. They are not good at positive reinforcement and instilling a natural love of the spoken language. No, it is all about vocabulary and grammar, which everyone forgets after a period of time. And this makes most Germans feel uncomfortable about speaking English once they have completed their secondary school education. They are embarrassed about the fact they forgot the words they knew way back when!
It also means if you ask a German to speak in English, they sometimes see it as a test or exam situation and not a chance to have a nice little chat.
But, I didn’t know all this way back when. All I knew is that no one appeared to speak English and so I decided to learn German. Leading me to Misconception #2: Learning German Is Easy.