Overcome Your Fear Of Speaking German – And Befriend The Locals
We all know the drill. You've diligently learnt some basic German.
Apps, Podcasts, You Tube and such are great but it's all just theory and learning. Applying what you have learned and talking in a non-simulated conversation with the natives is a complete different ball game.
You approach a service employee at the supermarket, town hall, restaurant, train station, hotel, bank or hundreds of other conceivable places to ask them a question which you have practised 10 times over before leaving your home. And then after you've finished speaking, probably nervous and shaking, they calmly respond with the answer in English. Or worse still, they frown, shrug and rudely ask you to repeat what you have just said, possibly because your accent is so thick that they can't decipher what you are trying to say.
So how do you get out of the fear of speaking German? Well, first of all, ask yourself the first question:
Are all of your friends foreigners?
Now, I empathise with this one to a large extent. Even after living in Germany for 10 years, most of my friends are foreigners. And most of the Germans I have befriended tend to have been through work, or contacts through expat networks & meet-ups, or dates who went on to become good friends.
There is certainly a good deal of truth in the stereotype that Germans can often be tough to befriend until you get to know them, and it's hard to penetrate their close social circle of friends. I know you can't generalise a whole nation, but they do tend to be less keen on small talk and having random conversations with people they don't know well or have just met.
The German workplace culture is one example of evidence of this. Nobody ever talks in the lift! Germans tend to see chit-chat as being superficial and false. It's not them being rude. They just have smaller circles of closer friends, and it takes time before they drop their guard and open up to you.
So if you want to have conversations with native speakers in a non-simulated environment to overcome your fear of speaking German and improve your spoken language skills, what to do?
Take Evening Classes at the VHS
The Volkshochschule, or VHS for short, is a publicly funded community adult education college. There is one in every larger city, and also in each district (Kreis) for more rural areas and smaller towns.
Now, you may be thinking I mean taking German classes, and you can do, for sure. The VHS offers a whole range of German-as-a-second-language courses. I've heard mixed reports about them though. Because it is a public body, unemployed immigrants who can't speak German are sometimes sent on these basic courses, known as Integrationskurse, as a compulsory attendance requirement to maintain their welfare payments. Therefore you're not necessarily going to be in a class full of highly motivated students if you take the absolute beginner classes. Once you get past basic level though, this is no longer a factor and you'll get more out of them, as well as it being much cheaper than a private school.
Where the VHS really comes into play though is for meeting native speakers in other, non-language classes. Yes, they are all taught in German, but if it's a creative hobby then a lot of the teaching is practical. A basic knowledge of German for sure is necessary. Complete beginners wouldn't get much out of it. But beyond that, you would be the exotic one in the class and it would provoke some interaction and engagement in an informal atmosphere, doing something both you and your German classmates have in common. Photography, cookery and wine tasting are all examples of courses offered by my local VHS.
This one is admittedly a “planned” interaction rather than a spontaneous situation, however, both of you have the same goal. Your tandem partner wants to learn English (or whatever your native language may be) and you want to improve your German.
When searching for a tandem partner, it is usual to specify what level you are at. This avoids awkwardness if your tandem partner is almost fluent and you only know how to order a beer and say please and thank you. Otherwise it kind of defeats the point and you will end up speaking English all evening.
Tandem partners typically meet in cafés or bars, or for dinner, and have an informal conversation about whatever springs to mind. It's therefore advisable if possible to partner up with somebody who has some common interests. If you don't know anybody from your network of friends or colleagues, or if you are new in Germany, there are a couple of websites which exist to match people up, with the ability to indicate proficiency, age, gender and interests of your preferred tandem partner in your profile.
Check out TandemPartners and TandemExchange if you want to use an online matching service. These interactions are typically not “teaching” as such, so if you're looking to get proficient in Business German for example, this probably isn't for you.
This one doesn't require any introduction but is without a shadow of a doubt the best way to throw yourself in at the deep end! It's easy to indicate on your online dating profile that you don't speak much German but want to improve, and then you can go with the flow and see how the date develops.
I remember an amusing conversation with a British colleague and his German boss many years ago, where our training budgets had been cut and he was pissed off because his German classes paid for by the company had not been extended. His boss's reply was “just get a girlfriend!”.
Unprofessional perhaps, but spot-on advice. 6 months after he had been dating a German girl who could not confidently speak much English, he was almost fluent. Sure, he made a hash of his grammar, but the fear of speaking German and making mistakes had gone.
A language exchange Stammtisch is similar in its objective to a tandem partner but just with more people, usually sat at a long table where it is easy to switch spots to speak to a few different people in one evening. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids awkwardness if you don't hit it off with your tandem partner for whatever reason. It also gives you the opportunity to build more social contacts which may further broaden the potential to engage with native speakers on a more frequent basis.
To find these events, typically check Facebook Groups, MeetUp.com or university noticeboards and what's on magazines where you live. Typically they range from weekly to monthly, depending on the size of the group and the level of engagement.
For those of you based in southern Germany, a good tip is the events run by My City Language Exchange in a number of cities.
Join a Sports Club
Known by their German name as Sportvereine, these are great ways to meet native speakers doing something you all enjoy together. Especially for team sports, this is a fantastic way to build camaraderie and friendships quickly outside of your expat bubble. Directories of sports clubs in your local area can usually be found on the municipal website of where you live.
Sports clubs will typically have an annual membership fee. This can range from a fairly low amount of around €50 for sports which don't have their own facilities, such as badminton clubs that train in school sports halls, right up to several hundred € a year for higher-end tennis clubs with their own clubhouse, courts and bar & restaurant facilities. You pay your money and take your choice. Beware before joining, however, that you check the membership rules, as some state as a condition of being a member that you spend X number of hours doing chores such as painting or sweeping leaves.
Become a Volunteer
Volunteer work follows a similar logic to sports clubs in that you are meeting like-minded people, only in this scenario, you want to do something together for the common good.
The most common forms of volunteering in Germany are for the local animal shelters (Tierheime / Tierschutzvereine); after school academic help (Nachhilfe), which, incidentially, can also often be paid; church and charitable activity such as fundraising, working with the homeless, or manning food banks; and efforts to help refugees (Flüchtlinge) integrate into Germany. Whilst the latter is mainly aimed at German native speakers to help them learn German and enter the workforce, the other options all give great potential to meet native speakers doing a hobby or good cause which you enjoy.
This being Germany, some of these organisations can be a bit regimented and expect you to commit to a fixed time each week where you will be on site to provide support. On the plus side, because these organisations are of the charitable or social kind, you are likely to meet open, patient people there who may be willing to take you under their stride if you are using the activity as a means to build up social contacts and improve your language skills.
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Some General Tips To Conclude
Aside from these few ideas, there are also some general tips which apply in all situations.
Firstly, if someone speaks English back to you, persevere and continue on speaking German, rather than making your life easy. If you make clear you want to communicate in their language, they will more often than not get the message.
Don't take offence. The person who tries to speak English to you probably just wants to help or realises that they speak English better than you can German. Or they may just want to use the opportunity themselves to practice with a native speaker, touché!
Work on your accent. From my experience, Germans seem to have real difficulty understanding non-native speakers if they pronounce words incorrectly. Learn and train yourself to pronounce ü, ö, ä, ö and z properly. Don't cut short your “t” or, for you North Americans, don't pronounce it like a “d”. If you pronounce these letters in German like you would in English, there's a good chance the natives won't understand you.
Don't stress about grammatical mistakes. Germans are far more accommodating when people make a hash of their grammar. They are very used to this because their grammar is so difficult. You will be understood and hey, you might even unintentionally amuse the person you're speaking to.
This is a classic rant from Bayern Munich Coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, from back in 1999. His broken German, together with the explosive nature of the press conference, was considered hilarious. But did he get his message across? Absolutely! They say that body language, facial expressions and tone of voice account for over 90% of communication…so:
STOP STRESSING AND GET SPEAKING!!