Learning German
Academic career: Is it necessary to learn German to live in Germany?

Notes - Metaphor: Academic German

Learning German can open up more options down the road. © Thought Catalog / unsplash.com

Yes, English is by all means the language of science. But while it’s possible to get through an entire degree program at a German university, or even work at a German company, without knowing any German, there are still plenty of reasons to learn the local language.

Published: 2024-07-09

By: Dacha Media / Charles Hawley

All it really takes is an afternoon in any large German city to hear just how omnipresent the English language has become in the country. It is everywhere: on the streets, in the cafés, on the trams. In some neighbourhoods in Berlin, in fact, trying to place a restaurant order in German will sometimes produce a blank stare of incomprehension on the face of the server.

It’s not much different on the campuses of the country’s universities. With Germany’s ongoing efforts to attract more skilled workers from abroad – and to lure more university students from overseas who might turn into those badly needed professionals – more and more universities are offering courses of study in English, even for undergraduates. Indeed, there are almost 2,900 bachelor’s and master’s degree courses offered around the country – all conveniently catalogued here.

So there’s no reason to learn German when coming to Germany, right? The answer: It depends.

Even with the huge number of degree courses on offer in English, there are significant differences between specialties. Engineering, natural sciences, computer sciences, economics, mathematics and social sciences are all well represented in the English-language course offerings. Other disciplines, such as cultural studies, art and medicine are less well represented. Even here, though, a detailed search through Germany’s university landscape will likely turn up an attractive, English-language offering.

All of which means that it is certainly possible for students at universities and universities of applied sciences to spend several years in a German university setting completing their bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree. And by extension, the same holds true for the professors, assistant professors, lecturers and postdocs teaching those courses and advising those students.

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Foreign students interested in pursuing a course of study in German will have to prove language proficiency. The most common ways to do so are through the TestDaF, which is offered at over 500 test centres located around the world, or through a DSH exam, which are taken through the university where the candidate wishes to apply.

But there are downsides. For students, they tend to be of a social nature. While many universities in Germany now have large international communities, the dominant language for most activities outside the university setting – all those sports and special interest “Vereine” (clubs) for which the country is famous – is still going to be German. Furthermore, students interested in perhaps starting their careers in Germany once they have obtained their degree should seriously consider learning German to increase their chances on the job market (see below).

For professors, the list of challenges for those with no German language skills is likely to be a bit longer. First and foremost, many German universities adhere to academic self-governance, whereby a committee of professors, students and administrators make fundamental decisions regarding the university’s development. Even at universities that offer a multitude of English-language courses of study, the language of academic self-governance is most likely going to be weighted heavily toward German.

The same holds true for all manner of other committees, faculty associations and day-to-day communications and announcements. Indeed, for many positions at German universities, knowing the language is actually a requirement, if not strongly recommended.

And finally, while students who speak no German will likely have a large community of fellow international students to fall back on for their social needs, the same isn’t necessarily going to be the case for faculty members. The language at the local gym or at your neighbour’s backyard barbecue, particularly outside of large cities, is still usually German.

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From Max-Planck and Fraunhofer to Helmholtz and Leibniz, Germany’s scientific research institutes are famous around the world – and scientists from around the world are eager to work at them. As such, it is no surprise that the lingua franca at these institutions is English.

Since they will be researching and publishing almost exclusively in English, it follows that researchers interested in working at one of these esteemed establishments do not necessarily have to know German at all. Institutional communication tends to take place all in English, and as the Fraunhofer explicitly points out on its website, even if jobs are advertised in German, they may be applied for in English. In fact, for researchers coming from countries where English isn’t spoken, proof of English ability is often required, whereas proof of German generally is not.

Ultimately, the decision as to whether to learn German or not for those working at one of these institutions comes down to the anticipated length of stay. Researchers only intending to spend a limited time on a specific research project may find it unnecessary to make the effort to acquire functional German. Those who might consider staying longer, however, should seriously consider the added benefits that come with speaking the local language.

The German economy is reliant on exports. As such, the country’s small army of small and mid-sized companies – the much-touted hidden champions – have long taken a broader intercultural worldview than their often rural, backwoods locations might lead one to suspect. And as they have become more and more reliant on skilled workers from overseas, many of them have also switched to English as their first language of business.

This means that experts in a long (long) list of fields – from aerospace and engineering to pharmaceuticals and renewable energies – can easily get by in their jobs without knowing a lick of German. The tech startups in Berlin are also, perhaps obviously, largely German-free zones.

Especially in private industry, however, learning German should be given serious consideration. While many of Germany’s best-known companies are located near large population centres, many mid-sized world beaters – in, say, vacuum technology, ship-deck flooring and chip-card adhesives – are situated in surprisingly small-town settings where the mid-manager might be fluent in English, but the baker and pharmacist on the corner might not. Nor will many of the local fitness club be chatting in English as they jog through the beautiful rolling hills.

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For incoming university students, the best option for learning German may very well be at the university in question. Most offer intensive courses prior to the beginning of the semester in preparation for the DSH exam or the TestDaF, should one be required. A quick search of the website of the university you are planning to attend should turn up a number of options. Furthermore, universities are an excellent place to find “tandem” partners, with whom you can practice your German and they, in turn, can practice their English. To find one, the bulletin board at the canteen is a great place to start.

A top address for those wanting to get a head start prior to arrival in Germany is, of course, the Goethe Institute. With 151 locations in 98 countries, they are easy to find – and they offer top-notch language training in addition to providing all kinds of important information about German culture.

Once in Germany, however, there are dozens of language schools to choose from, many of which offer quality similar to that of the Goethe Institute. Particularly for those living in larger cities, it pays to do some comparison shopping, as prices can vary significantly. And keep in mind: The best value could very well be the Volkshochschule – Germany’s system of adult education institutions that offer affordable courses on topics ranging from philosophy to cooking. While the price is right, keep in mind that quality may vary, so it pays to read the reviews for specific instructors before enrolling.

Courses in German as a foreign language

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