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I am working for an international company, yet on every meeting my colleagues and bosses are speaking German (as far as I know they all speak English).

It happened that someone wanted to respect me to speak English, then someone else spoke up and said 'She has to learn German'. The company does not support language learning, but I am taking private classes twice per week to get better. However, I feel pressured that they mention it often that I have to learn it, as am not at a level to speak comfortably yet. I can talk about easy topics, but am definitely not on a level that would benefit me at the workplace.

Now they asked me to do a presentation in German, which frustrates me and I don't know what to do. They know about my classes, but it feels they don't care. I don't want to seem weak, but I feel really uncomfortable about it and I don't know what to do. I am not sure how to get their respect or if I should look for another job.


Wow, thank you everyone for taking the time to write such lengthy, helpful, and kind responses. Please excuse the time I have taken to answer your questions, I hope below I answer everything you were curious about and that it might clarify some of the assumptions as well.

  • The whole interview process, including a task I had to do were all in English. The base of the company is in Germany, however, we have partner companies in many other, foreign countries, including France, Italy, Spain, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom to just name a few.
  • It was that I would be mainly working with our developers (they are mostly foreigners and the majority of them only speak English, their meetings are only held in English as well). But as I am a designer, they placed me in the Product Management team, where basically everyone is German, except me. I was upfront about my German skills from the beginning and it was said it is not a problem, as this is an international company and everyone should be able to speak English with me. However, every product meeting which is just as relevant to me is in German.
  • It is important to mention that we are having a really complex product, so I would need to speak at least B2 or C1 level to understand them properly, which is even harder due to the different dialects.
  • My contract does not mention anything about what is the official language at the company, nor that I am expected to speak German after a certain amount of time.
  • The contract is in German, although other documents within the company are available in English and German, as well as often in Spanish, French, and Italian. (Due to partner companies).
  • English is not my first language (apologies in case of any mistakes), so I know what it takes to learn a language and I know it is important to practice speaking. I believe I might not clarify it properly in my original post, but I am learning German and I can talk about easy topics, so in fact, I do use the language, but at this point not in the business environment. I believe I try my best to get better, despite the lack of support from the company. At this point, German-speaking colleagues have English classes offered by the company, but English speakers do not have German classes, so I believe demanding to speak German is not the right approach in this case, especially as I mentioned earlier, I was upfront about this and they hired me knowing about my lack of German knowledge. I myself decided to start taking classes privately. This means I pay for my courses and I use my free time to eventually benefit the company that I, as well, speak German.
  • My problem with the statement “She has to learn German” was the disrespect. The person who held the meeting asked me if he should do the meeting in English and another person (my supervisor, a man) answered before I could do so, “No, she has to learn German”. This was followed by an awkward silence, then the meeting went on in German. It was an important meeting for me and I could not understand half of it, so I had to reach out to someone afterward to explain it to me. This took time and unnecessary effort, which could have been avoided if we just held the meeting in English in the first place. This was not the first time that this has happened.
  • The presentation was required by my supervisor and another colleague from the product team (my manager was not there that time). They requested this 2 days before the presentation took place. If I had enough time I could have prepared and memorized a script in German, but due to the complexity of the topic, the time would not have been enough.
  • I did the presentation in English and I scheduled a call with my manager to talk to him about my concerns. (He is also the manager of my supervisor.) I am not sure what to expect, but to be honest, at this point I feel I do not belong to this company. If there are other foreigners, everyone automatically switches to English, but if I am the only foreigner in the meeting, this is just simply not the case. Maybe they think they are helping as I mentioned I am taking German classes, but I feel this approach only holds me back from actually doing a good and efficient job.
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    Question: When you were hired, was the interview conducted in English or German? What is the location that you were hired in? What is/was the expectation given as to which Team/Management/Location you would be primarily working in/with? As depending on those factors, it drastically changes the advice. Dec 13, 2022 at 23:04
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    Also, what does your contract say? What did they say during the interview? What was written in the job description? Are you a full time employee located in Germany? Dec 13, 2022 at 23:55
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    Are the official documents such as design documents, requirements, specifications for the projects written in English or German or both ? Dec 13, 2022 at 23:58
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    @teego1967 Germany has much stronger labor laws than Pennsylvania does. And the OP referred to herself as "she". Dec 15, 2022 at 1:15
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    In contrast to the US, which does not have an official language, German is the only official language throughout all states (some states have secondary official languages, but English is not one of them). So if the contract says nothing about language, a court would probably rule that OP needs to speak German. Anyway, Germans tend to dislike people who live here and don't learn German (this is different from tourists), so learning the language is highly recommended. And 99% of the population will prefer an inadequate effort to "not even trying". Dec 15, 2022 at 9:25

14 Answers 14

65

It looks like your bosses believe in the immersion approach to language learning. It has been shown to be effective. I have worked with quite some people trying to learn German. Those not immersing themselves in the language were never really successful.

They know you are not perfect yet. They just have decided that immersing you in German is more important and an aceptable trade-off over you delivering you best work in English. Some of your colleagues might also not feel as comfortable speaking English as you believe.

If you want to work in Germany or Austria long-term, being able to speak German is important for your career. Their approach could help with that. So, I suggest you try it even if it stresses you out in the beginning. Obviously, you are going to make mistakes but they expect that.

Others have recommended to check if your contract requires you to speak German. Well, you should do that. But even if it is not in your contract, fighting this will hurt your career in this company and it is not unlikely that you will have similar issues in the next company if you stay in Germany or Austria.

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    Honestly, I feel this answer is way too naive and ignores the context entirely. I 100% agree that immersion is the best way to learn a language (that's how I learnt English). However, the way they said 'She has to learn German' and cut the other colleague off does not seem welcoming / kind. I've worked with several native asian / arabic colleagues, and while I encouraged them to speak French as much as possible, I had no issue switching back to English if they struggled with a sentence or technical context
    – Aserre
    Dec 15, 2022 at 13:57
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    @Aserre I am dutch, not german, but I would word a sentence in pretty much the same way. I think you are translating it as "you are commanded to learn english" and i would translate it as "it is necessary you learn english". I'd chalk this one up to cultural differences.
    – Borgh
    Dec 15, 2022 at 15:15
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    As someone who speaks pretty good English and has lots of non-native friends: It's no kindness to use English with friends and colleagues if they want to stay in Germany or Austria for longer. Yeah it's way more exhausting for everyone involved (it's vastly easier to just speak English with someone than trying to understand what they're saying and then speaking particularly slowly and clearly) but that's how people learn the language - by using it and their day to day life. I don't think I've ever met anyone who learned to speak German well by going to language courses a few time a week.
    – Voo
    Dec 15, 2022 at 17:08
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    @Borgh You are spot on. I am Dutch too, English is the language I have used all my professional life and since a few years I work in Germany. I have been through the exact situation as described in the question. When someone said 'he has to learn German' about me, the English interpreter in me felt disrespected. And then I realised that Dutch and German subtleties do not always translate easily into English. It turned out that this was not disrespectful at all, it was an act of kindness. Offering a platform for me to practice my German, fully understanding that I would mess their language up.
    – DeltaLima
    Dec 15, 2022 at 18:39
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    I feel there are some problems with this answer wrt to the OP actual situation. I agree immersion is a very effective way to learn a language, but the problem here is that the OP is also required to carry out complex activities using German at B2 or C1 level and be productive as she does so (as I got it, she is not considered a trainee whose job is just support or collateral to another senior colleague's). Moreover the company doesn't seem to support her efforts, since German speakers were offered English courses, but she was not offered German courses. Dec 16, 2022 at 9:36
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I've been in a similar situation in Japanese (my second language) at a company I previously worked at. You basically have 3 choices:

  1. Get really good at German, really fast. This is the most unrealistic one. It takes time to get good at a language, and it takes confidence, neither of which you have. Based on the grammatical errors in your question, I'm guessing English is not your first language either, and based on interactions with international people I have had, and basing off the sorts of grammar mistakes those people make, my guess is you are Chinese in origin (the grammatical errors in your question are most similar to the grammatical errors that Chinese speakers-of-English-as-a-second-language make). I know it is very frowned upon in Chinese culture to look anything less than perfect, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes you have to look bad once in a while to improve your skill at something. The more you speak German, and the more German is spoken around you, the better you will get at German. You'll have to make yourself look like an idiot once or twice (or more...MUCH more...), but you'll have to put your pride aside and just do it, if you want to accelerate the rate at which you get good at German.

  2. Inform your coworkers of why they should not speak to you in German. This was the tactic I took when I was in Japan. It was once written (I forgot who): If you want to convince someone to do something, you have to explain to them two things: "what's in it for me?", and "why do I care?". Why do these people want to speak to you in English? What advantage do they gain by speaking to you in English rather than their native German? Simply put, the advantage they gain is that you are not good at German, so if they speak to you in German you may misunderstand them, which will impact your work and your productivity. Getting better at German is one thing, and you are doing your best at that, but in the meantime, in order to communicate with you effectively, they should speak to you in English to make sure they are understood by you.

  3. Quit your job. If this company has a culture of speaking only in German, and you do not feel like you can accommodate that culture, then you should find a job at a company which is more English-friendly. If you can't speak German (well), and your coworkers won't or can't accommodate speaking to you in English, then you're at an impasse; you can't work effectively in German, and they can't or won't work effectively in English. That's it. They're the company, you're the outsider here, so it's your job (literally) to adapt or leave.

There is a 4th option which is to complain to management that they're supposed to be an international company but they only speak German, but that's not likely to go particularly well unless you have some supporting documentation like an employee handbook or something to point to. I would go this route only as an absolute last resort if the other 3 choices really don't work.

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    Fifth option: Accept that you aren't going to be really good really fast, and settle for being able to struggle along and improve over time.
    – keshlam
    Dec 14, 2022 at 16:58
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    "Get really good at German, really fast." that's not really an option. Getting to C1 is estimated by the Goethe institue to take 600-750 hours of studying (from fluent English), which realistically takes years.
    – njzk2
    Dec 14, 2022 at 22:35
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    @njzk2 That depends on what level of ‘Really good’ you need, and how good you are at languages. True C1 is likely overkill for work unless you’re interacting with customers, it’s quite often good enough to get to B1 or B2 and then specialize in the correct jargon for your job beyond that instead of going for true C1 or C2 proficiency, and it will quite often take far less time even if you’re especially bad with languages. Dec 14, 2022 at 23:24
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    @Voo at least B2 to be able to hold complex conversation about detailed points, not to mention the jargon. That's still at least half the time to C1, more like 75%, still in the range of several years, unless you study several hours every day.
    – njzk2
    Dec 15, 2022 at 19:30
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    @Voo that's exactly my point: a colleague saying "she must learn German", and other trying to push assignment in German in order to encourage this is pointless: it'll be months at best before any progress is visible
    – njzk2
    Dec 15, 2022 at 20:34
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I work in Austria and have lots of colleagues who moved here from from different countries. I’m a native Austrian. We are a small branch of a big US company. It’s understood that English is the company language and all our documentation and most written communication is in English.

If I talk or write directly to German-speaking colleagues or have a meeting with German-speaking colleagues I’ll use German. But the moment someone who doesn’t speak German joins we usually default to English immediately.

Occasionally we’ll inquire (in a friendly way) how somebody’s German learning is progressing and if they are okay with having the meeting or conversation in German. Some replies I’ve heard: “Okay, but I’ll interrupt if I don’t understand”; “I can understand just fine, but I’ll reply in English”; “Let’s use English for the technical stuff”; “No, please stick with English”.

We’ve had German conversations/meetings where people joined without us realizing and they gently interrupted with a “sorry guys, can we please switch to English?”.

In my opinion this is the way it should be done and the only way a conversation, meeting or presentation can actually work. You can’t just force somebody to speak or understand a foreign language they have insufficient knowledge or skill in.

If you start a business conversation in English and they reply in German and completely ignore that you don’t understand every second word (or even want you to reply in German), how do they expect that to work?!

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    Have to disagree. This is a way it can be done, and it is certainly the path of least resistance, but you're doing your foreign colleagues a disservice in the big picture. Unless they they have a lot of social contacts with whom they speak German, they'll never properly learn the language this way. Language courses are only good as a supplement and to iron out mistakes, but they're almost useless for getting comfortable with using the language in everyday settings. Dec 15, 2022 at 22:51
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    @leftaroundabout: For business conversations you can’t just force people who barely know the language headfirst into it (at least not if you want to transfer information or have meaningful discussion). For small talk at the coffee machine it’s a different matter. Though I still think the foreign person should have a say in it and shouldn’t feel left out.
    – Michael
    Dec 16, 2022 at 7:35
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    This is a good answer and how I believe the situation should be treated. @leftaroundabout that choice belongs only to the language learner. It is not right for me to impose a situation in which I'm speaking my native language which I know you struggle with, UNLESS that was explicitly agreed beforehand. This is a business context, not a language-learning center. Dec 16, 2022 at 14:38
  • @GustavoPuma you got it backwards. By leaving it up to the language learner, you're in the long run putting more pressure on their shoulders. Of course they will feel anxious and afraid to make mistakes, and to take up everybody's time with stammering – but this is an inevitable stage if they're ever going to use the language at all in business. By leaving it up to the learner, you're putting all responsibility on them to get over this hurdle. Whereas by forcing them to use German, you acknowledge that the stammering is “good enough for you” and that you're willing to bear with it. Dec 16, 2022 at 20:08
  • (Of course, that's not to say you should start right on the first day with a newcomer who hasn't even had a chance to learn understanding. Start by probing their skills at the coffee machine, but then expand from there as quickly as possible.) Dec 16, 2022 at 20:14
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Do the presentation in English.

If someone asks you about it, or complains, or says something in German, just tell them you don't speak German.

As long as your contract doesn't say that you're supposed to speak German, and as long as you haven't misled anyone about your abilities, you should be fine*.

To be clear: you did nothing wrong, and it is the company's decision to hire non German speakers. Good for you that you're taking classes, but again, and especially as the company doesn't support you, there's no obligation (of means or result) on your part.

Your colleagues have to accept to speak English, or complain higher up - but certainly not to you. This way they'll get a clarification about what is the working language of the company.


*If you're on probation, that might be the point where the company realizes it made a mistake, decides to hire German speakers from now one, and ends your contract. If you're not on probation, you should be fine.

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    -1 - this is bad advice. German is an official language in Germany, and English is not - there's an implicit expectation that you learn German with every job, unless it's explicitly stated in the contract. "She's trying, but struggling, and has to switch to English from time to time when she doesn't know the German version of a word" will be met with much more enthusiasm from colleagues than "She doesn't even try". Dec 15, 2022 at 9:31
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    @GuntramBlohm It's not some random colleagues job to criticize OPs use of language though (and them saying 'she has to learn German' if/when OPs contract doesn't require it seems xenophobic). OP is a bit vague on who demands what here, but if it's not someone who actually has the authority to do so, it's very questionable behavior on their part.
    – tim
    Dec 15, 2022 at 16:25
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    @GuntramBlohm "there's an implicit expectation that you learn German with every job, unless it's explicitly stated in the contract." not quite. There's no expectation that you'll speak German at all, unless it's explicitly stated in the contract. Whether that's the case or not should be made obvious by the recruiter and interviewers. (source: having worked several jobs in Germany, none of which carried the expectation that I would ever speak German)
    – njzk2
    Dec 15, 2022 at 19:22
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    @GuntramBlohm to add to this: this company hired someone, fully knowing that that person didn't know German, and that learning that language can take years, if it happens at all. The company is not in a position to ask the OP to learn German now. It will take months or years, and meanwhile everyone else will have demonstrated that they speak English anyway, as the company is international.
    – njzk2
    Dec 15, 2022 at 19:26
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    @GuntramBlohm, “German is an official language in Germany”, this is irrelevant to how the company operates internally. This attitude is a reason for why many German companies have a hard time attracting international talent.
    – Carsten S
    Dec 16, 2022 at 10:40
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I feel like nobody has answered the question you asked in your headline:

How can I make the people at my company understand that learning a spoken and written language takes time?

I will assume they do understand. If they come from Germany, either former eastern or western, or immigrated like you, they alread had to learn foreign languages and it took them years.

But they are completely in the dark about your progress, because they do not sit in class with you, as they did with their former classmates in school.

So instead of you learning the language being some secret, make it obvious. Make it public.

For a start, say something like

Hey boss, at my current level of language learning, we have lessons on asking for the way to the train station. I'm not yet able to hold a presentation on the economic viability of fooing widgets in the Bar industry in German, that is way over my head. The skills I need for this are covered in B1. I am currently working on A2 and I expect to be on B1 level maybe next March.

As always in business, don't leave it at a straight "I can't", offer up solutions for this problem yourself:

I can prepare this in English, or if you have another person in mind to present, I can help them gathering all the material for the presentation.

So my advice is, let them know where you stand. Let them know at what level you are at, so they know that what they asked is ridiculous. If you told people your German class last week had you learn about how to ask for directions to the restroom, people in the room will know what your boss asks of you is too much and will support you if you speak up. But if they don't know... they have no chance to do so, and you are on your own.

That said, maybe you can talk to your boss about your situation. You said you were promised more meetings with the (English speaking) developers in the interview. If that is not the case, have a talk with your boss about it.

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    Thank you! I scheduled a call with my manager to talk about my concerns in regards to our agreement in the past, as well as to discuss that if their expectations have changed for some reason, I would prefer to have certain milestones set for me to measure my progress. Throwing me 'in the deep water' with a presentation which at this point, I was not able to handle, given that it was requested two days before the presentation was planned to happen is I believe not a way to go about this.
    – user138043
    Dec 17, 2022 at 14:59
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then someone else spoke up and said 'She has to learn German'.

If this is not what you were told when you were hired, you may want to have a private talk with that person. But the key is to do this privately, you won't have a chance if you have to make your argument against more than one person at a time.

Also if you have documentary evidence that you would not be required to conduct business in German, either in your offer letter, or in your contract, or in the original job posting, or if an original timeline was agreed upon for learning German, that would also strengthen your argument and would make it much more bulletproof.

But even if you don't have that proof, you may still want to consult with a German employment lawyer. After all, if nothing was mentioned, and if you've conducted business in English until now. Maybe there is a legal argument in your favor. I don't know.

Now they asked me to do a presentation in German, which frustrates me

and I don't know what to do.

Here is one thing you could do:

Prepare the presentation in your native language or in English, translate it to German, and then have a native speaking German coworker/friend/tutor correct it for you.

Make sure to include a number of interesting diagrams and visual elements to your slides. Keep the presentation as short and as concise as possible. Then memorize the presentation using spaced repetition and a tool like Anki. And then practice that presentation in front of your friend/tutor.

I've known some foreigners that have memorized their favorite American movies verbatim before they could even understand the English language. So if this is possible in English, I'm pretty sure this is possible in German as well. It's just a question of preparation and time.

In addition to that, try anticipating some of the questions they might ask you, and prepare some answers to those questions. Also, prepare some generic answers as well in case you don't know the answer, or in case you need to get back to them later after the meeting.

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  • I have been in Germany more than 30 years and I still get my colleagues to correct my presentations. In return I correct their English, which is greatly appreciated.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 15, 2022 at 8:11
5

Other answers have thoroughly explored the pragmatic and contractual side of things, and also emphasized the important effect of immersion. I would therefore like to elaborate on other, less discussed, but potentially meaningful aspects.

Linguistic aspect:

During my attempts to speak German with German-speaking people, I came to the realization that it's very easy for learners (up to upper-intermediate level) to produce speech that German speakers cannot properly decipher. To offer a scientifically incorrect, but illustrative example:

In the context of recent developments in the market, it's very important that we update our strategy by [ undecipherable ] our R&D activities. Correspondingly, our analysts have observed that our competitors also have taken the measure to [ undecipherable ] assets in this regard.

The listener will get that the discussed topic carries huge importance, but they are unable to arrive to any conclusion regarding the objective. Is it to invest more? Or is it to dial spending down?

I have observed German speakers wince and squint in painful frustration when they had the task of figuring out what I tried to say.

I find your supervisor's willingness to expose your team to such effects perplexing.

Social effect:

I have observed that when I speak broken German, such German-speakers who don't know me from other contexts, and have to evaluate my person solely on the given conversation, tend to significantly underestimate my cognitive abilities. Soon they appear to take me no more seriously than some child. I have found that the only quick remedy to this is switching to English.

I would be concerned whether a similar effect could occur in your case, thanks to the supervisor's insistence on you using German. I would also contemplate whether he is aware of such effects, and what he thinks about 1. how this influences others' perception of you, and 2. how this influences your career within the company.

Cultural factors:

1.

From anecdotal accounts by various German-learning-related Youtube contributors, I have learned that in non-work context, foreign learners of the German language can regularly experience a frustration opposite to yours. Namely, when someone tries to practice their German skills with natives in public environments, like entering into ad-hoc dialogue on the street, during shopping, or similar, even when the learner initiated the dialogue in German, natives will often switch to and maintain the conversation in English.

To me, this illustrates that they can be very much sensitive to people's struggle with the difficulty of the German language. (Or alternatively, that they don't want to be subjected to the linguistic challenges discussed above...)

2.

Also mainly from similar sources as above, I have learned about a significant cultural aspect in German society. It's about a collective awareness about individuals' role in the collective well-being. This kind of thing will result in personal boundaries being addressed differently from what individuals got used to in some other cultures. What I mean:

In Germany, it is a common experience that people living in a neighbourhood keep an eye on each other's conduct, and go as far as correcting each other's actions when someone does something against the common good, the generally agreed guidelines of conduct. This can manifest itself in calling you out for not respecting limitations imposed by the "house rules", in calling you out for not separating properly your recyclable waste, or causing discomfort to others unintentionally, typically in lack of self-awareness, by, say, blocking their transit on a narrow stretch of a pavement.

The intent here is less to do with trespassing your boundaries, but rather, to achieve and maintain a more harmonic coexistence — even at the cost of minor confrontations. (Out of necessity, this harmony is expected to be achieved primarily in the near future (say, literally, from tomorrow on), as in the present a minor sacrifice was made, in the form of the confrontation itself.)

During this practice, it appears to me, Germans may grant themselves (and each other) the right to — to some extent — arrive at conclusions and make decisions on your behalf — and expect you to adopt them —, as long as it is percieved to serve the common harmony.

I guess such a pattern is not entirely foreign in other cultures either; the difference is how well it's adopted in Germany. This I believe is due to how it is taken constructively, and is acknowledged as a legitim dynamic of shaping — and doing a positive contribution to — a harmonic collective existence.

Now, for fairness' sake, it's worth acknowledging that such a dynamic is not free from the potential to abuse, and that some individuals may develop insufferable behaviours in this context.

I believe it would be pretty meaningful to figure out whether your supervisor is relying on this cultural pattern out of a benevolent motivation, or whether he is abusing it.

Counting on diversity:

Even with its distinctive culture, Germany — obviously — is not a hermetically sealed environment, and, obviously, a lot of cultural exchange is taking place, resulting in a variety of stances and nuances in evaluating situations, accross individuals.

You even mentioned that some colleagues are indeed way more empathic about the challenge you face than your supervisor. This illustrates that your company is very likely capable of accommodating you with as much sensitivity and common sense as you expect, but perhaps it is your supervisor who grants an unreasonably low weight to empathic considerations.

These insights seem to open up another alternative: if your supervisor wouldn't budge in accepting you carrying out critically important communication in English, you could still contemplate opportunities for a transfer within the same company, and thus ending up working with a different supervisor, or even, in a different type of hierarchy.

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  • "natives will often switch to and maintain the conversation in English." definitely hasn't been my experience, though
    – njzk2
    Dec 16, 2022 at 19:07
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    finding a different supervisor sounds like a good idea, especially given the described attitude of the current one
    – njzk2
    Dec 16, 2022 at 19:09
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I guess this presentation you are asked to do is not for clients but rather an internal presentation for your colleagues. So my take on it is that the main/only reason they are making you do this presentation is for your educational benefit. I don't think they are expecting a flawless presentation or even something that could be presented to a client.

So just do your best, don't fret too much over it and everything probably will be fine.

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There is one information missing. And I think a crucial one:

How do they speak in German when you are around?

  1. Are they talking fast and quite complex sentences as all around are German?

    Then it is your time to stand up for yourself and clearly but respectfully say them that this does not work for you both personally (it is frustrating and infuriating) and professionally (you have no clue what talk about). It may be time to raise the issue to your boss or boss's boss and HR. Clearly state you are doing your best to accommodate and they ignore that.

  2. They talk slower, clearer and using simpler language.

    From my experience only actually-parenting parents and those-who-worked-with-small-kids can do that. Others fall to their "native" language easily and need to train themselves to keep it simple. You can remind them of your lack of native-German skill. You can ask "Entschulidgen Sie mir bitte, was ist 'The Phrase You Cannot decipher'?"

You can also defend yourself by "Yes, I need to learn German. But I also need to understand you to work here. Thank you." If you defend yourself this way in German, points for you.

Do not demand their help. Explain them why they benefit from helping you. If it doesn't work, your life is too short for such a team.

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  • I don't know about you, but if I have to a/ simplify my language b/ slow down c/ train kids, all that while trying to communication complex work-related concepts, my productivity drops very fast.
    – njzk2
    Dec 16, 2022 at 19:06
  • @njzk2 That is the compromise. Your simpler vocabulary and/or slower pace is the price for the foreigner being able to understand you a bit more. Other option, ruled by "She has to learn German", is simple: All use the language everyone is efficient with.
    – Crowley
    Dec 16, 2022 at 20:04
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You are trying to solve the wrong problem. You ask "how can I make them understand that learning a new language takes a lot of time?". But they know that.

Everyone going to school in West Germany late enough so that they are in their early sixties now has had six years education in English, but more likely nine years. Someone older, 64, 65, or older, might not. The people in your company DO speak English. Visiting Germany with friends, they never had the slightest problem being understood in English, as long as you know to speak your best, accent free, mumbling free, slow, English. The only exception is when someone is very old (went to school before English lessons for everyone), or doesn't want to understand English. I've worked with plenty of English speaking people in Germany, either from English speaking company, or from non-German country when their English was better than their German, without problems.

What these people however have is a severe attitude problem. The person saying "She has to learn German" just doesn't like you, wants to show their power, is a sexist pig, whatever the reason. Not speaking English is not the reason. Do your presentation in English. It will be better understood than you trying to do the presentation in German. (Yes, you need to be quite good in German to reach the point where Germans understand your German better than your English). If there are complaints, ask if they understand English. If they answer "you should learn German", ask again if they understand English.

For a comparison, at 18 I had to read maths texts in English at university, no way round it. Had an English teacher at school at 16 who didn't speak German, and another (German native) English teacher who flatly refused to speak German in the classroom at 17. And people trying to learn German in Germany regularly complain that as soon as they open their mouth, people reply in English!

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    "What these people however have is a severe attitude problem." That seems harsh. Why do you assume everyone in the company is actually been through a (West)German school system? We have plenty of people bad at english and excellent at Russian or Arabic. If the smallest common denominator in that company is spoken German, then it seems pretty arrogant to call that an "attitude problem" of those involved.
    – nvoigt
    Dec 14, 2022 at 14:53
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    @nvoigt in which case maybe the company should have thought of that earlier, and hire only German-speaking employees.
    – njzk2
    Dec 14, 2022 at 22:43
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    what the hell is "accent free" English?
    – Phil
    Dec 14, 2022 at 23:48
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    @njzk2 So your solution is that the OP should be fired? Does not seem very constructive either.
    – nvoigt
    Dec 15, 2022 at 5:50
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    Also -1 for the assumption that these people have an attitude problem. The highest-rated answer (currently) provides a much more likely, much less assumptive reason why the coworkers might require OP to speak in German. Not that they're right to be doing so, but simply assuming the coworkers are "sexist pig[s]" because they require OP to speak German is a bit much.
    – Ertai87
    Dec 15, 2022 at 12:50
2

Willkommen in Deutschland!

This is a known problem that I faced myself years ago at the beginning. I will try to explain why it is so and what did I do to overcome it.

What I identified as possible reasons:

  1. It's a cultural thing. German is a very precise language. As you've already probably noticed, they have a word for everything. From my experience, a lot of them don't understand something out of context, but need exact wording. They are not dumb or something, it's their language that makes them this way. Even if you speak in another language, they can't switch their mindset easily to understand out of context and need exact wordings. Your native language / language that you use the most partially defines how you think. Your superior may not have a good enough grasp of English to understand what you mean and he has to make decisions and has to fully understand what is happening (imagine that you switch sides).
  2. Germans are bad at English. Yes, they are. They speak and understand it, but I rarely met one that has a fluent and a good command of the language. Just go over the border to Netherlands and you can speak English to literally anyone. An incredible difference. One of the reasons is that they don't use it often as they don't need it. In Germany, everything is in German, including TV broadcast.
  3. Arrogance. As some of the commentators in this topic, a lot of them are just purely arrogant. It's a superiority complex. You just have to live with it if you want to live in Germany. And this is not exclusive to Germany.

What I did and what I would like to suggest you is that you write your presentation in English, but speak in German. It doesn't matter that you don't know the exact article or conjugate a verb wrong or make a wrong declension...just do your best. That's why you have everything written down in the language that you know well. Don't be afraid to ask them to speak slowly or to translate or tell you in simpler terms what they said and you didn't understand. Don't be afraid to use an English word instead of a German one if you don't know it (Denglish), that's ok. Don't be afraid to tell them to speak in Hochdeutsch if they speak Bavarian or another dialect that is not official, because official German dialect in Germany is Hochdeutsch. They know that you don't know, always have that in mind.

If they are still belonging to the third group (arrogant) and don't want to help you, although they know your problem and still they employed you and they know you learn on your expense in your free time, then leave! Or ask for transfer to another department if the company is big enough. State your reasons to HR exactly as you wrote it here.

Germany is a big place and there are a lot of (truly international) companies that are very friendly and will value your effort. Don't get bogged down because of these specific bunch. Most of the Germans I met are normal and friendly and flexible, especially the younger generation.

I want to also mention that this problem is not Germany specific only. You'll find it anywhere in the world, especially in the bigger countries where their language is enough for their private and business life and, what I also noticed, that have TV broadcast synchronized in their language.

1

First, you make sure you have enough time for giving your presentation, because you will need more time to give the presentation as you struggle with the language.

Then you start:

Guten Mittag.
Ich. Möchte. Ihren. Gerne. Was. Erzählen. Uber. Meine. Arbeit.
Das. Werde. Gans. Lange. Dauern. Weil. Ich. Noch. Nicht. So. Gut. Deutsch. Rede.
Ich. Bitte. Sie. Allen. Auch. So. Langsam. Mit. Mir. Zu. Reden.
...
(Please don't kill me if I've made some errors, it's been a while that I've written German)

At first, this is pure nerve-wrecking: talking so slowly, with an extra space between each and every word, is very frustrating, but you have two advantages:

  • Talking that slowly gives you the opportunity to think about your words while you are pronouncing them. You'll make far less mistakes.
  • When other people speak that slowly to you (which is exactly what you are asking them to do), you have a far better chance to understand what they are saying, which will improve your knowledge of the German language.

This gives you an opportunity to show that you are actually learning German and it gives you a way to improve you German knowledge, once your colleagues agree to use this way of communicating towards you.

Ich wünsche Sie vielen Glück :-)

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    I didn't downvote, but I guess your suggestion, if put into action, could appear as mocking the audience and could backfire heavily from a professional POV. This is not in the interest of the OP. Dec 16, 2022 at 14:16
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    I have been a teamleader and a new colleague came to my department, she was Mexican. She tried to speak Dutch so when I talked to her, I did it exactly the way I described here, and she was glad that somebody did so much effort for helping her.
    – Dominique
    Dec 16, 2022 at 14:18
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    @Dominique If that's the case, it should have been clear from the start in the interview process. Hire someone who doesn't have a skill that you expect them to have is a big mistake, and that mistake is for the company to fix, not the OP. Also, the flippant "She has to learn German" is still not, in my view, being "helpful towards her"
    – njzk2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 11:45
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    @Dominique this is a very concrete situation, not a hypothetical about whether people should learn the local language and try to integrate. The OP was hired, and is legitimate in having expectations: the hiring process was in English, and apparently it was clear the work was to be expected to be conducted in English. Now she is facing a different situation, and just "adapt or quit" is not right. She did nothing wrong, no reason to face consequences for someone else's mistake. It is possible that the supervisor also has legitimate expectations to work in German, ...
    – njzk2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 11:48
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    ... but in that case strong-arming the OP into an uncomfortable situation on the spot is not the right answer.
    – njzk2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 11:49
0

I think I might be the only European answering here, but They are correct. You have to learn German, if you should decide to stay there.

When we tell you that you have to learn a language it is so that you can properly function in society. This is in no way meant to be an insult, but is merely stating a factual observation. Learning a language will bring you in closer to the people and will remove any isolation barriers that may exist. It will also be the first step in staying out of poverty because you will be able to have more access to resources which may not be viable if you don't know the language.

The pressure to learn a language is healthy as you are feeling a sense of the need to survive in a foreign environment and it shouldn't be considered negative.

That being said, learning a language is hard - They know this. Try learning the language and speaking it with them. Small phrases and motivation goes a VERY long way.

Start the day be greeting everyone in German, and trying to use it as much as possible. order food (drinks) in German when you are with the company. Show that you have a command of the language.

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    While this might be good advice in general, it won't help OP in this particular situation. What to do about meetings held in German that she cannot follow? What to do about the presentation? What are your thoughts on that? Just suck it up?
    – Weirdo
    Dec 17, 2022 at 17:21
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    You're certainly not the only European here: I'm even a Belgian, who speaks Dutch, French and German, which also explains my upvote :-)
    – Dominique
    Dec 19, 2022 at 12:51
  • I have lived in Belgium for a very small time and don't know French or Dutch ) I would record the conversation or ask someone to paraphrase the meeting. This uncomfortability is healthy to learning the language and you can take words from that meeting and learn. There could be some help, but she is correctfully being told to learn the language .
    – LUser
    Dec 21, 2022 at 10:34
-2

If it's an international company, you can go with the "inclusion" argument. Mention that you "don't feel included", or that you "feel excluded". These keywords frame the issue as a diversity & inclusion topic which then should get treated very sensitively, latest by HR. You can also use the keyword "pressured" or "stressed" which should also signal it's a serious issue.

This obviously assumes there was no expectation of learning German when you joined (which should have been mentioned in the job description). If the job description was in English and there was no mention of German skills I think you'd be in the right.

If German skill was mentioned, then treat it as you'd treat any other skill - discuss the progress with your manager, set expectations and ask them to create a develop plan for you. Then regularly review the progress and plan with your manager. If it's an important skill for your job that was part of your job description, it's your managers' responsibility to help you develop it.

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    I've worked with Germans who had taken the time to learn very good English and, I assume you that that approach would not have impressed them. I can imagine one of them saying, "If you don't feel included here, maybe this isn't the job for you". Dec 14, 2022 at 19:30
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    @SimonCrase The OP has also taken the time to learn good English, apparently. So, no reason to feel impressed by this. And "maybe this isn't the job for you" is bullying at best, and definitely not a cause for getting the OP fired of their job* (*assuming that this happens in one of the German speaking countries, w.r.t. to employment laws, and that the OPs contract mentions working in English, or at least does not mention having to work in German.)
    – njzk2
    Dec 14, 2022 at 22:41
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    @njzk2 "The OP has also taken the time to learn good English" I don't disagree, althouh German would be more useful in Germany. However when I said that my German colleagues were "very good", I actually meant "flawless"; one of them irritated his colleagues by picking up grammatical mistakes made be native speakers (it is very difficult for a foreigner to make the right mistakes to pass as a native speaker). My sympathies are with the lady who said, "She has to learn German". It's a very long shot to call that bullying; it sounds more like "tough love" to me. Dec 15, 2022 at 4:06
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    @SimonCrase definitely not tough love. Absolutely bullying. Learning takes time, results don't show immediately, so what happens in between? Will that lady monitor the OP's progress? Chastise when it doesn't go fast enough? Keep repeating that "she has to learn" every time the OP speaks English? Or do you really think that the OP will say: "I'm learning", and that lady will leave it at that, and not bring it up for the next couple of years?
    – njzk2
    Dec 15, 2022 at 19:29
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    @nvoigt the OP was hired by a company that knew she wasn't fluent in German. The interviews were conducted in English, and the OP was transparent about here fluency level. If despite that the working language of the company is German, that's a big problem
    – njzk2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 11:41

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