Should Berlin Be A Bilingual City?

Official stats show that around 35 percent of the population, or 1.3 million residents, now have foreign roots. Could Berlin be on its way to becoming an officially bilingual city?
Should Berlin Be A Bilingual City?

Berlin is going bilingual. Or, at least it sounds like it is. You can hear it in the streets, in sidewalk conversations, and increasingly, you can even see it on the walls. Even Joab Nist — founder of Notes of Berlin, a blog with over 300,000 followers on Instagram that showcases images of the most amusing graffiti, scribbles, and homemade posters across the city — acknowledges this controversial fact. 

Of the hundreds of photos received by Notes of Berlin monthly, the amount in English and languages other than German have spiked in recent years. Looking forward, Nist says Notes of Berlin should find a way to share content in English too (most posts and captions are presently in German).

Official stats show that around 35 percent of the population, or 1.3 million residents, now have foreign roots, compared to 25 percent a decade ago. Within a few more years, this ratio might even surpass New York City’s impressive 38 percent percent immigrant population. 

This demographic reality, a shift in what’s being spoken on the streets and in a growing number of startups and expat-owned establishments, raises the question: could Berlin be on its way to becoming an officially bilingual city?

The problem with bilingual status

Berlin, Germany’s most multicultural city, is already considered by its dwellers to be more or less bilingual. It’s possible to get by speaking English and knowing very little German. I speak fluent German after eight years here, but have certainly had brushes with residents from English-speaking countries who’ve been around for much longer and can barely rattle off their fruits and vegetables (tomate doesn’t count).

Pictured: A cardboard sign written in both English and German reflects the city’s growing bilingualism. Photo credit: Notes of Berlin

English is the lingua franca in my kiez (neighborhood) in Neukölln, an area which is known for its Turkish and Arab communities, but continues to become more multicultural and also more gentrified. I overhear lots of English, but also French, Italian, and Turkish about as often as sentences beginning with der die das. My next-door cafés are Greek and Spanish, the nearest bar is owned by a Brit. Around these parts, German knowledge varies, so English runs by default.

Problematically, the increasing prevalence of English has made many Germans feel uncomfortable and linguistically displaced in their own capital. Who could forget Health Minister Jens Spahn declaring how annoying English-speaking baristas are, calling Berlin a case of bungled integration stoked by “elitist hipsters”. “How strange and unfamiliar in their own country it must feel to those, like my parents, who never learned English: They come to their capital and can no longer communicate in some restaurants there,” he wrote in 2017.

Spahn’s remarks reflect a larger, mainstream German debate on whether or not German cultural values are being sidelined, and the greater black-and-white thinking that introducing a second official language might wipe out the local one. A month after his op-ed was published, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) captured electoral victory, becoming part of the official parliamentary opposition on a campaign of xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment. No matter what’s happening on the streets, official bilingualism for Berlin feels far from the national political agenda.

“Berlin is not Germany”: A little history

Berlin, formerly part of Prussia, has a long history of being highly multicultural and multilingual, though. In the 1700s, about a third of the population were immigrants from places like France (the persecuted Huguenots), Bohemia and Poland. Similarly, the Prussian king Frederick II loved the French language so much, he elevated it to an official language in several arenas (to this day, German is still peppered with French loan-words like toilette and parfum).

A close-up of Brandenburg gate
Brandenburg Gate

Prussia was always completely separate from Western Europe and the south and western German states in culture, geography and religion, and Berlin, which became the capital relatively late in Prussian history, was even more of an outlier in its cultural and political makeup, explains James Hawes, the author of The Shortest History of Germany. “If you look at electoral maps of the German Empire, it was always this bizarre democratic island transplanted as a Prussian royal capital.”

Berlin was chosen as the capital of a reunified Germany to bring East and West closer together, but its history of cosmopolitanism has always made it “a world city, a European city,” Hawes explains. The popular German saying that goes, “Berin is not Germany” definitely rings true now more than ever. 

In Berlin, money talks

Berlin’s cosmopolitanism, as well as an accepted level of bilingualism in work and social environments, makes it a highly attractive place to live. Berlin’s economic power has grown by about 40 percent between 2009 and 2019, also bringing in an influx of foreign professionals who communicate in English. It’s a boon for local businesses like the independent English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Sons. “We don’t rely so much on tourists,” says owner Roman Kratochvila. “If the lockdown happened six years ago, we would’ve been in a much more difficult situation. I get the feeling [with the newer customers] that there’s a normalcy to [paying for an English-language] book. They have the money for it.”

Image of Shakespeare & Sons owner - Is Berlin on its way to be bilingual?
Pictured: Roman Kratochvila, owner of English-language bookstore Shaespeare & Sons. Photo credit: Shendl Copitman

Rising gentrification and cost of living in Berlin (rents have doubled in the last decade), have fuelled even more animosity about English’s pervasiveness. But German, for many, is a tough language to learn and understanding the level of German used in bureaucratic documents can take awhile, says Kathleen Parker. People deserve the chance to learn German at a reasonable pace, she says.

Bureaucracy is no love language

According to Parker, more resources and support for foreigners in English could vastly improve the local bureaucracy and help newcomers get settled (and ultimately learn German). Berlin’s administrative machine is sluggish and archaic. Being a foreigner here means getting on with an infinite loop of meeting civil servants and paper-chasing, in a deeply complex system. Even as a fluent German speaker, dealing with bureaucracy gets easier – but not by much. Tax notices, the intricacies of insurance, and how nothing is done electronically (ever) is constant quicksand.

According to Parker, more resources and support in English could vastly improve the local bureaucracy and help newcomers get settled.

That’s why Parker, an Aussie living in Berlin since 2008, started Red Tape Translations. “Every time I went to a party, someone was moaning about the foreigner’s office and how frightening it was,” she says. “There wasn’t much in the way of help. Even all the signs were in German.”

Accompanying foreigners to visa appointments, she quickly learned that many bureaucrats spoke little English or were unwilling to. She says the situation is improving with a new wave of younger English-speaking bureaucrats, but more support is needed for foreigners getting stuck on the system’s convolutions. Case workers have grown just as frustrated with the resulting backlogs, which have only ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic. A recent draft law that suggested an “immigrant quota” for jobs in the public sector gave people hope that substantial English-language support might be afoot. The optimism was short-lived, though, as the proposal was recently withdrawn

A lack of precedent might also be keeping Berlin from faster progress on this front: Berlin is the only German city that’s remotely close to functioning as bilingual on an official level. “Berlin’s offices are actually pretty good at accepting English-language documents these days, whereas anywhere else in Germany you’ll need a certified German translation of most things.”

Talking the talk

So that’s the real issue here: doublespeak. Berlin wants to be an international city, courting companies relocating due to Brexit and bolstering tourism, welcoming Elon Musk and the Tesla Gigafactory with open arms, yet being slow and evasive in committing to support newcomers who haven’t gotten the hang of German yet.

A rendering of the Berlin-Brandenburg Tesla Gigafactory - Is Berlin going bilingual?
Pictured: Rendering of the planned Berlin-Branded Tesla Gigafactory. Photo credit: Tesla

Locals are understandably scared of erasure, but the point is that the bilingual community has no hidden agenda or interest in doing away with German. An official bilingual position has the potential to benefit those on both sides of the argument. 

Considering the current politics surrounding national identity, an official stance on bilingualism in Germany’s capital probably will not be taken up anytime soon. But if you ask Joab Nist, from where he stands on the streets of Berlin, a morrow where English and German both find a recognized footing in the capital might just be inevitable, anyway.

“I don’t think there’s a way back anymore,” he says. “In the future, whenever that will be, more [communication] will be in English in Berlin. It has to be otherwise things will just keep getting too complicated.”

Ready to try a new language?
Author Headshot
Barbara Woolsey
Barbara Woolsey was raised on the Canadian prairies by a Filipino mother and Irish-Scottish father – and that multicultural upbringing has fuelled a life's passion for language and cross-cultural storytelling. She is based in Berlin, Germany where she works as a freelance TV producer for Reuters and contributes to several international publications. She also writes Lonely Planet guidebooks about places in Europe and Asia. Barbara speaks fluent German and is working on her Thai and Tagalog.
Barbara Woolsey was raised on the Canadian prairies by a Filipino mother and Irish-Scottish father – and that multicultural upbringing has fuelled a life's passion for language and cross-cultural storytelling. She is based in Berlin, Germany where she works as a freelance TV producer for Reuters and contributes to several international publications. She also writes Lonely Planet guidebooks about places in Europe and Asia. Barbara speaks fluent German and is working on her Thai and Tagalog.

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