How to improve your German in Berlin

by Guest Blogger

Written by Natalie Holmes on on behalf of www.be-my-guest.com who offer short stay Berlin Apartments, with an illustration by Jaime Huxtable.

You might think that there’s no better place to learn German than the capital of the world’s most populous German-speaking country. But you’d be wrong. Berlin is an international city where you can, more or less, get by without speaking the language. Whether or not you’d want to–or should–has been hotly debated lately, but for those who do, the fact that so many people speak  English in Berlin can present a very real barrier to learning German.

When I first arrived here almost four years ago, I spent a few months in totally unexpected culture shock. Sure, many people speak English, but that hardly helped me to decipher this new and strange city, with its impossibly long words and curious customs.

As soon as I had time, I enrolled on a beginners course at my local Volkshochschule. It didn’t take long to realise that the more German I learnt, the more comfortable I felt in Berlin–and since I planned to be here long-term, knowing the language became a priority. It seemed essential to my well-being. Trouble was, I’d already begun forming a group of friends for whom English was the lingua franca.

Of the many surprises offered up by Berlin, one of the least predictable was the struggle to speak German. On the long journey to making this city feel like home, here are some ways I’ve found to help master the Muttersprache.

Radio, Films & TV

This one’s kind of obvious, but shouldn’t be overlooked. When I ask Scandinavian friends how their English got to be so perfect, they often say it’s through watching subtitled films. There are some excellent German-language films you can watch holed up at home, all in the name of education. My favourites are epic BBC mini-series Das Boot, Wim Wenders’ classic Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), cult favourite Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) East Berlin spy thriller Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), jolting social experiment Die Welle and practically anything by Michael Haneke. Most DVDs offer subs in a range of languages, but make sure you check the box if you’re buying from Germany, as the older ones probably won’t. It’s also possible to download subtitle text files and sync them with the film you’re watching.

And it also works the other way round. Despite the dubious German tradition of dubbing films, some cinemas (like many in the Yorck group) show new releases in their original language with German subs (OmU). I find reading along in German as effective–if not more so–than hearing the German and reading in English. Plus those cinemas are beautiful, and their popcorn is the best in town.

A German friend invited me to her local Kneipe one Sunday evening to get involved in the nationwide tradition of watching an episode of TV crime drama Tatort. I accepted, consoling myself that if I didn’t understand, hey, at least I’d be at the pub. But I did understand, mostly. Not every word, of course, but enough of the plot to genuinely react to twists and join in the with audience’s exaggerated shock at just the right moments.

On a more day-to-day level, listening to the radio can be helpful. FluxFM have a feature called Lesen und Lesen Lassen that’s broadcast daily and also available online. Each day, a bite-sized section of a different book is read out, in German. I rarely understand all of the story, but as time goes by I notice that there are now more familiar words than unfamiliar. If it’s still all sounding indecipherable, try Deutsche Welle’s excellent Radio D, which is specially geared towards beginners, with basic vocab at a more leisurely pace.

German gym classes

It’s amazing how much new vocab I’ve learnt from fumbling my way through German Pilates and yoga classes. The good thing about those sort of classes is that you can get away with sneaking glances at your teacher (or classmates if your eyeline happens to be skewed by some awkward contortion) and following the moves without knowing exactly what’s being said. It wasn’t my intention to have learnt so many anatomical words and verbs through going to German gym classes, but a happy side-effect nonetheless. Now, when everyone’s at the pub talking about flexing their pelvic floor (der Beckenboden–in case you’re wondering), I can join in unembarrassed.

Ask to speak German

Another idea that seems simple enough in theory, asking to speak German can be a scary thing to do–not least because if you’re the one requesting it, then you’d better be able to hold a conversation. I’ve sat before in a group of people, all German except me, and everyone’s talking English. It’s silly and a bit embarrassing. But it’s easy. At some point embarrassment turns to shame and I hear myself say “Wir sollten auf Deutsch sprechen, oder?” There’s only so long I can sit there in silence, following the conversation but too slow to construct sentences to make a point before it moves on. In the end, I just have to blurt something out, word order all over the place. Someone replies. They knew what I meant! They didn’t laugh! Next time it’s easier.

Similarly, who’s ever tried their very best to speak German to a local at a party, say, and met with replies in flawless English? Even when I persevere in this situation, replying stubbornly in German while my German counterpart persists with English, I inevitably lose the game, trumped by some complex grammatical structure or another. I get that it might be annoying to speak to someone struggling with a new language, but Germans, please, be patient with us. Humour us. Speak German to us!

Fake it til you make it

Of course, the best way to get better at German is to practice speaking it as much as possible. Predictably, all the best German speakers I know have either spent time immersed in Germany outside of Berlin or live with a German speaking flatmate or partner. But if shacking up with a native is not a feasible option, just fake it til you make it.

Tandems are a popular option, where you meet up with a native speaker and spend half the time talking English and half talking German, and I recommend signing up to a service like Erst Nachhilfe to find the perfect partner. In fact, lots of friends have not only improved their language but also found themselves with a new boyfriend or girlfriend by seeking out a tandem. After all, when else do you spend so much one-on-one time talking about each others’ lives? The only risk is that if one of you is better than the other at their respective second language, you’ll slip into bad habits. Make sure you structure the conversation and stick to half and half, no matter how painful at first.

Finally, treat yourself to a holiday somewhere rural and remote, where you know there’s little chance of people speaking English. The lake district in neighbouring Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, for example, is spectacular. Go off peak and off season and it’s a cheap but worthwhile break, and a chance to explore the beauty of Germany that so often gets buried beneath the bustle of Berlin.

Melbourne Canteen

by James Glazebrook

Melbourne Canteen 1

We actually went to Melbourne Canteen weeks ago, but we didn’t want to make some sort of statement about supporting English-only businesses in Berlin. Oops – look like we just did! Anyway, when we returned after *that* Exberliner article, we’re happy to confirm that we were offered a German menu – but, more importantly, that the food was still great. The eggs Benedict were among the best we’ve ever had in Berlin, the full Aussie – or whatever they call eggs, bacon and the works down under – was generous and tasty, and (of course) the flat white was near-perfect. Oh, and the walls are decorated with photographic prints from everyone’s new favourite Berlin streetstyle blog, What Ali Wore.

Melbourne Canteen 5

Melbourne Canteen 4

Melbourne Canteen 3

Melbourne Canteen 2

Melbourne Canteen 6

Björk, DJ Shadow and Tomahawk confirm for Berlin Festival 2013

by James Glazebrook

Oh my shit, the lineup for this year’s Berlin Festival just keeps getting more epic! They’ve just added Björk, DJ Shadow and alt metal übergroup Tomahawk to already confirmed acts like My Bloody Valentine, Blur, Pet Shop Boys, Ellen Allien etc etc etc! This new triumvirate are set to be the real highlights of the festival, as all are amazing live – and here’s the evidence! I can’t believe I’m going to get to see Shad and Tomahawk members Mike Patton and John Stanier again, and Björk for the first time (what have I been doing with my life?!!). Until September, enjoy the ice queen live in Paris, and Patton and co. in-store at Amoeba Records.

To find out more visit the Berlin Festival website. And listen to our highlights of last year’s festival here.

Music Montag: André Uhl video EXCLUSIVE

by James Glazebrook

André Uhl

Berlin beatsmith André Uhl has kindly give us the exclusive premiere of his new video, “Native”. Uhl, who created the video himself, is keeping the details of its production close to his chest, saying only that it was “shot with a hand cam on a very foggy day in a forest in Berlin and edited without any filters or visual effects.”

My personal take is that the visuals match the creeping, organic tone of the audio, in a kind of slow-mo Evil Dead-demon style. Anyway, it’s awesome – and available below, along with a stream of the EP from which it is taken, Creatures (out now on Bad Panda Records). We give you: “Native”, by André Uhl.

André Uhl – Native from André Uhl on Vimeo.

My Neukölln Neighbours, and the Quest for the Magic Internet

by Guest Blogger

A guest post from Paul Hawkins. Paul writes for the Hipstery, and strongly encourages you to drop everything and rush straight there. Illustrations by Holly Sims.

I moved to Neukölln this year when a seemingly magical apartment came up. I heard about it through a close friend; just renovated, not even advertised. The landlord, meanwhile, didn’t even want papers. No bank statements, no proof of income, no scary document called a Mietewirdpünktlichbezahltwahrscheinlichgarantie, nothing. After hearing horror stories about having to bare-knuckle fight 40 people just to see the the front door of an apartment in Berlin, then needing a stack of papers so large that they can only be moved by wheelbarrow, it seemed like The Universe had just thrown me a Wohnung-shaped bone.

I moved in one evening in January. It was warm, empty, and smelled of its new wood floors. I had a hot shower and a beer, unpacked my single suitcase, then lay down on a borrowed mattress in the middle of the room. I smiled, then fell asleep in my new home.

The next day I was rattled awake at 9am by loud, floor-shaking anarchist punk. Disorientated, confused and staring at a strange new ceiling for the very first time, a slow realisation creeped into my head like a weird hangover:

I didn’t need any papers.

No one else in this building needed any papers either.

As my plan was to go on a little door-to-door quest for a temporary wireless password, it wouldn’t be long before I met a few of them.


Attempt One – No Internet

Most days now, I wake up to a visit from Peter, who was my first neighbour friend. He lives opposite me, and I suspect is an alcoholic. This is partly because he often asks if I want to come over for a whiskey. Mostly, though, it’s because he often asks if I want to come over for a whiskey before I’ve even had a muesli.

He is 60 years old, most proud of his missing finger, and is very keen on bumping fists. We communicate mostly in bad English, bad German, and, for a reason I haven’t quite figured out yet, by shouting “SEX!!” at each other when we can’t think of the right word. He has also decided that I am “very good man,” and that we are in a guitar and harmonica band called Peter und Paul (available for bookings).

Neukölln Neighbours by Holly Sims: Peter

One day, when he invited me over for a late drink in the afternoon, I asked him if anyone on our floor had wifi that they might be able to share with me. “SEX,” he replied, which meant no. He suggested, though, that I could maybe drill a hole then feed the wire in from upstairs.

“Oh,” I said, “you don’t need wires.”

He fist-bumped me, laughed, and shook his head. “It’s OK. The ceiling. It’s thin.”


Attempt Two – No Internet

Keen to help me on my new quest, Peter then introduced me to Bomb, who is a Canadian guy called Bomb that lives downstairs. On the way to meet Bomb, who is actually called Bomb, Peter warned me in German about two unnecessary details. Firstly, that Bomb has dogs. I knew this already, in fact, as they woke me up most of the days that Peter didn’t. Secondly, that Bomb has a beard “all over his face,” but is, nevertheless, a “very good man.”

Wondering why Peter thought I needed warning about that trivial fact, I knocked on the door. The dogs barked loudly, then a bloody, bandaged hand reached around the door, followed by a man with no beard at all. I had misheard Peter. By which I mean I had not understood Peter. By which I mean I do not speak German.

Peter had not said “beard” when he had pointed all over his face. He had said “tattooed.”

Neukölln Neighbours by Holly Sims: Peter

Bomb was initially aesthetically frightening but, indeed, a very good man. Since befriending him, I have a newfound respect and understanding for tattooing your whole face. There are far too many people in the world. It can be annoying. About 99% of them, however, are probably too scared to talk to people with tattooed faces. Bomb, therefore, has streamlined his life to just include the amazing 1% who are the least judgemental and awesome. It’s genius.

He is a wise man who understands many things. One of them, however, is not wifi. I asked him if we could share his for a bit.

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, “maybe we can drill a hole in the ceiling.”

“No,” I said, and my mind exploded like a thing. “It’s wireless, you know. You don’t needa wire.”

“My girlfriend’s back tomorrow. Come round then, she understands it more than I do.”


Attempt Three – No Internet

It was while knocking on the door for Bomb’s girlfriend that I met Martina, and I took the opportunity to ask her about the internet, which was beginning to seem like a quite a revolutionary technology in my building. Now, Martina is nice, simple, and talks a lot. Most admirable about her, however, is how she is will keep talking a lot even when she is understood very little. She lives next door to Bomb, and has three noisy children. I knew this already, in fact, as they woke me up any day that Bomb or Peter didn’t.

Neukölln Neighbours by Holly Sims: Martina

Amazingly, she had just got the internet installed that morning, and was delighted with the idea of sharing the cost. She didn’t know how to turn it on or use it yet, however, but she told me to come back the next night once her friend had explained to her how to get the password. By this point, of course, I was just delighted to find someone who understood the concept that wireless internet was, in fact, wireless.

I returned as instructed the next day with my personal German translator, by which I mean girlfriend, and my idiot expat life enabling machine, by which I mean laptop. I hugged it to my chest like an excited child on Christmas Day.

Now, as I said, Martina talks. She invited us in, and I waited in mostly dumb silence for thirty minutes, wondering how it could possibly take thirty minutes to get a wireless password. It was a long and confusing experience for me, because I didn’t understand a lot. It turned out it was also a long and confusing experience for my translator, who understood everything. To cut a long story English, the punchline is that Martina had decided, in incredibly expansive German, not to share the password with me because she had been warned I could download a movie, and she would have to pay a fine.

My face dropped. Christmas was cancelled. Ignoring the embarrassing length of time that I was still eagerly and obliviously hugging the laptop to my chest, this was understandable. Especially in Germany, the land of the lawyer letter. What was less understandable, however, was that Martina told my girlfriend in that time that she had just cancelled her previous internet and television package, and was now worried that her radio wouldn’t work. 

“Well, no…,” my girlfriend told her, before patiently going on to explain that radio works in a different way to television. A way that doesn’t need wires.

Soon after, I saw posters and leaflets from an internet company all around my building, advertising broadband. Realising that I was in such a wonderful building that the internet still needed to be pitched, I gave up with my neighbour-meeting mission and bought a web stick. I have since had three drunken visits from Peter asking to do a “goo-glee.”

Überstyle: Paris

by Zoë Noble

More photos from my recent Paris trip to follow! See more streetstyle on Zoë Noble Photography.

Berliner Naschmarkt

by James Glazebrook

Naschmarkt macaroons

Mmmmm Naschmarkt. When I found out that the name of Markhalle Neun’s latest event translates as “nibble market”, I couldn’t wait to get down there and start naschen! Because if there’s one thing Germans do better than cakes it’s teeny tiny cakes that cost only a couple of Euros and leave you with enough stomach space to devour more, more, MORE! On our way around the latest edition of this quarterly market devoted to all things sweet, we sampled lovely Mojito cheesecake shots and mini rhubarb and strawberry tortes, washed down with a glass of wine… before moving on to the Big Smoked Stuff BBQ and its pulled pork sandwiches. This gathering of between 40 and 50 local producers makes for a great day out – like Naschmarkt on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss the next one!

Naschmarkt cakes

Naschmarkt more cakes

Naschmarkt serving macaroons

Naschmarkt Markthalle Neun