I assume that German is a very old and widely spoken language. I am not sure how much of Europe speaks or understands German. I want to know: can you speak German in all of Europe’s big cities, i.e. Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Bern, Zurich etc? Can people (who don’t speak German natively) understand you in most of Europe? Or is German proficiency limited to only Germany?
No, most people in Europe do not understand German
German is spoken in Germany, Austria, some parts of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. There are some other places worth mentioning; see the comments for these.
While there are minorities living in other countries, the broad population in e.g. Rome will not understand anything if you try to converse in German. You might be luckier in tourist regions that attract a lot of Germans (e.g. Mallorca), but I still wouldn't bet on it.
At least in bigger cities, most people will understand at least some English throughout Europe, although in small cities or villages you might/will find difficulties.
While there are some to many similarities between English, French, German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Italian, ... there is no way you will understand what people say without studying the respective language first. To some extent, it is possible to read foreign texts and understand parts of it if you speak two or more European languages from the same family.
Of course you can speak German everywhere. But you will be understood only in those cities where people speak German.
German is official language in:
- European Union
- Italy (only in South Tyrol)
- Slovakia (only in Krahule and Kunešov)
- Brasil (only in 13 local communities)
But this just means that official documents (like laws) are available in German. This does not automatically mean, that everybody in those countries and regions really speaks German. There are 83 million people living in Germany, but 6.2 Million of them can't speak German or speak it only very poorly. The proportion of non-German-speakers is higher in big cities, so when you are in Berlin, the chance to meet someone who can't speak German is higher than 10 %.
The situation in Austria is similar: German is an official language in Austria (i.e. all laws are written in German and Police and other officers speak German), and all children have to learn German in school. But there are districts in Vienna (which is the capital city of Austria) where more than 60% of all people living there have a native language other than German, and many of them only have rudimentary knowledge of German. (They speak Turkish, Serbian, Arabic and other languages.)
Switzerland has four major languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), but even in the regions where people speak German you will find it hard to understand them, because they speak dialects there, that are quite distinct from standard German. Some people even say, that Swiss German is not a dialect, but another language.
Liechtenstein is the only country on the list above, that has only one official language1. Everybody speaks German there, but it is also a Swiss-style German, i.e. hard to understand when they speak their dialect.
1For example there are Regions in Germany, where beside German also Danish is an official language. Other official languages in Germany are: Low German, Lower Sorbian and Upper Sorbian, all of them only in small parts of Germany.
In South Tyrol (a region in the north of Italy) you will find a mixture of Italian and German speaking people. So, there is a high chance to find someone who understands German.
In Belgium and Luxembourg there are also German speaking people (also in France, next to the Luxembourg border), but only old people actively use this language. It's better to try speaking French there, or Luxembourgian in Luxembourg's case.
In Slovakia you will only find small villages where people still speak German. There are more people in the USA who speak German (most of them in North Dakota, South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas).
German is also regional or national language in
- France (only in grande est)
- Poland (only in some local communities)
- Paraguay (only in the Neuland Colony)
- Denmark (only in Nordschleswig)
And it is an official minority language in
- Czech Republic
- South Africa
But again: This does not mean, that you have high chances to meet people there who speak German. Furthermore, the German spoken in these countries is often a bit archaic (compared to the core areas) due to the relative isolation.
According to Wikipedia, 200 million people give or take speak German worldwide; of these, around 90 or 95 million are native speakers and another 10 to 25 million are L2 (second language) speakers. The EU has a population of around 515 million so even the most generate estimates don’t allow for more than one in two Europeans understanding German. The native speakers largely reside in central Europe which happens to be the area where German is also an official, national and/or regional language (refer to Hubert’s answer for the complete list). According to the Ethnologue 2019 list found on Wikipedia, this puts German at 13th position worldwide trailing far behind English with an estimated number of 1.1 billion speakers (first and second language speakers only)—estimates that include non-L2 speakers claim around 1.5 billion people capable of speaking English worldwide. These raw numbers alone should show how unlikely it is to be understood anywhere speaking German if you are not in a natively German area.
While German is one of the working languages of the EU and boasts having the highest number of native speakers in the EU of all EU languages, and while certain other international organisations may have German as a working language, there is no special status commonly attached to speaking German (as opposed to e.g. French which some higher educated people consider a requirement to enter their exclusive circles, or English which is somewhat considered a language you can get around with anywhere). So while you might stereotypically assume a young German to be capable of speaking English or a regular at the theatre likely proficient in French or Latin, you really can’t tell those who might know German apart from the rest of a given country’s native population.
Finally, some languages are close enough to have limited mutual intelligibility: for example, speakers of Italian and Spanish can often understand the general gist of even more of the other’s message when speaking slowly due to their close relationship as descendants from Latin, or speakers of various Slavic languages might also understand what’s going on in other closely related Slavic languages. German is a Germanic language like English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and at least one minor language that I will purposely leave out. Within this group, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are pretty much mutually intelligible, again due to their close relationship and common history. But German—a continental Germanic language—is less closely related to the Scandinavian languages and one cannot understand more than fragments of the other even when speaking slowly. The only place where you would have a realistic chance is the Netherlands because Dutch and German also share a long, common history. However, Dutch is closely related to Low German dialects which are obviously further away from the Middle or High German ones, meaning that someone from Bavaria or Austria will have a harder time getting understood in the Netherlands than someone from Münster or Emden.
Summed up: of the native language is not German you will most likely not be understood speaking German (as others have said), but if you happen to be in the Netherlands or Flanders you can try your luck.
“All over”? No. In Spain, (almost?) all German speakers are tourists. And at least half the tourists do not speak German.
(At least that’s my experience helping 20-40 people a day from 40+ countries.)
But you have English as a fallback, and although English-speakers in Spain are a small minority, you can find them easily in any big city.
I should point out that in areas serving tourists, most restaurants will have a German menu available (but not a German-speaking waiter).
And, I said “almost all” are tourists, but Ethnologue lists seventeen languages for Spain that have 3,000 speakers or more, and none of them are German! So maybe I should omit the “almost.”
Hubert has written a perfect answer covering all the aspects of official status.
As a German living in Austria and having travelled to most of the European countries, my experience is the following. Note that I'm only talking about countries where I have 1st hand experience. I can't say, for example, about Norway as I haven't been there.
- You will do just fine in Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. German is the official and daily language there.
- It depends on location in Switzerland, Belgium and Italy, because they all have regions where German is the official and daily language, and in nearby regions you will find many bilingual people.
- You have to be lucky in the Netherlands. Dutch (the language spoken in the Netherlands) is related to German, especially the Lower German that used to be spoken in the North (and is slowly going extinct). As someone who grew up in Northern Germany and heard his Grandparents speak Lower German on occasion (and my father can speak it still as well), I can almost understand most things in Dutch and after a short time I was able to have basic conversations in a Dutch-German mix that was probably cringe-worthy to the Dutch, but it worked. If you are not a native speak, I doubt your German will be good enough for such, though.
- You will probably be ok in tourist areas in Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and possibly other countries that see many German tourists. Especially in restaurants and hotels I'm constantly surprised how many people speak German there.
- Everywhere else, you absolutely can find people who had German in school or otherwise learnt it as a 2nd language, or who happen to be from Germany or have relatives or some other reason. But it's not something to rely on. If you're desperate, especially in a city you will probably sooner or later find someone who understands you, but it could be quite a while.
So depending on where exactly you want to go and if you are going to stay in tourist areas or go off the beaten path, very likely people will not understand you "all over Europe", as asked.
No, most people won't understand german.
Even speaking german, you can have serious trouble visting german countries like austria or the swiss. I am from Berlin in Germany and if someone speaks a traditional swiss german, I have trouble understanding this person. The german language has a big variety on local dialects, but most can speak and understand a dialect we call "Hochdeutsch", which is the official dialect for written german and probably one would learn if learning german.
Traveling through europe, you can find people speaking german in places frequented by a lot of tourists, cause german people travel very much and local guides and service workers at hotels usually speak german. But speaking english is usually better, in most cases in europe. Only if you go to the eastern parts of europe, russian is the most spoken foreign language. In these regions, it is sometimes easier to find someone speaking german, than english, because east germany was once part of the soviet states and had a lot of influence there.
If you really want to be able to communicate in every country of europe, the languages english, russian and a latin language like spanish would be the best start, imho.
One addition to the above correct answers. In history, German was a more import language in Europe than English, therefore, if old people speak a second language in my country (The Netherlands) it is more likely to be German (or French) than English. From traveling Europe, I find that in a lot of Eastern and South-Eastern European countries older people sometimes speak more German than English. However, from politeness perspective, learn to say hi/good morning/good evening in the local language and only after that establish whether communication in any other language is an option to the person you are speaking to :)
And in some areas where German is often understood, frivolously using it instead of English can even come across as rude, due to past political history (german occupation). Such is often said about the Netherlands.
countries formerly to the east of the Iron Curtain: yes, quite a lot of people have some proficiency in German (in fact, eastern Europeans tend to have excellent language skills -- most have some proficiency in at least one of German, Russian, or English, in addition to the local language)
Scandinavia: surprisingly, only a few people speak/understand German; many more can speak/understand English (as a person ashamed to be British, my modus operandi is to pretend to be German -- when encountering a person who cannot speak German but can speak English, this results in the rather amusing pantomine of my faking an accent in order to disguise the fact that I am a native English speaker)
The only times I've found German to be more useful than English outside of DACH (Germany/Austria/Switzerland) was when speaking to some Czechs, Hungarians and Croatians over 50, and sometimes the German translations of menus are more accurate than the English ones.
It is adjacently useful for getting the basic idea of what something written in Dutch or a Scandinavian language says, but in those countries, everyone I've met under 40 or 50 speaks English really well.