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I've traveled to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and I found that in the big cities such as Berlin, Vienna, and Zurich a lot of people speak English. When I visited those cities I try to make the most of my trip and try to converse in German as much as I can, but I get the feeling that the people in restaurants, hotels, and other establishments would rather speak to me in English rather than speaking German with a thick American accent and tripping on der, die, das and what not.

Can any native Germans, Austrians, or Swiss shed a light on people who aren't fluent but can speak some basic phrases on how to proceed in these situations? I've heard a lot of people say that people appreciate when foreigners try to speak the country's language, but I get the feeling that they really don't and rather speak English.

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    Hier schreiben auch viele lieber in Englisch. :) – user unknown Nov 6 at 4:11
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    @userunknown --- auf Englisch! – Christian Geiselmann Nov 6 at 10:56
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    Also I woiß au id ob dir dees hälfa dääd wenn d'Leit mit dir schwätza dädat wia se zom Schwätza gwehnt send. (Meaning: some simply cannot speak standard German.) – Christian Geiselmann Nov 6 at 11:01
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    @ChristianGeiselmann very true. Understanding people over 40 years old in the south even when they try speaking Standard German is sometimes a challenge for somebody from the North, let alone a foreigner. – Dan Nov 6 at 13:28
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    I can't speak for the Germans, but I know the same problem plays in The Netherlands (perhaps to a stronger extent, you'll encounter it in even the smallest villages and with people of almost all ages). I can say that here, it's mostly people trying to be helpful and assuming you would rather speak English.= – Jasper Nov 6 at 16:33

18 Answers 18

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They do appreciate, however, in practical situations one resorts to the language that's more convenient for communication purposes. Most people mean it either practical or well intended, by making it easier for you - and for you both, eventually. It is often even easier for them to communicate with you in English with the feeling of being 100% understood than starting to speak very slow and clear German, as though to a child. This all comes from the nature of language as a means of communication, like messaging apps or Internet or whatnot. What comes more is that such a switch happens automatically, even in people who are not native German speakers(sic!). I once spoke English to a German person after I saw them processing my words a little longer than 2-3 seconds.

Besides, the prestige of English is pretty high in Germany, so fluent English speakers would very readily do this.

Similarly, when you try to speak to people in dialect or have them speak in dialect while you are speaking Hochdeutsch, they would inevitably slip into the High German.

What could help you is either patience and practice (after 2-3 years of practice you may reduce the number of people answering in English to some 30%) or explicitly saying "bitte Deutsch". Or you could try to fake a typical migratory accent (Russian, Turkish), but that's a dubious solution.

Just to make you feel comfortable, in the Netherlands this is even much more pronounced, so getting to speak Dutch is even more of a challenge for a person with a thick accent.

P.S. Another thing is how much do you can. If you are somewhere on the A1 level, this would be indeed pretty difficult for a person to communicate with you in German, they would have to think twice about what they say, speak slow, repeat things and keep in mind that you probably may not have understood them at all!

P.P.S. as such, English accent can be corrected to sound Dutch or almost native, effectively dealing with your problem. I've experienced a few native English speakers who achieved that.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. The discussion about the situation in the Netherlands can be found here. Please only comment if you have specific suggestions on how to improve this answer or consider it wrong. Otherwise take it to chat. – Wrzlprmft Nov 7 at 12:12
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This is similar to my experience when I first moved to Spain. I was initially a bit miffed as well, until I asked a waiter one day why he replied in English when I spoke to him.

It was because speaking English was the quickest way for him to write down my order and get it right.

I wanted to practice my Spanish, but people who had a job do to had no interest in indulging my wishes - they just wanted to get their jobs done in the most efficient way possible, which meant speaking to me in English.

Without wanting to sound harsh: "people in restaurants, hotels, and other establishments" have a job to do, and that job is not helping you learn German.

The good news is that once you've been there for long enough, and your German is good enough, then everyone will reply to you in German and you'll feel great about yourself :-)

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    Thanks for your perspective. Yeah i totally agree that it isn't. I think for a lot of people who want to pick up a second language, one of the most common scenarios that they encounter are at places like a restaurant or at a hotel. I think in these situations it's helpful for people to know when to continue with their second language and when to use their primary. – mjl007 Nov 6 at 8:38
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    @mjl007 yeah you're right - almost everyone you meet will be in a hotel or restaurant, which doesn't help :-D What I personally do when travelling is start off speaking in the local language, to be polite and show that I'm making an effort, and then switch to English once they do :-) – Aaron F Nov 6 at 8:57
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    @mjl007 in those cases, paying attention on the surroundings would be important: How crowded is it? How well-staffed is it? Are the patrons mostly local or mostly foreign? How chatty are the staff? Off-peak, well-staffed, mostly local patrons and chatty staff? I might go for the local language. Anything else => whatever minimizes staff interaction. – muru Nov 6 at 9:04
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    This. "Get it right" is the most important part, in customer service it is always a loss to the business if the customer is not satisfied, even if it was because they themselves used the wrong word. – jpa Nov 6 at 19:26
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    ‘ "people in restaurants, hotels, and other establishments" have a job to do, and that job is not helping you learn German. ’ — Well, certainly not primarily. But a waiter's job does include making the guest comfortable, hotels want tourists to have an enjoyable stay, etc.. So if you express that you actually want to communicate in German (and don't just do it out of politeness), then most of them will probably be ok with it, unless your German is really hopeless. – leftaroundabout Nov 8 at 10:01
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Wir empfinden es oft als anstrengend, wenn wir raten müssen, wie viel oder wie wenig Deutsch unser Gegenüber versteht. Und wir sind schnell frustriert oder sogar genervt, wenn wir uns wiederholen müssen. (The third "Wie bitte?" triggers an internal "Bohnen in den Ohren, Du Blödmann?" reaction in us ;). It's genetic.) Deshalb schalten wir dann direkt auf Englisch um, wenn wir vermuten, dass Englisch verstanden wird.

Außerdem empfinden wir es als höfliches Verhalten gegenüber Reisenden (Touristen wie Geschäftsreisenden), Englisch zu sprechen.

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    +1 für den letzten Satz – Fritz Nov 6 at 13:54
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    Das erinnert mich an ein verwandtes Thema: (Seh-, Sprach-,...)Behinderungen werden als "gesellschaftlich anerkannt" gesehen, da sie auf viel Verständnis unter der Bevölkerung stoßen: denn man sieht/hört sofort, dass etwas nicht stimmt. Im Gegensatz dazu werden hörbeschädigte Menschen oft anders behandelt, weil sie zunächst schlicht für "zu dumm" gehalten werden. Und als jemand, der in ein fremdes Land reist und sich eine neue Sprache aneignen muß, bist du gezwungen, eine Zeitlang als "behindert" zu leben- selbst wenn alle Leute um dich herum dich eigentlich mögen bzw. unterstützen . – Oozecandy Nov 7 at 8:04
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    Noch komplizierter: Wenn wir jemanden kein Englisch anbieten, bedeutet das normalerweise dass wir denjenigen als Einwanderer oder Flüchtling, nicht als Reisenden einordnen. – rackandboneman Nov 7 at 9:11
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As a Swiss but non-native German speaker living in Germany, I'd like to add a few things to the good points other answers and comments make so far.

The central part of your wondering seems to be the fact that:

I've heard a lot of people say that people appreciate when foreigners try to speak the country's language

I also heard often in DACH but rather with the meaning of I prefer being spoken to in broken German rather than in English without even being asked if I can or want to speak English. That does NOT mean they want to speak German with you but rather that they want to be given the choice whether to reply in German or English. This boils down to showing some respect to the local people.

I also hear that a lot more in rural areas or smaller cities and, consistently with it, I have been spoken to in English almost exclusively in larger cities (Munich, Zurich) and never in the countryside. The proportion of English speakers is much smaller outside of town and people out there are also usually more proud of their native tongue or dialect.

With a poor language (A1/A2) and a thick English/American accent, be ready to be answered to in English in large cities. And as Aaron F mentions, restaurants, hotels, and other establishments aren't quite the right place to find people to have you practice your language skills. To do so, avoid large cities and younger people.

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    I struggle to understand the core of this answer. – problemofficer Nov 6 at 13:24
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    The core of this answer is that Swiss German can sound more like, perhaps Italian, or Klingon. – vectory Nov 6 at 14:08
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    @problemofficer: The point is, OP’s question assumes that locals replying in English don’t appreciate the visitor’s effort to speak German; this answer corrects that assumption. A local may very well appreciate the visitor’s show of effort and respect, but choose to switch to English nonetheless, for various reasons (usually, communicating more efficiently/reliably; often also wanting to practice their English, or wanting to offer the same courtesy the OP did). – PLL Nov 7 at 18:23
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As a former American exchange student to Germany, the best advice I got back then was to repeat to anyone constantly answering you in English (after you've tried your best to speak German) that the reason you came to Germany was to learn German. Note Germans are not always being condescending when they reply in English: in many cases, they may not have spoken any English in weeks or months and are just happy at the chance to use some knowledge of what they learned in school.

Side note: during my exchange year, it hardly happened to me at all because I'd worked so much on my pronunciation beforehand- yes, people thought I was a lot better than I was (in the beginning I could hardly understand anything due to the speed of everyday talking). It certainly helps if you pay attention to your pronunciation.

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    I second the emotion. My halting attempts at German in Hessen were mostly met with blank stares due to my poor pronunciation of German vowels. I was told that my German was just about unintelligible. As a native New Yorker who has had no problem understanding English as mangled by every imaginable nationality of immigrant and visitor, I found it quite odd that the Germans I met couldn't deal with badly spoken German. Fortunately, nearly everyone I met was quite happy to speak English. – MTA Nov 6 at 21:44
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I've lived in Germany for 15 years, passed the B2 exam on the way to my permanent residence permit, and am an internal IT consultant for a big German auto parts company.

I still get "Englished" in public and by colleagues - I have a noticeable accent that usually gets me pegged for English (nope) and a few times (very correctly) as a Texan. I've even had Ausländeramt (Foreigners' Office) personnel switch to English, when the purpose of the meeting was to decide if I was integrated enough to apply for permanent residence!

Part of it is just wanting to get on with their jobs, which might seem to them in the moment to go faster if they don't try to figure out if you're a beginner or fairly fluent but with a detectable accent.

Another part is professional pride. They learned English in school and possibly some occupation-specific vocabulary, and goshdarnit, they're going to show how competent they are, all around.

With colleagues, it contains an element of wanting to work on their English - when else do they have the opportunity to talk about deep technical topics with a native speaker who has a better grasp of their specialty than the English instructors the company hires?! Additionally, IT German outside of SAP topics is very "Denglisch", especially concerning new and quickly-changing topics like cloud computing and DevOps. Very occasionally, it's because they're not sure (or "not sure") I understood exactly what they said.

TL;DR: there are a lot of reasons, many of which are no reflection of your own German language skills.

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    That Ausländeramt episode may have been a test :-) – toolforger Nov 8 at 15:46
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Danke, dass Sie auf Englisch antworten. Wenn es Ihnen nichts ausmacht, würde ich gerne mein Deutsch verbessern.

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    Bitte erweitere das zu einer vollständigen Antwort. – Carsten S Nov 6 at 12:56
  • Die Antwort ist auf ironische Weise selbsterklärend. Bravo! – vectory Nov 6 at 14:06
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First of all I´d like to confirm the other answers:

  • I´ve met the same thing in Italy
  • because people are usually doing their jobs - which goes faster in English than if they help me learning their language
  • and one thing from the comments I´d like to confirm: I´m living in the south of Germany and "mir kennad ellas außr hochdeutsch" (we can do anything except speaking proper German). I´ve met northern Germans who didn´t understand me at all, not even if I tried really hard. By the way: even this phenomenon is the same in other countries - never compare Sicilian to Italian - it´s a completely different thing and people know I won´t understand their dialect so switching to English seems easier to them

But I´d like to add another thing, thinking of my mum:

For some motivated English learning Germans you are subject to practise their own English.

My mum takes English lessons every week but has almost no opportunity to practise, except on her one-week-holiday once a year. So she takes every foreigner she can grab and rattles on and on. Be sure not to meet her, else you´ll know her whole life´s story without having spoken a single word of German.

  • Please change proper german to high german, it is insulting to other german speaking regions. Imaging the english calling american english improper english. – Hakaishin Nov 7 at 0:13
  • Alles ist everything not anything (aka irgendetwas) in this context – eckes Nov 7 at 2:21
  • @Hakaishin I disagree, because Jessica referred to the region they're coming from... to stay in your analogy, it's more akin to an american calling their own tongue "improper english". Also, I feel that almost all germans think of their own dialect as "improper german" as opposed to "ordentliches Hochdeutsch" ("proper high german"). – orithena Nov 7 at 15:24
  • @Hakaishin Having said that, there might be a meaning of "proper" that we germans do not think of... I, for one, interpret primarily a meaning of correctness when I hear "proper" -- and refrain from using that word myself, because I fear that its meaning and/or connotations are broader than I think. – orithena Nov 7 at 15:32
  • @Hakaishin, we English DO call American English improper! In fact, anything that isn't from the BBC is regarded as suspect :) – Chris the Hairy One Nov 8 at 14:00
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In East Germany people older than 50 or so learned Russian in school, not English, so your attempts to speak German will be more appreciated there.


On a personal note, my American partner claims that I have a nicer — less German — personality when I speak English; or perhaps correct English is not that important to her, an attitude probably shared by many Americans. She does not understand that I appreciate corrections, the same way I do not understand that she doesn't.

A conversation that starts with "it is das Beziehungsgespräch, nicht der!" tends not to continue well. So English has become the language of choice in our partnership.

This mechanism could be at work in general conversations as well, making them simply go smoother in English.

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… how to proceed in these situations?

Start speaking terrible English with Spanish or Russian accent. That will heal them.

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    That used to be my "strategy" (without even putting effort into the accent). But then they wanted to speak Spanish with me. – c.p. Nov 6 at 6:23
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    @c.p. that's hilarious – SplittyDev Nov 6 at 7:28
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I found the best approach was keeping a sense of humor, try your German but be prepared for blank stares or some muttering and go with the flow - eventually your German will improve to the point that you won't need to bob and weave with English and German (and sometimes Pig Latin) - I got to the point that I would "create" (hey, they do it too!) words and my friends would say "No one says that!" (auf Deutsch, naturlich) and we'd all laugh (even though I did (usually) get my point across). I used to ask them where Meerschweinfurt was since there were so many other "furts" across Germany. I was basically in Frankfurt am Main (was in Berlin once just after the wall fell and rescued some tourists because they asked the ticket person (East Berlin) for tickets to "Frankfurt" and they almost got sent to Frankfurt am Oder...), and when we went south beyond the Weisswurst Grenze even my friends were perplexed and would ask me "what did they just say?". Everyone wants to practice their non-native language skills so don't take it personally, just look at it as a World-Wide Learning Romp in the Sun! And yes, I agree with earlier posters that those with a job to do don't really want to mess around struggling, though I've also found it's usually best to at least start the conversation in the language of the place - If you're really bad they will usually interrupt and say "I speak English..." - if you think the Germans are tough try going to France (in August when everyone is on vacation (including you) but they aren't...)!

  • Heh. It is "Frankfurt an der Oder". And "Weisswurstgrenze" is a single word. :-D (But yeah you're right with all the substantial points.) – toolforger Nov 8 at 15:49
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I experienced the same situation in Japan. I wasn't very proficient in Japanese at that time, and my colleagues would always talk back to me in English.

In my experience, people will not switch to English when they feel like you speak well the language. That is, your accent is good, your pace is natural, and your vocabulary is decent. The key here is that it all depends on the first impression. You just have to drop one perfect sentence, and then people will be influenced by that, and feel like you're able to speak perfectly, so they won't be bothered by any mistakes you'll make later.

Another technique I tried with people in the street who, unlike my colleagues, did not know that I could speak a decent Japanese and would immediately assume (which is normal) that I can't based upon my Caucasian looks, is to act like I just can't speak English. It seems silly, but it's actually very believable that someone can't speak English, if they don't come from an English-speaking country. So when I went to convenience stores or any other kind of store, I would as always speak in Japanese and when talked back in English, I would just say "Sorry, I can't speak English" in the best Japanese I could speak. Then people would switch back to Japanese, and be more patient with me.

But in the end, it's a matter of inter-personnal communication. People are switching to English not to make fun of you, but because they feel like it's the easiest way to be helpful to you. If you want to prevent this from happening, you must let them feel like you're totally comfortable with their language - even though it means acting as if you understood what they just said when you really didn't.

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If you want to be addressed in German, just say "Bitte?" when someone replies to you in English. That's a polite request to repeat something you didn't catch, and since it's in German, you're almost guaranteed to get the reply in German this time.

Yet it still gives some leeway in case the person you're talking to is not inclined to speak German with you, perhaps because they can't understand you very well, or are afraid you may misunderstand them when it's important. So if they keep speaking English with you, it would be polite not to insist on German and switch to English as well.

No need to go into long explanations about your motives or fake poor English.

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A non-native speaker tends to have a certain stage fright. Native speakers can smell it, like blood in the water. This can be an issue when speaking any language.

Relatedly, a German muttering under his breath while you speak German is not consciously being rude; German is as difficult for Germans to learn as for anyone else. After 12 years or more of grammar drills correcting your grammar is a conditioned reflex for them.

  • I have always felt the opposite of what you're saying here, and I am a native German speaker. To me, German feels easy - I hear that language learning during childhood is easy for everyone, regardless of language difficulty. (There are some fine points about spelling that even Germans feel unsure about, but that's about written language, not verbal communication, and it is not childhood language adoption.) – toolforger Nov 8 at 15:52
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Ultimately, I think whether or not native speakers accept our bids to speak German with us boils down to our pronunciation, fluency, confidence, and nonverbal cues. How to proceed--and put it into perspective--in the situations where they refuse, is a very delicate question. There have already been some really good answers here, from which I have benefited as well. I am a US citizen who has been living in Germany for 6 years. Regrettably, my German is only at the level it could have been in 6 months if I had been able to be immersed in the language of the land. So, I'm just throwing my perspective into the mix if it helps at all.

While its fairly obvious that busy service workers whose English is many times better than my German are not the right people to try to speak German with, other people may be, and I only wish I were better at discerning who, when, and how. Nevertheless, one thing I've learned in life is that, if I am not comfortable around other people, I cannot realistically expect them to be comfortable with me. And it extends to language: if I am not comfortable speaking a given language with someone, I cannot realistically expect them to be comfortable speaking it with me.

Generally, if they respond in English, I give them the benefit of the doubt that the intent is not malicious/xenophobic, and think "OK, they seem to get the vibe that carrying on this conversation in German will be difficult on me, and hence, them."

Will it be?

If I know the answer is yes, than I just capitulate and switch to English as well. If, however, I had not experienced any difficulty neither in understanding them nor in formulating what I want to say in German (I have possible undiagnosed ASD, and so sometimes my nonverbal communication is less than "fluent", which can in Germany be misinterpreted as that my difficulty is with the German language and that I need them to speak English), then in rather informal situations, I might say, "Wir könnten auch auf Deutsch unterhalten, aber nur wenn du nichts dagegen hast." It leaves the ball in their court. A few times, I've simply continued speaking in German, but actually those times tended to be completely by accident. For example, I had an appointment at the KVR. I had been waiting outside, checking all my papers, and rehearsing what to say. I walked in, exchanged "Guten Tag", sat down, set my papers down on the desk, and the officer began speaking to me in English. I actually got out "Ich weiß nicht genau ob dies Alles ist, dass Sie brauchen, aber--" before my brain registered that the German-accented English I'd just heard was not actual German. Trying to be respectful, I said, "Or I can speak English." He then proceeded to continue in German and the appointment went smoothly.

Another time, a waiter addressed every member of my mixed German and international group in German, except me. I felt insulted and embarrassed, and felt it rude of him (maybe it wasn't though), so I just answered him in German. Maybe I was the impolite one there, but in any case, I do try to avoid doing that as much as possible--which is easier after some years of gradually coming to see the situation from the opposite perspective.

I only wish I'd been aware of all of this sooner.

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I'm born and living in Berlin. I spent part of my youth in Hanover. The dialect of German is basically the most normal German langue, Hanover has no dialect by definition.

It never even crossed my mind that it could be in any way negative to answer somebody in English; Maybe I'm biased, but I fundamentally believe that it would be if very high positive impact if humans would speak a common language. That would certainly not be German.

I understand that there are people who like to learn German. I am very aware that it is a good thing to learn multiple languages. Of course, if you want to live in German speaking regions, it makes sense to learn it - but I think many people here are happy that they have an opportunity to practice English. It is in no way negative if somebody answers in English. Auf die Idee komme ich gar nicht erst! And if you let the person know that you like to practice German, anybody would happily do that - if he know it. We think speaking English is a good, valuable thing.

(To Germans reading this: let me know if you object, I know I'm somewhat biased, I'm willing to correct this answer.)

Again, I was surprised that it is even possible that answering in English could be received in a negative way. That's certainly not intended. I would feel answering in English is being polite. Let the person know that you like answers in German, I don't have a proposal how to do that best, but use any way whatsoever!

  • +1 for spelling out the surprise that answering in English may be perceived as rude (which I think would be the case for many of the English answering German native speakers) - as this is considered polite from a Geraman perspective. – cbeleites supports Monica Nov 9 at 21:04
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Living on the dutch coast, I always speak dutch to the many Germans that visit. Just trying to be polite. It is very seldom they respond in dutch. None of them seems to be interested in understanding the native language of another country. After all, they are here only for a couple of days, or weeks. Completely opposite of all what i read here. Before you answer, think that dutch is not that different from German ;)

  • Dutch and German are similar enough that a pure native speaker can make a few guesses about what topic the other is talking, but the content is not getting across. And very few Germans have learned enough Dutch to make themselves understood; your best bet in that situation is to switch to English (which I understand most Dutch learn at school, just as German kids learn it). – toolforger Nov 8 at 15:56
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like the OP, I also am very disappointed when Germans answer me in English. I just returned from Germany, and I was delighted when my AirB&B host started the conversation with ‘deutsch oder Englisch?’ I replied ‘deutsch, bitte’ and from that point on we stuck to German.

I have been wondering if one factor in a native German’s preference for English is avoiding the question of whether to use Sie vs Du.

  • "avoiding Sie/Du" is in the vast majority of situations not a difficulty to native German speakers - we're proficient in knowing or finding out which is appropriate ;-). Have a look at Volker Siegel's answer above: you may just have discovered a cultural difference: answering in English* is considered polite by the German native speakers. *a language that both are sufficiently familiar with and that the asker is thought to be more familiar with than German – cbeleites supports Monica Nov 9 at 21:07

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