Adventures in Deutsch, Denglish, and (most often) English
"Sprechen Sie Englisch?" It's an easy phrase to fall back on. When I am looking for nutritional yeast at the grocery store, or want to make copies at a printshop, or calling my doctor's office for an appointment, it is always there, in my back pocket, ready to be used as necessary. And by "as necessary," of course what I really mean is "often." Way too often. I never studied German before coming here, and four years of Japanese are about as useful as you'd expect.
My lack of German is not supposed to be a problem though. After all, this is Berlin, and "everyone" speaks English. It is a very international city. There are many people who get by on English alone. If someone lives here and doesn't want, or doesn't have time, to learn German, then that is perfectly fine, because being able to communicate in German is not a prerequisite for living happily in Berlin.
I had heard some version of the above numerous times from different people before I moved here. Now, I'd like to take the opportunity to state publicly, in case any of them ever come across this site: you are all full of Sheiße.
Now that I have been here for half a year, it is no longer cute when I say, "Sprechen Sie Englisch?" with a hopeful smile. For the first time in my life, I feel embarrassed and socially awkward on a very regular basis. All of this because I didn't make more of an effort with using Duolingo in the months leading up to the move, and because I didn't take my language course seriously once I did get here. In my mind, it was all too easy to justify this lack of trying by acknowledging what I considered "truth": I will never need to use German in my day-to-day professional life, most of my friends here are native English speakers or really enjoying speaking English anyway, and what's the point of even trying when I will probably never be fluent? As a writer, I find the task of learning German especially daunting. I'm proud that I am able to express myself not only well, but beautifully, using words. It is dubious that I will ever reach that level of fluency in German, so even trying feels like a poor use of my time. I would rather not be limited to communicating with primary school students.
It is weirdly comforting, and also a bit alienating, when I hear stories of people who have been living in Berlin for longer periods of time and still aren't speaking German. People who have been here for five, seven, ten years. The worst I've heard was a man who has been living and working in Berlin for 12 years; he apparently brings a friend to translate in the rare situations where he needs to have a German-speaking person on hand. This is both shocking and disgustingly impressive all at once. Don't these people feel ashamed? They're living in a foreign country! How presumptuous to think that constantly inconveniencing the people with whom they interact is in any way socially acceptable! I think about this and I get mad, because although I haven't been here for nearly as long, who's to say that I won't be exactly like them after a few years? Given the level of commitment to learning German which I have demonstrated so far, I am well on my way to being just another ignorant, lazy Ausländer contributing to gentrification in Berlin. If I want to prove the stereotypes and myself wrong about this, I'm afraid that it is going to take more time and energy than I can likely manage… which means that I'll keep speaking in horribly broken German when I can muster the courage, and asking, "Sprechen Sie Englisch?" when I can't - and accompanying it with that stupidly hopeful smile either way.