09 December 2017

A Foreigner in One's Own Country

The other day, I was grabbing some coffee during my lunch break. I was with a colleague in a cafe having a quick flat white. While we were standing in the small cafe drinking our beverages, I witnessed some weird interaction between a customer and the barista. The customer was trying to order something, yet there was a problem. The customer was speaking German, yet the barista couldn't speak a word of German at all, instead speaking only in English.

The customer didn't switch to English. She just kept asking her questions in German, which to my opinion, was an impressive feat. If she was trying to prove a point, I liked it. I mean, she was young, she looked younger than me, so there's a high chance she could speak English too. But I suppose she was illustrating a sad state of some of Berlin's establishments nowadays. It is sad that because the city is becoming too international, there are establishments where a local has to speak English, in his own native country.

See, she was asking a simple question. She wanted to know how much a slice of a cake costs. But this simple question, this simple and very predictable question, couldn't even get answered by the barista, who didn't even look apologetic that as much as he was working in a customer-facing role, in Germany, he didn't have a clue what his customer was saying.

I find that annoying, and pathetic.

As an expat, the least I could do is to learn the local language. It makes my life easier too. So I don't get why there are people who think they can just open a cafe and not bother learning how to sell their coffee in the local language.

It also annoys me when I find restaurants who only have English menus. How would the locals feel about that?

Imagine you're in New York, and you find this small dim sum bar, and the people behind the counter cannot speak anything except Mandarin. How would you feel?

As much as I like the international and cosmopolitan feel of a city, I also don't want to alienate its locals. Sure, Berlin is different from the rest of Germany. But nevertheless just because there's a large foreign population in the city doesn't mean we'll turn the city into an Anglophone city. That is just plain arrogance, show some respect to the host, if you know what I mean.


  1. I'm a language person and I love multiculturalism... but that's freaking ridiculous. I would never expect to have to communicate in English in France, for instance, much like I don't expect service in French in London. Why on earth would you put someone who doesn't speak German in a customer-facing position? And not speaking FLUENT German is okay (in my book, anyway), but this kind of situation? yeah, ridiculous.

    I mean, when I shop in Chinatown in Ottawa, everyone makes an effort to speak English to me (which I appreciate, although I like to reply in Mandarin!)

    1. Zhu,

      It is ridiculous indeed. Sadly, this is a growing trend here in Berlin. You see restaurants, cafes, and other establishments in the "cool" part of town, with their signage, menu, websites, and other written material just in English. And as much as I like the diversity, I also don't like the implicit message this situation is sending to the locals.