Foreign-language communities
Berlin: A Polyglot Capital

Berlin | Photo (detail): © flyinger –

More and more young people from all over Europe are drawn to Berlin, forming large foreign-language communities in the German capital. How does this diversity make itself felt in everyday life here? And what lasting impact will it have on the city? Five Berliners share their thoughts.

“If you want to live in Berlin, learn German” – Diego Ruiz del Árbol, computer programmer from Spain

Diego Ruiz del Árbol Diego Ruiz del Árbol | © Diego Ruiz del Árbol I came to Berlin seven years ago to work for a vending machine manufacturer. At first I was the only immigrant in the company and I couldn’t speak any German yet. I didn’t need to for my job as a computer programmer and fortunately my workmates spoke English to me. I took language classes on the side all the same and after a year and a half I could communicate with my mates. Over time we got more and more staff from abroad – owing to the lousy economic situation in Europe and because Berlin has such a magnetic effect. Most of them had a grounding in German, but English was used a lot too. And because the company has lots of customers in Spain, our knowledge of Spanish was an asset. A year ago I started up my own firm: I offer web programming. Most of my clientele are Spanish people living in Germany or Germans living in Spain. I speak Spanish at home because my wife’s from Spain too. And our kids go to a German-Spanish daycare. On the side I put out a satirical web magazine in Spanish called Berlunes, which targets a Spanish readership in Berlin. There are plenty of bars and clubs in Berlin like the Barcelona-Fanclub where you can get by pretty well in Spanish and Catalan. I think it’s good that people try in this way not to lose their origins here in Germany. Then again, I think if you want to live in Berlin, you should learn German, even if it is a complicated language. My example shows you can find a job and survive in Berlin without German. But for a successful long-term career, to find German friends, to understand politics here, in other words to really live here, of course you need German.

“Multilingualism is becoming the norm.” – Heike Wiese, German Professor at Potsdam University

Heike Wiese Heike Wiese | © Steffi Loos Young immigrants in Berlin have already grown up in the age of globalization: many are quite cosmopolitan and have an international circle of friends. Some of them come with German skills. Others begin learning German in Berlin. And of course they also hang out with people who speak their mother tongue or other languages: when you’re a newcomer abroad, you often feel a very special solidarity with other newcomers, or with people of the same origin. When I was in Boston, I felt more like a European than I do here in Berlin, for example. What’s more, social networks these days aren’t as hemmed in by national borders anymore: if I’m a Briton or Spaniard living in Berlin, I’m also keeping in touch via Skype or Twitter with people I may be communicating with in various languages. What new immigrants often have in common is that they’re young and well-educated. So they’re bringing a special dynamism and special potential. Those who come from Europe to Berlin can make use of this potential because as Europeans they have other rights: they don’t need to twiddle their thumbs for a long time waiting for asylum procedures to be wrapped up. On the whole, the new immigrants to Berlin are received differently, there’s a new brand of welcoming culture here. Still, they’re just amplifying a trend that’s already under way in Berlin as it is: multilingualism is becoming the norm. I myself grew up monolingual, which is rather unusual by international standards. But in their daily experience here in Kreuzberg, my kids are thrown together with friends just like themselves who are growing up in several languages, and this diversity is enriching. This can only have a positive impact on cultural and political life in Berlin.

“People are striving to learn from one another” – Thomas Knuth, Berlin author and tourist guide

Thomas Knuth Thomas Knuth | © Thomas Knuth In recent years Berlin has become a magnet for young people from all over the world. We call one group here the “NYLONs”: NY stands for New York City and LON for London. So English-speaking young Berlin is a big element of urban life here. Based on my own observations, young people from other countries also use English as a lingua franca. That is reinforcing in Berlin a noticeable trend elsewhere in Europe, which is mainly fuelled by the ubiquitous use of English in popular music, marketing, IT business, fashion and film. For young Berliners of German descent, this fact does have an advantage: they’re motivated to learn or improve their English as that will make it all the easier for them to enter into contact with coevals from other countries. I have also observed that young newcomers from Europe use their stay in Berlin to learn German. Some of them come here with that intention from the outset. Among foreigners and young Germans, there are no major hurdles on either side that could complicate communication: they readily forgive mistakes and are grateful just to be able to communicate either in English or in German. Purism hardly plays any part here at all. Rather, people are striving to learn from one another, including one another’s languages. On the whole, I feel the fact that so many young people are coming to Berlin is a tremendous boon for the city.

“When we speak English, everyone’s equal.” – Kristine Siegel, curator and founder of Praxes Center for Contemporary Art

Kristine Siegel Kristine Siegel | © Kristine Siegel I’m originally from Denmark and lived in New York for ten years. My husband is half-French and half-German. We moved to Berlin three years ago because life with three kids in New York was too difficult and because many artists and people interested in the arts now live in Berlin. I set up the Praxes Center for Contemporary Art here together with a colleague I knew from Copenhagen and New York. I communicate with her in Danish and English. The contact with artists is in English, for we also want to reach the many artists who lead a very nomadic life and only stay in Berlin for a few months. My colleague speaks German well and that’s helpful in initiating talks with German foundations or private sponsors. But because I myself only speak German very slowly, we generally switch to English in the course of the discussion. I like the fact it makes the pecking order you often have in such conversations fall away: when we speak English, everyone’s on a par. The financial crisis didn’t hit the art scene quite as hard as it did other industries: artists are used to scraping along anyway. And Berlin is one of the few capitals in Europe where you can still get affordable housing. I know a number of young immigrants from Southern Europe who have come to Berlin over the past few years for economic reasons: in my husband’s company, for example, far more than half the staff are from abroad, a lot of them from Spain, Greece and Italy. We have a lot of international families amongst our circle of friends and acquaintances anyway. That’s also partly because our kids go to an international school where classes are taught in English. Our children also speak Danish and German, by the way. And they’re interested in many foreign languages they hear in the playground in Kreuzberg.

“We view multilingualism as potential” – Dr Monika Lüke, Berlin Senate Integration and Migration Commissioner

Monika Lüke Monika Lüke | © Monika Lüke The growing numbers of visitors and immigrants go to show that Berlin has become considerably more appealing to young people in recent years. This has a noticeable effect on day-to-day life as you hear the languages of tourists and immigrants being spoken more and more in the city. We view this multilingualism as potential, though it does present a challenge to policymakers and the administration: the authorities and cultural institutions will have to increasingly adjust to language needs. In nuts and bolts terms, for example, that means museums will have to provide information in more languages. To prepare newcomers for their new home, last year we revised and republished the information we supply to this group of Berliners. Our “Welcome Pack” is now available in eight different languages. It’s distributed free of charge to new residents mainly through the Foreigners’ Registration Office, in its immigration services and various other administrative offices, and it’s downloadable from our web site. This year we’re going to revise and expand the foreign-language information on the site. Other requirements have to do with the recognition of qualifications immigrants have obtained in their native countries. Last year we set up a separate web portal for Berlin, where information is available in various languages. Another example of how we’re responding to the new challenges is so-called “Welcoming Classes”. They’re being set up at many schools to integrate new pupils with no German skills into the class. And Berlin’s Europa Schools are also committed to nurturing multilingualism: in addition to German, they hold regular courses in another language that is accorded equal importance, such as Italian, Greek or Spanish.