Surviving Germany… when you speak no German

The single biggest challenge for an expat in their new country is the language barrier. When you come from a predominantly English-speaking region, it’s tempting to adopt the somewhat arrogant stance that everywhere you go, people should be able and willing to speak English. Whilst you might get by for a few weeks on holiday, this attitude won’t get you very far as an expat, or endear you to the locals.

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I realize the importance of learning German, but let me be honest here… German is proving to be a bitch. It’s difficult and confusing and the pronunciation does not come naturally to me. I will start a German course as soon as possible but in the meantime I am using a few methods to help me pick up a few of the basics. Please note that this is just my opinion and that because of our individual learning preferences not everything works well for everyone.

Firstly, a big thumbs up to Rocket Languages, a self-learning platform which I have used before to teach myself some basic French and which I enjoyed so much that I splurged again to buy the German course. The available courses come in three levels, the lowest of which promises to help you to reach good conversational level and the highest excellent conversational level. If you are prepared to invest at least 40 minutes to an hour a day, this can get you familiar with the basics for survival fairly quickly and effectively.

I also really like Memrise, a free language learning app (which can also be used to memorize other topics) because it is fun, interactive and can help you memorize the basic vocabulary in a few minutes a day.

For some passive every day learning, I love listening to Coffee Break German on my way to work. One of the perks of public transport is that you don’t have to focus on the road, so you can maximize your time learning a necessary language.

However, whilst I am still learning German there are things to be done that simply cannot wait for my German skills to catch up. One of the biggest issues I had immediately was opening a bank account. Out of all the traditional banks I found in my city, only two had an online platform in English: Sparkasse and Deutsche Bank. However, these platforms are fairly limited and you need to physically go into a branch (where they don’t/won’t speak English) to open an account. Since I didn’t have anyone to go with me, I chose a less conventional option: N26, a mobile bank with no physical branches, no monthly fees and a free debit card which arrived two days after I signed up. You can draw money from any ATM and also from grocery stores using the app, which is a good thing as you start paying for withdrawals after the first 5 ATM withdrawals every month, whilst the grocery store withdrawals are free.

So far, N26 has been really convenient to deal with and the process to sign up was hassle-free. I simply confirmed my identity via a video call with a friendly English-speaking man, and voila. I have already transferred money in and out of the account with no problems, drew money and paid for groceries using the card. It has limitations, and the products are not as varied as other banks (please introduce linked savings accounts, N26) but it is a very good platform to start with.

Next, cellphone contracts and insurance. I bought a prepaid sim card from the airport and found that it was a nightmare to register and set up. Luckily, I discovered this life-saving site: Foreign Money Saver. I have followed the recommendations these guys made for both sim cards and private liability insurance, primarily because they have done the research for me and because they provide a step by step guide to signing up, complete with screenshots and speech bubbles. After I discovered their site I also noticed that they recommend N26 which helped me feel better about the choice I made. I am not sure that I would follow all their recommendations (for instance, I need more data on my internet plan than the choices they recommend) but overall, this is an amazing site for newcomers to Germany.  The cellphone contract I went with from Simply has been a breeze thus far. The sim card was delivered in no time (with an extra sim card for my tablet thrown in) and it was easy to activate the sim card on the website.

I hope some of these tips will be useful for newcomers to Germany and for those who are thinking of moving to this confusing, maddening, bewitching and beautiful country.

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