Going to Prague and Budapest; should I bone up on my German?
September 6, 2014 3:50 PM   Subscribe

I have heard that German is somewhat of a lingua franca throughout Eastern Europe. Would it be a more useful backup language than English when visiting Prague and Budapest? I will also be learning basic phrases in Hungarian and Czech. More details inside!

I do intend to learn the basic phrases in Hungarian and Czech (hello, goodbye, a beer please, where's the bathroom, oh my god there's an axe in my head, etc.). But sometimes things get complicated and you need to have a basic conversation. I know I can get back to that point in German with a minimal time investment since it's basically dusting off the stuff in the old brain attic. I don't have the time to get up to that level in Czech and Hungarian since I'm starting from scratch. (And yes, I own "Fluent in Three Months." I don't have three months.)

Functional German defined: I have recently read my way through an issue of Für Sie without a problem - admittedly that is not exactly Goethe, but if I am handed a German menu or the museum tour book is in German, I'll do just fine. I used to be able to hold a basic conversation in German (actual conversation, not just "how much is this?"). As I discovered when trying to speak to my German neighbor in German recently, my vocabulary is no longer in easy reach, so I would have to commit to some conversational practice for the next few weeks. It is something I would like to do eventually but I am wondering if it would serve a worthwhile purpose in this case.
posted by rednikki to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Anecdata: while staying at a friend's place in Prague a decade ago, when the door snapped off the washing machine, German was the language we spoke to her landlady in (nobody at the house spoke Czech).
posted by colin_l at 4:00 PM on September 6, 2014

Best answer: You will be fine with English, assuming you're fairly fluent in speaking it. German is a useful backup to have, but if you're sticking to mainly tourist areas you will rarely be far away from an English speaker.
posted by Helga-woo at 4:01 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: English will serve you very well in both Prague and Budapest.

If you didn't grow up speaking Hungarian, the accent on any phrases you learn is gonna make you almost impossible to understand anyway. It is not a language for dabblers.
posted by Itaxpica at 4:04 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Traveled from Prague to Budapest in 2010, and while I don't speak a word of German, I got by with English to such a degree that I felt guilty for not even having to make an attempt at speaking a local language.
posted by wats at 4:39 PM on September 6, 2014

Best answer: Agreed. English will likely be more frequently spoken in both areas. German will be less useful - unless you run into some Germans!

In Hungary, my group was fluent in about 6 or 7 European languages and we ended up using hand signals in small towns. Tourist areas will expect English and small towns will NOT expect Hungarian. They will still be so kind to you! Enjoy the countryside if you can!
posted by littlewater at 4:39 PM on September 6, 2014

Best answer: I was in Budapest in 2003 and had no use for German at all: if I couldn't get by with English or rudimentary Hungarian phrases, the other person wouldn't know German either and we were down to hand signals. From conversation, I got the impression that the younger generations were more likely to learn English than German in school, or else would know both. It's definitely worth picking up the basics in Hungarian, though. Have fun!
posted by daisyk at 4:53 PM on September 6, 2014

Best answer: I biked from Budapest to Prague back in 2008. For the big cities, English was fine. However, I did find that a number of people offered German as a second language who didn't speak English.
posted by Metasyntactic at 5:21 PM on September 6, 2014

Best answer: I was in Prague about ten years ago with a German friend. I spoke to random people in English and she always tried German first. There were only a couple of times that her German was more useful than my English and that was always with elderly people. I would have had no problem relying on English only as I would have always found someone nearby who understood. She would have had trouble relying on German only, I think.
posted by lollusc at 6:11 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I lived in Prague for three months in 2005 and English and my very rudimentary Czech did fine, even when living out in the suburbs of Praha 3. The only time a friend of mine had to resort to German was for a very short conversation with an elderly man who was briefly the key keeper at my accommodation - after that he knew who we were and just handed the keys over/used conversational Czech (hello, good day etc.)

The younger generation tend to speak English as a decent second language and the older generation are happy that you even vaguely attempt Czech and it all tends to work out. Miming does come into play occasionally, I had a long miming conversation about knitting with an old lady at a bus stop once.
posted by halcyonday at 5:30 AM on September 7, 2014

Best answer: Seven years ago my German was good enough to hold basic conversations, order a train/plane ticket, go to a museum, read a menu, ask for directions, etc. All the things they teach you in college-level German classes. My professors would've been proud.

So when I traveled around western Europe, including Prague, I only spoke German. I noticed I got better and better at listening, speaking, and reading in German. In Prague, no one had a problem speaking with me or understanding me in German, and actually, I thought it came in handy. Sometimes, at more local restaurants, I saw more menus in German than English.

Have fun on your trip! Prague is beautiful.
posted by fancydancing at 8:06 AM on September 7, 2014

Best answer: Anyone who works even peripherally in the Prague tourist industry (so, working on a stall in the Christmas market, working in a bar, working as a taxi driver) will be fluent in both english and german (and russian, and often a few other languages too). They do get a lot of german tourists from over the border, but they get a lot of Brits and Americans too. I have been to Prague numerous times, and speak german very well, and have never had a chance to use it (I do look for opportunities!).

The czech people I know learnt russian in school, not german. This may well have changed over the last 20 years (and of course some older czechs were german or austrohungarian prior to borders being re-drawn so learnt it at home), but german is not really a lingua franca as such, at least no more so than english or russian.
posted by tinkletown at 1:56 PM on September 7, 2014

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